Cultivating a garden together

This month I co-wrote a post for Something Rhymed with my friend and writing buddy, Antonia Honeywell.  Dedicated to literary friendships, ‘Something Rhymed’ is the brainchild of Emily Midorikawa and Emma Claire Sweeney, who are themselves friends and writing collaborators.  Mine and Antonia’s post is in part a testament to our shared experience of writing, in part a response to another literary friendship – that of Jane Austen and her lesser-known friend, Anne Sharp.  Writing the piece prompted me to reflect on just how much of my work – be it writing or teaching – is, and has been, collaborative.

There are challenges, of course to this way of working: the need to compromise on content or structure or layout.  For some, though, the obvious advantages offset this – mutual support, sharing the workload (of say, the research or the writing); even, sometimes, doubling knowledge.

If you’ve ever worked with others on a creative project, how did you find it?  Did it combat the isolation of, say, lone researching or writing?  Below are some of the outcomes which, for me, I found most powerful and most surprising:


Collaboration has a democratising effect   

The projects in which I’ve been a collaborator (both now and in the past) have often been a meeting of disciplines, uniting people in different subject areas, with different perspectives (film theorists, psychologists, creative writers writing in other genres).  This multiple approach democratises the creative process by widening the lens of investigation, bringing to the table the possibility of different tones, registers or modes of learning.

Collaboration creates communities

Are you familiar with the ice breaker group activity in which a ball of wool is thrown from one participant to another, connecting each one as it unravels?  Collaborating on writing or teaching projects can have that same effect.  I recently took part in a project in with First Story, which involved schools from Rochdale and Bradford, individual writer- tutors, representatives from inside the organisation and administrators from the Ilkley Literature Festival.   That’s a big ball of wool to stretch right across the north west of England.

Collaboration promotes empathy and self-knowledge

Years ago, when we were postgraduate students together, my friend Charlotte and I developed a model of active listening, which we invented to support each other in our research and writing.  We made it a weekly date (it was in the days before children); we each had a notebook; we had a 15 minute slot in which to talk about whichever project or whatever issue was most pressing that week.  The listener would note down what was said (crucially – in the speaker’s notebook, so there was a written record) and then we’d reciprocate.  More fun than therapy (it involved coffee and cake or wine); it was more focused and productive than trying to work it out alone.  The result was that we were so familiar with each other’s process that it shaped the way we thought and wrote.  To this day, the best working relationships, for me, encourage me to listen: to the other participant(s) but also to myself, in articulating what is most important and hearing it reflected back in my collaborator’s responses.


Garden tools“We are exploring together. We are cultivating a garden together, backs to the sun. The question is a hoe in our hands and we are digging beneath the hard and crusty surface to the rich humus of our lives.”   
– Parker J. Palmer, Let Your Life Speak


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