Sunday, March 19, 2017

Writers and Collaboration, Part 4: Choosing Your Collaborators

A key factor in a writer working successfully with other artists is for the author to select good collaborators. To do that, you have to use a certain amount of objectivity, a kind of objectivity that does not always come easy to writers. Writers are emotional. We tend to lead with our feelings, not our rational minds. Feelings are a good guide in choosing collaborators, but they have to be steered by an objective appraisal of what would or would not produce a good work of art.

First of all, don’t choose a collaborator simply because that person is someone you love or like a lot. Yes, it’s great to work with people you care about, but your eight-year-old’s adorable drawings are probably not going to be the best illustrations for your writing. The last time a writer collaborated with his or her child to produce a great work of art was…well, I can’t think of any.

Likewise, spouses and best friends are not always the ideal collaborators. Most of us don’t choose our friends and loved ones for their artistic talent. Not only that, it’s difficult to judge objectively the work of those we love. There are many examples of writers collaborating well with their friends—the surrealist group in Paris, for instance, produced numerous amazing collaborations, such as the movie L’Étoile de mer by Man Ray based on a poem of Robert Desnos, or the wonderful lithographs that the artist Joan Miró created for poems by André Breton in the series called Constellations.


The photographer Alfred Stieglitz did a terrific series of portraits of his partner Georgia O’Keeffe, incorporating her paintings and sensibility in several of the photos. 

Alfred Stieglitz photo with Georgia O'Keeffe's hands and horse skull
But not all of us have friends as talented as Man Ray, Joan Miró, or Georgia O’Keeffe. If you do have a friend or spouse who is artistically accomplished, great! Collaborate with her or him. But don’t expect emotional closeness alone to produce a successful collaboration.

I think it’s often wise to choose as a collaborator an artist whose work you admire, but don’t necessarily socialize with. You might get to be friends in the course of your collaboration, but that’s not a crucial part of the process. The important factor is that you appreciate each other’s work, and that your artistic styles, themes, and visions harmonize and combine well together.

It’s also advisable to choose an artist who is at least as accomplished in his or her own domain as you are in yours. You want to grow as a writer in the collaboration, to learn from the artist(s) you’re working with. That’s not going to happen if the artist you’re collaborating with is much less seasoned than you are. In fact, choosing a collaborator who is not as accomplished as you are could produce a work of art that is not as effective as your own work, which doesn’t do much for your development as a writer.


The more I work with other artists, the more I feel that personality is also an important factor in choosing a collaborator. When I first began collaborating, I didn’t care about temperament. I just wanted to work with artists I admired. I realized through a series of negative experiences that the stress of working with someone who is difficult or egotistical or just plain selfish is not always worth the result, even if it ends up as a successful collaboration artistically. I know this seems to contradict what I just said about not choosing your friends as collaborators. I do think there is a happy medium, where you work with collaborators you admire and like, but who are not necessarily the people you are closest to.

Writers and Collaboration, Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4

Other recent posts about writing topics: 
How to Get Published
Getting the Most from Your Writing Workshop
How Not to Become a Literary Dropout
Putting Together a Book Manuscript
Working with a Writing Mentor
How to Deliver Your Message
Does the Muse Have a Cell Phone?
Why Write Poetry? 
Poetic Forms: IntroductionThe SonnetThe SestinaThe GhazalThe Tanka
Praise and Lament
How to Be an American Writer

Saturday, March 11, 2017

Steve Bannon on the Culture and Reason for Being of the United States—A Different View

In his talk to the Conservative Political Action Committeein National Harbor, Maryland, on February 23, 2017, White House chief strategist Steve Bannon said about the United States, “We are a nation with a culture and a reason for being.” Oddly enough, I agree with the ultra-conservative Bannon on this point—but I completely disagree with his definition of the culture and reason for being of the United States.

I think that Bannon and Trump believe in a culture of the U.S. that is dominated by one group—white Christians. In fact, their directives are all aimed at creating a world lorded over by nations where white Christians rule. Every one of their policies points toward this: the travel ban on six predominantly Muslim countries, the denial of the Black Lives Matter movement in favor of a blanket law-and-order policy, the expulsion of immigrants from Latin America who have put down deep roots in the United States, the building of a wall along the U.S.-Mexican border, the embrace of Vladimir Putin and his authoritarian state in Russia. Clearly the “reason for being” of the United States in the mind of Steve Bannon is to for white Christians to predominate in America and globally.

What is the alternative to this culture and nation of white Christian domination? There is another concept of the United States that generations of Americans have been working toward, from the white-dress demonstrations of the suffragettes, to the pro-union strikers who occupied the GM plant in Flint in 1936, to the New Deal of Franklin Roosevelt, to the civil rights march from Selma to Montgomery, to the Native American encampment resisting the Dakota Access Pipeline. That idea of the United States is one based on the most enlightened and progressive strains of the American Revolution: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men [and women!] are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness…” as Thomas Jefferson so beautifully phrased it in the Declaration of Independence.

