Collaboration as a Form of Love

January 12, 2017 § 3 Comments

zz-carol-guessBy Carol Guess

The things I can’t do with bodies I can do with words.

The things I can’t do with your body I can do with your words.


When I was a dancer I stood at the barre, inches from others. During grand battements we leaned in or away so as not to get kicked, or kick someone’s pink shoe.


I fall a little bit in love with my collaborators, and become angry at them when they leave the page.


The delight is in wondering what comes next. Preparing, poised, for the bright thing thrown. This has expanded my understanding of what’s possible as well as probable.


An ex-lover once told me I don’t share very well. But to send someone half a story is to share the best and most vulnerable parts of myself: not just language, but process, interrupted. To stand half-clothed and say, this is what it looks like when I think.


Secretly I always think their words are better. This means I have to reach for a stronger line.


Initially, my biggest fear was that collaboration was cheating – that the finished piece would not be mine. That taking credit for it, even shared credit, was stealing. That working alongside another artist would cancel out the pleasure I take in pronouncing, “I made this.”

This feeling was gone by the time I finished the very first poem I wrote in collaboration. It literally disappeared, replaced by delight in the playfulness and surprise of sharing. Because what had been missing from my work for so long was play. After my MFA, after publishing several books, after teaching countless students and mentoring so many young writers, after hoop jumping and the long road to tenure, I was burned out. Writing stopped being fun during my MFA program, and by the time I had tenure around 8 years later, it felt like a chore, like part of my job.

When I began collaborating, I noticed that my writing got funny again. Sound returned, and musicality, but best of all the will to write.


Collaboration occurs with a gap in time. The risk is in that gap.


To collaborate is to refine your ambition, angling it so as not to wound the other person.


With every collaboration, you expose your weaknesses and vulnerabilities to your partner. A good collaborative partner notices these weaknesses, but never alerts you. The best partner views your weaknesses as strengths.


Collaboration is sexy – give and take, release, the pang of the unexpected.


When you collaborate, you both create space, and you both create structure, so what emerges, even if you haven’t written it, comes from an atmosphere you had a hand in creating. You learn to take joy in someone else’s success, in their happiness. It’s anti-capitalist. It’s generous. It feels good to want someone else to succeed.

When a collaborator takes a project in a very wrong direction, it can be acutely painful to see your words twisted, especially in relation to aesthetic or political ideologies you don’t believe in.


Collaboration is easier when you actually like the person.


Collaborating across identities feels complex, often risky and difficult. Most of my collaborators have come in the bodies of queer creatures, female identified at birth, white and middle class, and this has made identification part of our language. Of course I wonder whether that identification cancels out elements of imagination. What can happen in a collaboration that sets identity in contrast, rather than in control? I’m scared to collaborate across racial lines because my racism – it’s there, you can see it through my skin – will pulse through, and then my collaborator will know the worst things about me. Whatever unconscious beliefs I’m holding will bleed to the surface, and then bloodbath. When I collaborate in a non-queer context, at least so far, I’m surprised by how quickly the standard heterosexual romance narrative shows up. It’s disappointing. I don’t want to disappoint anyone, but I don’t want to teach my collaborators stuff, either. Collaborating is not teaching, not the place for teaching. You need to feel like a peer.


So far I’ve played it safe with my choice of collaborators, but I’d like to take risks, even if that means mess.


It’s harder to publish a collaboration than a single author collection, especially in poetry. This doesn’t matter, but I thought you should know.


Alphabetical order is always the way to go when naming names. We’re not in a lab, no one’s lead author here.


Working solo, I’m precise. I craft every line, tending to each word, spending weeks, months, years getting the music right. As a collaborator, I have to move fast or I get scared. I think the seams should show. There should be a few loose ends.


Collaboration is always already happening – with whatever you’re reading, the street you live on, the person who shares your bus or your bed. Talk to someone. Wait for a reply. Let their voice resonate, let collaboration start with listening.


Carol Guess is the author of numerous books of poetry and prose. A frequent collaborator, she teaches in the MFA program at Western Washington University.




§ 3 Responses to Collaboration as a Form of Love

  • Akire Bubar says:

    Yes, THIS! This. A magical and transformative process, to share the only partly formed shape of an idea. So vulnerable, so beautiful. Such a gift to try.

  • lgood67334 says:

    Love the format as well as the message.

    Managing Editor of http://www.writeradvice
    Author of Talent and You Want Me to Do WHAT? Journaling for Caregivers

  • Geen Geenie says:

    This is such a good post. I have never had a real collaboration- it always seems too difficult to work that closely with someone, and I believe you really need to gel with and trust them for work to grow. But I love that you ended with saying how conversations can be collaborations in process- I’ve found this very much to be true. x

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