It Takes Two

Writing in the Rumpus, Adam Johnson proposes that more fiction writers start including collaboration in the their toolkit. Working together forces an individual writer to set aside his or her ego, allowing the “team” to better concentrate on the business of characterization, setting, and so forth:

I wish I would’ve been asked to collaborate on just one story for a workshop back in my MFA program. I would have hated it, of course, because it would’ve meant that I’d have to question all my instincts, that I’d have to get off the crutch of my limited skills, and that I’d have to write a true character for once, a fictitious person that wasn’t a guised version of myself. I would have had to ask, out loud, questions like: What is this story about, what is this scene trying to show, and what’s at the heart of this character? And I’d have had to listen to another writer answer. For once it would have been about writing and not “being a writer.”

And about those MFA programs: Yes, Johnson notes, they have a collaborative element to them, and yes, he supports them. That, in spite of his acknowledgment that MFA programs have a way of making for carefully machined prose. (This is a criticism I leveled at Johnson’s debut collection, Emporium, some years back, though clearly my complaint could have used some more thought and evidence. Blurbs aren’t fair game in criticism, kids.) After all, you have to learn to walk before you can run, and getting down the basics allows for more dazzling acrobatics down the line. “I believe the proliferation of MFA programs is a good thing—more hounds to the hunt,” Johnson writes. “And what’s wrong with learning the skills of writing first, so that when an important story comes along, it has a game author?”

I’d be more willing to get behind Johnson’s defense of collaboration if I could think of more evidence of them—or at least more evidence of cases where it went smoothly. I think if Raymond Carver‘s much-documented contretemps with his editor, Gordon Lish. Carver’s stories, to my mind, were improved by Lish’s heavy hand, but nobody would think of that as a healthy collaborative environment to seek out. Johnson cites an unpublished collaboration with his wife as evidence that the system can work well. Are there others that are available on the shelves?

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