How to Collaborate

Or, as my tattoo artist says, “How to not be a dick.”

After discussing tatoos as medium, I asked my tattooist if tattoos are collaborative.  I wondered because in many ways, my skin just seems like his canvas. So, I was surprised when he unequivocally said, “Hell yeah it’s a collaboration.” As we talked, he used a ship metaphor to describe the process; the client has the impulse that puts the ship in the water and the tattoo artist has the talent and wherewithal to pilot it.  He said that a bad tattoo experience occurs when one side of the equation is over-balanced.  If the client is too controlling or the artist is too obsessed with their vision – the collaboration doesn’t go well. And, most importantly, the work may suffer.

wilmabettywork
Wilma and Betty get work done!

I bring this up because I’ve been having a similar conversation with my friend Wilma, who I’ve collaborated with in the past. She described another colleague who reached out to collaborate on a project for which Wilma and I already drafted an abstract. The colleague sent Wilma an abstract and asked her to “look for ways to make it more digital rhetoric friendly.” In other words, rather than coming to Wilma with a potential project and discussing how they could work together, the colleague just wanted Wilma to add to her pre-existing project. Wilma was an add-on, an accessory – not a true collaborator.

Wilma brought this up because she and I were already writing an abstract for the same edited collection. Ironically, I also had a project that partially fit call for papers (CFP).  However, our interaction went more like this:

Me: Hey Wilma, I have this paper sitting around about Jane Addams.  I was thinking about responding to this  CFP with it, but I’m not sure where it would go from there.

Wilma: Ohhhh, what’s your paper about. Maybe I have something that will complement it.

And so on…. Our project came together because I asked Wilma to draw on her own expertise to to build on my project – not sign off on it.  I used my own strengths and Wilma used hers. This is why we work well together.

In other words, collaboration is a lot like a dance. You may occasionally have times in which you walk solo into the spotlight, but most of the dance is about working with your partner(s) to make something amazing.  When I think about how this relates to writing, it becomes clear that collaborative writing must find that balance between working alone and working together.

My friend Wilma and I want to be the next Ede and Lunsford or Hawisher and Selfe. We work well together because we recognize that one of us may be busy and the other needs to step it up for a while.  Or, that changes to one another’s prose isn’t personal – it’s about the product. Our process of collaboration serves the product.

Face-to-Face – Accept No Substitutes

I’m back in DeKalb, IL this week visiting a bunch of friends. Two of my dearest friends from graduate school are graciously hosting me and letting me use their WiFi.  While I stay in touch with these folks via Facebook and the phone, there is no substitute for sharing a cup of coffee with someone.

pha_aeso-300x296IRL, spaces evoke memories. As I sat across from my mentor today, I remembered one of our last coffee dates in which she encouraged me to finish my research, get published, and find a job. The sound of espresso beans grinding and milk steaming cannot be replaced by social media.  It just can’t.

But beyond the sense memories, meeting with people works. I also had coffee with my co-author. We’ve been writing an article together and created a private blog in order to share ideas, notes, and sources. We’ve been in a place where we need to sit down and write. However, we couldn’t reach that place until we sat down and hashed it out.

Then again, maybe this is just the way I learn. Perhaps some people do better in a controlled online environment in which they are not surrounded by noises and other distractions?

Long-Distance Collaborative Writing

I’m currently working three different writing projects with people across the country. I’m collaborative-writingcurrently sitting in a coffeeshop using Facebook instant messenger to discuss an abstract with a collaborator.  In twenty minutes, I’m using Google Hangouts to video conference with two other collaborators about a paper we’re giving in May. And, I’m direct messaging on Twitter with another collaborator about a panel for a conference next year.

Yes, that’s three different methods of social media interaction.

As I navigate this complex web of relationships and work habits, I am reminded that writing is not a solitary activity. This notion is indebted to Lise Ede and Andrea Lunsford’s (1990) Singular Texts/plural Authors. In other words, I always write collaboratively. I always have friends read my drafts and talk through ideas with me. Reciprocally, I do the same for many of my friends, and by doing so, I become a better writer. Moreover, I always imagine an ideal audience and try to anticipate their objections.

So, what changes when I deliberately write with other people?  Well, the digital spaces to share files like Dropbox or Google.docs become essential. Software that allow us to talk in real time become essential because sometimes a thirty minute conversation replaces hours of back and forth emails. Quick check-ins via instant messenger help clear up minor differences of opinion. Social media are essential to contemporary scholarship.