I’m a solitary sort. Even though several of my books have been joint efforts with a photographer or illustrator, I’ve always worked on my own projects in my own way. I can’t say I’ve ever really mastered the art of collaboration.
Until my husband Richard’s diagnosis with brain cancer. As my formerly rudely healthy spouse went from never needing to see a doctor to hospitalization for acute brain swelling to brain surgery, and from a single tumor to one that fingers through his entire right hemisphere and has required three brain surgeries in the past seven months, it’s become clear that his survival hinged on our learning to work closely together: for me to be his advocate when he could not speak for himself, and for him to learn to trust me to articulate this thoughts and needs.
On a day-to-day level, it takes two of use to manage the project of living with this devastating illness: he depends on my love and creative care-giving; I depend on his bright spirit, brilliant mind, and willingness to do what he can, to sustain my energy.
In other words, we’ve had to learn to collaborate. Collaboration means we do our best to work in a way that is not only gracious and graceful, but that honors our differences. And we are very different: I’m quick, impulsive, tidy (perhaps to a fault), and instinctively intuitive. He’s methodical, a visual thinker (by which I mean he thrives on, well… clutter), creative to his bones, and possesses an extraordinarily rich and deep intellect.
In order to collaborate effectively, we have to honor those differing qualities and respect our differing processes. And we’ve got to talk–and listen attentively.
“How does the day feel to you?” I ask over lunch. He tells me that while his energy is still frustratingly absent, caulking a leaking doorsill went smoothly and quickly. I nod, because I know that while that kind of repair is something he once did without a thought, now that his right brain is challenged, it’s a sequencing test: cleaning out under the sill, finding the right caulk and tools, applying just enough caulk to create a barrier but not so much it makes a mess…
“It felt like it would be a stretch,” he says, “but it was easier than I thought.”
“That’s excellent,” I say, “Seems to me you just did it, without a struggle. A week ago, that would have been impossible.”
Collaborating doesn’t erase his frustration at all he can’t do right now–like resume his practice of sculpture–but it does make it possible for him to live with that frustration without it eating away at his spirit. It doesn’t make the journey lighter, but it does make it easier to walk it well.
Interestingly, now that we’re collaborating on his health, we’ve collaborated on several art shows too, most recently a show called “Haiku: Finding the Essence,” which asked visual artists and writers to work together on illuminating a haiku (or series of haiku).
Richard and I decided we’d work with one of my favorite of his small sculptures, Prosthesis, which began as a chunk of basalt column he picked up on a nearby roadside. The rock had broken away from the outcrop, perhaps knocked down by the freeze-thaw action of snowmelt water trickling down the cracks between columns, and then freezing again and wedging the cracks wider until pieces of the basalt broke off.
Richard picked up the “orphan,” brought it home, and fashioned a steel prosthesis to reconnect the broken column of rock to the earth. I wrote a haiku series imagining the rock’s journey. It took quite a few iterations to get the whole span of time, geology, erosion, and art into the traditional 17 -syllable-form (I ended up with a string of three haiku):
Journey to Prosthesis
Ooze red-hot from Earth’s belly
creep blindly across land
Cool, fracture into columns
wait while mountains rise, settle
detached by frost and time
Stay while hands cradle, reconnect
Writing is ultimately a solitary act. Opening ourselves up to collaboration can take our words to new places. It’s worth the effort–in the right circumstances. You’ll only know those by listening carefully to your inner voice, an internal kind of collaboration essential to the success of any creative work.