Though I happily work as part of a team at other things, as a writer, I am not naturally collaborative. I’m one of those (antisocially?) private writers who does not like even to show what I’m working on – or sometimes even the fact that I’m working. I can’t stand noise, input or suggestion – and prefer to be shut away by myself, preferably in a small space, which makes me focus.
It’s not that my process has no spontaneous element; rather that I prefer the spontaneous to happen when there’s no one else around! So it came as a surprise to me, in my earliest days working as a teacher of writing, to discover that there were people who loved writing on-the-spot, and immediately sharing with others what they had just brought forth. (I assumed everyone would want to write at home and bring it in the following week!)
Of course, many poets have produced important work either together with others or by allowing their early drafts to go under another poet’s hand. That’s without even mentioning the frequency of their collaboration with visual artists, for example (though this appears less confronting to me, since it seems to entail less ‘interference’ with each other’s process).
Collaboration has been widespread in the novel too (Dymphna Cusack and Florence James spring to mind; Ellery Queen was two cousins working together; more recently Nicci French is a husband and wife thriller-writing team).
Yet I know I’m not alone in my attitude (or limitation?). Many writers require intense isolation and even secrecy to be able to create anything – and the great Jane Austen, when working, Claire Tomalin tells us:
established herself near the little-used front door, and here ‘she wrote upon small sheets of paper which could easily be put away, or covered with a piece of blotting paper’. A creaking swing door gave her warning when anyone was coming, and she refused to have the creak remedied.
Now without claiming the success or talent of someone like Jane Austen, I can certainly appreciate her supposed ‘shyness’ about her work-in-progress.
Hence the idea of collaborative writing opens up particular fears for me. Is the solitary writer a control freak? Possibly. Yet when it comes to the editing process every book goes through before it sees publication, I’m not (I think) particularly resistant to input from others. It’s only in the early, generative part of the business that I tend to pull down the blinds.
But facing your fears can be generative too, and a little bit of what you don’t incline to can stretch your faculties… Living long-term with another writer, I have occasionally worked in collaboration with him to produce short fiction (one story even structured as an epistolary exchange) and on one occasion to write a play whose first draft was created by the two of us sitting in separate offices a couple of kilometres apart and emailing lines and scenes to each other… If I’d had to be in the same room, I doubt I could have done it.
Yet there’s another area of poetic practice that can inherently mean collaboration, and that’s translation, if the source poet is still living. For some reason (possibly the protective barrier of the two different languages?) I find this not only not a threat, but an irresistible magnet.
Years ago I worked on translating an already-published book of poems by the French poet Maryline Desbiolles, who has since become even better known in France for her novels. Though we never met in person (and on one occasion narrowly missed doing so), we were in regular touch by mail and fax (this was before email became widespread).
I approached Maryline because her work so impressed me; she kindly answered questions any time I was stuck on a tricky point in a poem, and read through the English versions when they were complete. Occasionally – though never paraphrasing or intervening – she would provide some context.
I found this process – a different kind of collaboration again – a wonderfully stimulating and challenging one. There is such a balancing act involved in bringing off something that both respects the original tone, vision and style, and manages to be at the same time your own work too.
(Later I worked on some more of Maryline’s poems, which may be seen online in Jacket magazine: Link)
At other times I’ve translated long-gone poets, a kind of staggered collaboration in which there’s obviously no consent and no comeback from the late author – though there could well be from their fans who might scrutinise (yet another) new version of their old favourite.
To throw another factor into the mix, and bring it back to stretching beyond what you’d normally do: one of my current projects, only just underway, is more complicated still: collaborative translation.
Together with a friend of ours, Tom, who lives in Britain, I’m working on some poems by the Austrian Hugo von Hofmannsthal (1874-1929). The poems are metrical and rhymed; enough of a challenge in itself, but even more is the idea of bringing to them two different approaches and seeing what can be formed from that. We’ve started with a long poem that has four sections, with the idea of dividing, comparing and combining. So far, so good…
Collaborative translation isn’t that unusual when one party is intimate with the source language and the other with the target (Koteliansky’s Russian and Katherine Mansfield’s English, for instance, in the prose translations they worked on together). But in this case we’re both native English speakers (though Tom’s German is far more advanced than mine). It’s an attempt at seeing if we can blend two approaches. Perhaps this kind of collaboration feels ‘safer’ for writers like me because there is an original text as point of reference, a grounding or anchoring of the spontaneous side of the process.
So is it just a matter of temperament, this lone-writer/collaborator question? It’s not even a binary: some people do happily combine both. And historically, the idea of the solitary creative ‘author’ is a fairly recent idea anyway. How do you – as a writer, or as a reader, or both – see the collaborative process?