12 February 2024

Solitary confinement.

            Novels, short stories and poetry may be the last bastions of solitary writerly pursuits.  With the exception of the rare co-author team, most fiction writers labor in isolation, islands unto themselves.  In other creative fields employing writers, notably film and TV, and advertising, creativity is a team sport.  Playwrights usually start out on their own, but in the course of production, others are likely to stick their hands in the cookie jar. The playwright still gets all the credit, but she knows that others had their say.

            I’ve written alone and as part of a team and each has its charms.  This may be self-evident.  When working alone, all you have is yourself, and you can write what you want.  No one is over your shoulder, no one is scowling at one of your ideas (except your editor, who usually comes in at the end of the game).  It’s you alone, all by yourself, the god of your world, immune from interruption or censure.  It’s what I also love about fine woodworking and single-handed sailing. 

            But few places on earth are more fun and exhilarating than a writers room.  In advertising, we usually worked in teams of two – a copywriter and an art director, where our specialization would dissolve at the conceptual stage and each would throw in ideas for art or copy without restriction.  I might have a half-baked notion that my partner would slice into a fine part and add something interesting.  I’d take this fledgling thought and add something else, and it would go from there.  Before we knew it, something workable would emerge, and when the creative director came into the room, we’d have something to show for the time spent.           

            When writing alone, all the talk is inside your head.  In a writers room, the talk is usually about anything other than the thing you’re supposed to be working on.  If this was recorded, most strict administrators would fire us for wasting precious business time on nonsense.   But we knew we were actually circling the idea, finding context, getting to the destination via a circuitous route.  That’s because we were always thinking about the task at hand, and any nutrition from the conversation went directly into the conceptual efforts.  Ideas beget ideas.  Talk gives birth to lines of thinking that spew out concepts.  This is how it works. 

            Advertising might not be the noblest of pursuits, but it’s not that easy to do well, and when it all comes together, the adrenalin flows just as strongly as when you compose a satisfying piece of fiction (though some would argue advertising and fiction are not that different from one another).

            In his book The Innovators, Walter Isaacson maintains that the most important common element of all history-making digital advances was collaboration.  He makes his case vividly and convincingly.  Though he also cites iterations as key components.  One idea building on another.  You could apply this to fiction.  Where would the modern detective novel be without Dashiell Hammett and Sam Spade?  What constitutes inspiration versus simply cribbing from an earlier work?  

             Discerning readers know the difference.  They can spot a derivation, which can be rewarding, and just as easily condemn a book as derivative.  I once wrote a book that was heavily influenced by the first chapters of James Joyce's Ulysses, which my editor mentioned to a Joyce scholar he knew.  The scholar was offended, telling the editor that my work had nothing to do with Joyce.  Okay, but I knew how I felt when I was working on that book, the same way I felt reading about Stephen Dedalus.  In the quiet of my private mind, I told the Joycean snob to stick it where the self-importance doesn't shine.  

            I think it’s fair to say that an iteration, at its most benign, is a form of collaboration.  Musicians will tell you at least half of popular music is based on the traditional 12-bar blues - tonic, sub-dominant, dominant - format (Steve Liskow, please weigh in).  That doesn’t mean so many priceless songs are illegitimate.  

Often when confronted with two equally appealing alternatives, I vote for both.  Working alone is the best, except when working in a team.  I wouldn’t have it any other way.




  1. Great post, Chris. I can think of a few famous writing teams, mostly theater, like Kaufman and Hart, and musicals like Rogers & Hart, Rogers & Hammerstein, etc. But few novelists or short story writers. I know they exist, but was it Evelyn Waugh who said that two people collaborating on a novel reminded him of three people getting together to have a baby?

    When I did theater, my strength as a director was knowing my limitations and finding a set designer, light designer, costumer, and cast that could toss ideas around and discover what worked. Some of the best stuff came from improv or an outright mistake during a rehearsal, when we'd all say, "hey, let's keep that in." And some of the best design and concept ideas arrived while we sat around a table with a pitcher of beer.

    Many song writing teams: Lennon & McCartney, Leiber & Stoller, Goffin & King (Happy 82nd birthday yesterday, Carole King), etc. And old blues was an oral tradition, so many lyric lines and riffs got passed around and shared. How many blues songs mention "a worried mind" or a woman who is going to "jump and shout?" Many of the garage bands of the sixties decided that if the Beatles could do it, they could, too. And copied them before growing their own sound. The 12-bar blues is a useful form because the notes in those three chords include all seven notes of the major scale. Someone told me once that you can play almost any song using that chord pattern, but I suspect that's an exaggeration.

    When I was teaching, I found several books that discussed creativity, and most of them either hinted at or encouraged collaboration. James Adams's The Care and Feeding of Ideas was one of my favorites. Writing MAY be a solitary occupation, but the promotion and selling have to be a team effort.

    1. As in theater, film production is massively collaborative, by necessity. I very much enjoyed that aspect of making TV commercials. As you note, there are so many things one doesn't know, and working with those whose skills in specific areas made it all work was a delight. Sometimes on a big production, they'd forget there was a writer involved, until things started going awry, at which time some PA would yell for you. They you'd have to recraft something on the spot as fast as you could compose a few lines. Then they'd forget about you again and you could get back to munching at the craft table.

  2. I like to write alone, but I have worked collaboratively in advertising, and back in the very old days, I worked with a Southern rock band - I supplied lyrics, they supplied music. It's all grist to the mill.

    1. Unless you're a soloist, music is the ultimate collaboration. Nothing better.


Welcome. Please feel free to comment.

Our corporate secretary is notoriously lax when it comes to comments trapped in the spam folder. It may take Velma a few days to notice, usually after digging in a bottom drawer for a packet of seamed hose, a .38, her flask, or a cigarette.

She’s also sarcastically flip-lipped, but where else can a P.I. find a gal who can wield a candlestick phone, a typewriter, and a gat all at the same time? So bear with us, we value your comment. Once she finishes her Fatima Long Gold.

You can format HTML codes of <b>bold</b>, <i>italics</i>, and links: <a href="https://about.me/SleuthSayers">SleuthSayers</a>