That fundamental belief in the equality of all people and the sanctity of life is the true reason for being of the United States. Martin Luther King Jr. expressed that vision of the U.S. when he said in his “I Have a Dream”speech: “we are not satisfied, and we will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.”

The culture of the United States is not a private club. It is an open culture rooted in the traditions of Native Americans and added to by every wave of arrivals to this country from every latitude and longitude of dry land on the globe.

The culture of the United States is inherently a hybrid culture. American culture blends melodies from Scotch-Irish fiddlers with Yoruba drumming patterns to create jazz and country music. American culture combines the humor of Yiddish theater and vaudeville with the theatrics of the English stage to give birth to Hollywood movies. In American culture, lesbian feminist poets write in the ghazal form devised by Arabic troubadours and elaborated by Persian bards. American culture wants to try out knishes with Spanish rice, it needs to taste Korean kimchee in Mexican burritos. It fuses ballet and African dance and creates Alvin Ailey and Paul Taylor.


Yes, the United States has a reason for being and a culture. That culture and that reason for being are fundamentally democratic, pluralistic, and multicultural. Nothing that “the Donald” or Steve Bannon can do will ever change that.

Other recent posts about writing topics: 
How to Get Published
Getting the Most from Your Writing Workshop
How Not to Become a Literary Dropout
Putting Together a Book Manuscript
Working with a Writing Mentor
How to Deliver Your Message
Does the Muse Have a Cell Phone?
Why Write Poetry? 
Poetic Forms: IntroductionThe SonnetThe SestinaThe GhazalThe Tanka
Praise and Lament
How to Be an American Writer
Writers and Collaboration

Saturday, March 4, 2017

Linda Tillery on How to Clap and What It Means for Writers

A few years ago I took a workshop at California Institute of Integral Studies in San Francisco with singer and arranger Linda Tillery. Linda said many remarkable things in that workshop. She has a profound understanding of the roots of African American music and she interprets traditional music, from children’s rhyming games to spirituals, in a way that makes those sounds as contemporary as Kanye West.

Linda Tillery
At one point in the workshop, Linda asked everyone to clap. After a few measures, she waved her hands in a Stop, Stop, Stop gesture. “That’s not how you clap!” she shouted at us. We were trying to make music in that I’m-so-embarrassed-to-be-clapping way where our hands had all the crispness of two overcooked butterfly pasta noodles. 

“If you clap, you have to commit to it!” Linda insisted. “You were clapping like this…” And she made us laugh by imitating our half-hearted, self-conscious motions. “No, you cup you hands, and you bring them together like this!” She pounded that left hand so hard against her right one (I think she’s left-handed), I couldn’t believe how loud the sound was that just her two hands made. “Now you do it!” And sure enough, when we cupped our hands and brought the strong one together with the still one, using concentrated force, the sound was ten times louder, and so much clearer, and so much more powerful. “That’s what I’m talkin’ about!” Linda praised.

If you want to see an example of what Linda means by clapping with commitment, watch the video below and pay attention to the woman on the left—that’s Linda. It’s amazing how something so simple, something we all think we know how to do, can be done much better if it’s done with conviction.



So, what does this have to do with writing? I think it’s true of all art, that if you take on a project, if you give yourself a homework assignment, you have to it with all your heart. You can’t do it half-heartedly, or self-consciously, as if you didn’t have the right to do what you’re doing.

That doesn’t mean that if you compose a sonnet it has to be exactly fourteen lines with just the right rhyme scheme and number of syllables and stresses. Writing with commitment is not about following rules. It’s about following through on your idea.

For example, if you write a story or a novel or a persona poem with a certain type of narrator or if you create a character in a play, that voice has to be true to the person who’s speaking, and true throughout. You can’t just phone it in if your narrator or character is of the opposite sex from you, or has a different way of talking. You’ve got to make every word ring with that voice.

Similarly, if you’re writing about some part of your life or about an issue that’s important to you that you’ve never revealed or confronted before, you can’t just give little hints that hide the story more than tell it. You’ve got to let it rip. If you’re making the rhythm of the words an element in the poetry or prose, those words, those sounds, have got to have the impact of Linda Tillery’s hands when she claps. 

Other recent posts about writing topics: 
How to Get Published
Getting the Most from Your Writing Workshop
How Not to Become a Literary Dropout
Putting Together a Book Manuscript
Working with a Writing Mentor
How to Deliver Your Message
Does the Muse Have a Cell Phone?
Why Write Poetry? 
Poetic Forms: IntroductionThe SonnetThe SestinaThe GhazalThe Tanka
Praise and Lament
How to Be an American Writer
Writers and Collaboration