Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Writing in Community

I used to think that writing was an entirely solitary occupation. I wrote alone, and nobody could see what I wrote before it was finished; often, I didn't even share it when I was done. I journaled obsessively. For a while as a child I even used a secret code. And it wasn't as though there were deep secrets I was keeping, either; writing was just intensely private to me. School made me competitive about any public writing I did. I entered contests. I wrote essays and tried to be the best.

A few years ago, I became involved with a public health project. I had to do a lot of research on a subject almost entirely new to me, write a summary of the current state of thought and the major studies that had been done, and present all of this succinctly. I worked online with someone living in the United States. Both of us read articles, which went zipping back and forth between countries. Later, the drafts of my talk did the same, back and forth, changing a word here and there, refocusing, arguing, collaborating.

I was amazed how much I enjoyed this whole process. Far from being solitary, this writing project was a joint effort. I found it exciting. I was being stretched and growing. Partly this was due to the new information I was learning, but part of it was the fun of writing with someone else.

This was a different kind of writing from what I was used to doing, and yet I have come to see that there is room for all kinds of writing relationships, in all kinds of writing. While much of what I do is still solitary when I write, I find myself being much less secretive, competitive, and -- yes -- stingy about it.

I'm much more aware than I used to be of the Great Conversation. I'm never creating ex nihilo; only God does that. (Here are some of Robbie's thoughts on that.) I'm inspired by conversations, stories others tell, photos, other writers' work.

I'm also more aware of audience than I used to be, and, I think, in a much healthier way. I don't care as much as I used to about whether anybody publishes what I write, or whether everyone in the world loves it. Last week I was invited to read some of my poems to a ninth grade class. I enjoyed reading so much, and felt such a rush from it. Afterward the teacher thanked me and said she'd enjoyed what I'd shared. My daughter said she liked it, too. But in general, I didn't get a bunch of accolades. And I was fine with that. I felt a satisfaction in my work that didn't depend on whether anybody else liked it or not. At the same time, I want it to communicate, and I'm blessed to have certain Ideal Readers who can tell me whether I've succeeded, criticizing me and yet reading with love.

I've been interested to read lately about the Civil Wars, the two-person band. Joy Williams and John Paul White write and sing together. People often assume they are romantically involved, but both are happily married to other people. Here's a quote from an article on their website.
"White and Williams met in 2008 on what he describes as a 'blind date, getting stuck in a room together, not knowing anything about each other.' This was a strictly professional blind date. As Williams recalls, 'I got a call for what's called a writing camp, where several writers were called together to work on trying to write several radio singles for a particular country band. Though I live in Nashville, I worked mostly in L.A. and came more out of the pop world, so I was like, why did they call me? John Paul definitely wasn't bringing a Music Row sensibility in when he was coming into the write, either, but neither of us knew that about each other. In that room, it was almost 20 writers, basically drawing straws and getting to know each other a little bit. And when he started singing, I somehow knew where he was heading musically and could follow him, without ever having met him before. And that had never happened to me.'

'I've done lots of co-writes and collaborative situations, but I'd never felt that weird spark,' agrees White —'that weird familiarity like we'd been in a family band or something most of our lives. The beautiful part of it was that neither one of us would let on, so we both played it cool for a while, saying "That went well, we should write another," and so on. I worked up enough nerve to—so to speak—ask her out. But there was a lot of scuffing my heel on the floor and 'I don't know what you're doing for a while, but I've got this guitar, and you sing pretty good, but you probably don't want to. You're so much better than I am. Never mind. I'm just gonna go." Luckily she felt the same way.'"
I am fascinated by the descriptions I've read of the way White and Williams work together. They are true collaborators. The introduction to their book reads, in part: "We don't pretend to know what brought us to this place, but we're thankful to have found a musical comrade to help us chase the Muse."

Here's to writing in community, whether it's in games like the progressive poem (here it is today), or with those people around me who are inspirations, readers (whether Ideal or not), collaborators, chasers of the Muse. Writing isn't nearly as solitary as I used to think.


Linda at teacherdance said...

Tara just sent me here because of her line in the progressive poem & your post connects so beautifully to what appears to be happening in the poem, Ruth. I enjoyed what you said about collaboration and that moment when each realized that this was going to be good!

Matsu said...

Like the right mix of ingredients can complement each other making a unique and perfect food dish, so can the right mix of people who complement each other to produce piece no one of them could have written on their own, yet in collaboration the end result is perfect. Buh that's not all. The end result, as you very well pointed out is not the only thing that's satisfying -- the process itself is rich and satisfies on its own.

Thank you for sharing your own progression from writing in seclusion to creating concert with others. Your excitement is contagious.

Janet said...

This makes me think. I've thought lately that a writing community would be stimulating, and this reinforces that...

I'm glad to learn about your writing journey.