My wife and I have finished writing a book. It’s non-fiction, titled Journey Well, You Are More Than Enough, a book filled with affirmation and help with anxiety and imposter syndrome in these parlous times of COVID, Putinism, toxic division, and other societal ills. The book came together, finally, after several months of head-scratching, Butt-In-Seat hard work, and a collaboration worthy of a NATO military exercise. We’ve received proof copies of Journey Well just recently. We’re quite happy with the final product, and the prospect of reaching out to other people for the help we might offer. But working together brought tension and the revelation of certain differences that artistic types may not even be aware they possess.
The collaboration didn’t exactly test our relationship. Well, yes it did, but we passed the exam in grand fashion, and we’re satisfied with the end result, book, and marriage both. But as a writer, and heretofore a solitary writer, the project got me thinking about the history of such co-endeavors, and how other collaborating couples fared through the process, be it book writing, a stage play, a movie, widget creation, oil painting, coup plotting, you name it. What were and are the typical stresses and strains a committed couple encounters when undertaking such a project together? What exactly is included in that profession of eternal love and dedication following “I do” anyway? Enquiring and collaborating minds want to know.
History offers a tiny peek at such arrangements, but by and large artistic collaborations are conspicuous by their scarcity. Eugene O’Neill and Carlotta Monterey come to mind, as do Alfred Stieglitz & Georgia O’Keeffe, Robert Rauschenberg & Jasper Johns, Joan Didion & John Gregory Dunne, Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, all pioneered a niche of collaboration in their particular corner of art. Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe pushed an envelope to the point of stamp cancellation. Bonnie and Clyde had somewhat less artistic impact, though such a spectacular and photogenic death as theirs being a great career move, their story has attracted a following and legacy many writers like myself could envy.
So, about those stresses and strains the first point of entry is style. Two human beings, no matter how close, no matter their shared germs, spit, odors, air, and various other bodily secretions, their proximal bed linens, kitchen, bathroom space, etc., are ever entirely free of the purely human need to be left the hell alone.
Regardless of how sociable and outgoing a person might be, when the spirit moves us to pursue an artistic goal, we want to be—and to create—by ourselves, thank you ever so much.
The next irritation collaboration presents technical in nature. In other words, and this sounds a bit like style but with an important difference, one-half of the couple will, without doubt, be more attentive to detail. In our shared writing experience, my spouse is much more attracted to things I consider minuscule in light of the greater picture. To her, a missing period following a quote is a crisis. To me…meh. A digression from an established pattern, like the underlines of certain phrases? Again, to her, this diversion must—must—be brought into alignment. To me…yawn, readers will never notice. This is not to say I’m careless with writing. Quite the contrary. Certain things make me a crazy person. I can morph into the grammar Nazi faster than you can say dangling modifier. Typos make me visibly ill. I must restrain myself from correcting the moronic…sorry, the purely untrained phrasemakers on Facebook and elsewhere with their, “I was to late for being their on time, so I haled a cab.” My blood pressure spikes just reading such drivel.
Next on the list of coupled artistic irritations concerns time and its spending. I’m an impatient person. I want things done yesterday if not sooner, and aside from reading Melville, or John Green, or heavily immersed in the Sunday New York Times crossword, I ache to move on, to get it done, to refrain from talking it to death and just do it fer gawdsakes! In other words, I’m a firm believer that done is better than perfect. My spouse can be considered the queen of tweaking. I suspect that long after this current work has reached its preferred audience, the books long bought, read, donated to local libraries, the unsold copies remaindered and gathering dust on ancient shelves, she’ll be correcting the too long em-dash on page 287, or was it 286?
Here’s the thing about such collaboration. The word may be a misnomer. The forces at work in bringing an artistic endeavor into the harsh, judgmental world may be more clash and clang than mind-melding, heart-sharing synergy. The oyster toils to its highest tension to rid itself of the sand grain, otherwise pearls wouldn’t exist. Rivera and Kahlo nearly arrived at homicide in their shared tension. Picasso and, well, any number of courtesans, consorts, and assorted muses likely frightened the horses with the sturm und drang of their ‘artistic efforts.’ So, collaboration may not say it. If an artist must operate at their highest possible level of intuition, as I believe they must, and if the artistic endeavor demands the addition of another mind and heart for ultimate expression, then compulsion may be the better word. In any case, when collaboration and compulsion are called for, the accompanying irritations must be recognized, and utilized if possible. Check out our book and see if any of this makes sense.