Collaboration in the Time of Covid-19
April 7, 2020 § 4 Comments
By Brenda Miller and Julie Marie Wade
Brenda Miller and Julie Marie Wade’s piece “Notes From Isolation” was published by Green Mountains Review online on April 2, 2020. Here they describe their collaborative process on the essay.
I’m lying in bed after a fitful night’s sleep, staring at my phone. It’s become a bad habit, to pull my phone into bed with me upon waking, searching out any form of communication: email, text, Instagram. Already I’m feeling lonely and alone, more so than usual, since self-isolation began in earnest a week ago. Self and Isolation: two words that now wed together uneasily, though for me they’ve always been convivial roommates.
And then I see, coming into view on my email queue, the name that always makes my heart glad: Julie Marie Wade. Julie was my graduate student decades ago; we’d kept in touch over the years, and then by serendipity and chance, began collaborating on lyric essays. We’ve now written dozens of them, always starting with a simple word or phrase, writing quickly with a sense of play and discovery, making up rules and forms as we go along.
I open her message. It says, Would you like to write an essay called Notes from the Isolation Booth? Oh yes, I breathe, yes, yes, yes.
In the beginning, I was thinking of an isolation booth as something positive: game show contestants briefly sequestered but soon released to various reveries, including the possibility of “winning big.” This is how collaborating with Brenda has always seemed to me—a big win!—ever since we wrote our first essay together in summer 2015.
Brenda lives in northwestern Washington State, about twenty miles shy of the Canadian border, while I live in southeastern Florida, less than a hundred miles from the Keys. So we’re already isolated from each other in the physical sense, but words bring us close. The intimacy of the page somehow transcends the 3300 miles between us. Collaboration is a kind of correspondence after all, and these missives in a virtual bottle arrive just moments after each of us presses “send.”
There’s that sense of anticipation, too, which I imagine the game show contestant feels as she waits inside a clear glass tube or just off-stage in a separate room, speculating about imminent prizes. What’s being said? she wonders. What’s soon to be revealed? I’m gripped with a similar curiosity and delight each time I click the electronic paper clip next to Brenda’s name. A little pause, to build suspense, and then the Word doc flickers open.
I only suggested we change the name of our essay to “Notes from Isolation” after I realized this time in our lives was not going to be brief, even by the most generous definition of the word. It wouldn’t be much fun if the occupant of the isolation booth were told to eat and sleep inside, their release time perpetually postponed. And then, in an alarming twist, I read online that isolation booths are sometimes used in UK schools as punishments. They’re a version of American “time-out,” where troublesome students are removed from class and placed in spare, silent rooms alone. This policy is also known as “occupy and ignore.”
Julie begins by describing what she sees outside her window. I respond in kind with my own witnessing of the world as it passes by. This is how our collaborations often unfold: one of us begins with a small observation, the other picks it up and continues, and we pass our words back and forth, spurring each other on.
In this case, Julie has placed an asterisk after her short contemplation of the boats outside her ocean-view window. I study that asterisk—such a small thing but so powerful—and instinctively know I must make an effort to reach across it, this boundary, to connect. So I dip into Julie’s section, picking up a few of her words as seeds for my own. I mirror the length and tone of her section as I explore the measure of our collective loneliness.
A couple years ago, Brenda and I collaborated on an essay for the risk-themed issue of Creative Nonfiction. I remember as we were writing together then, cataloguing many risks we encounter in our daily lives—but of course, never dreaming of the risks we face right now—how I suddenly noticed the “risk” inside the word “asterisk.” Heard it. Felt it. I even made an entry for “asterisk” in our essay.
Here, perhaps, the asterisk—instead of a double space or another symbol to mark my section’s end—was a semi-conscious invocation of that sense of risk again. To collaborate is always to reach across a boundary between two separate lives. Now in a time of profound isolation, reaching across this boundary feels more radical and necessary than ever. Writing together is, paradoxically, the safest way and the riskiest way to connect with another person. Each entry exposes a little more vulnerability, plumbs a little deeper into its author’s hopes and fears. The trust between Brenda and me, as writers and also now as friends, makes this literary intimacy possible.
We volley back and forth quickly, our sections expanding and deepening as we go along. A new routine materializes for me: I wake up—sometimes too early—and have my oatmeal and coffee, then, still wearing my bathrobe, settle into my couch with my second cup of coffee and read what Julie has sent me the day before. I do this before turning on the radio, before any other words can reach me.
I start a new section by picking up where Julie has left off. While the theme of isolation remains a murmur, our writing—as it always does—leads us further afield. My mother makes an appearance, as does my dead father. John Donne shows up alongside Virginia Woolf. I write about singing while Julie listens to R.E.M. on her daily run.
I write without stopping for a half hour. The house is quiet around me. My dog has gone back to sleep, her snores a soothing accompaniment. I write as if Julie is in the room with me, and she is. That is what collaboration means, even at a distance.
The last section I write begins with a phrase from a song I sing with my choir, You are not alone…. And I believe it now, more than ever, though my body is lonelier than it’s ever been.
Right now my quarantine is a crowded one. A month ago, my partner began a permanent remote position as the technical support librarian for a college consortium. We never imagined I would soon be working exclusively from home as well, teaching lyric essay classes online in the bedroom while she teaches professors from other schools how to use their remote resources in the living room. Suddenly, we’re tandem-Zooming! The apartment is noisier than ever before! Our cats wander from workstation to workstation, making cameos on our visual calls, meowing at the strangers who smile back at them through the screen.
Collaboration is the quiet side of my quarantine, a place I can retreat when the world is too much with me, as it surely is now: construction workers on scaffolds just outside our high- rise windows; frantic emails from students who fear they are falling behind; aggressive hold Muzak played by airlines and hotels; and of course, the news—the news!
When I write with Brenda now, sometimes sitting on the cool tile floor in the bathroom with the door and blinds and windows closed, I can finally recollect in tranquility, begin to reckon with the larger isolation we are living now. Soon, there’s a phone call, a cat scratching to come in. But briefly, I find my chosen isolation booth, the credo of which is “occupy and essay.” Or, put another way—be present and try.
Brenda Miller and Julie Marie Wade have published their collaborative work in Rappahannock Review, Creative Nonfiction, The Normal School, River Teeth, Punctuate, Phoebe, Tupelo Quarterly, and Kenyon Review. Their work has also been reprinted in the anthologies The Spirit of Disruption: Landmark Essays from The Normal School (Outpost 19, 2018) and They Said: A Multi-Genre Anthology of Contemporary Collaborative Writing (Black Lawrence Press, 2018). Their book, Telephone: Essays in Two Voices, is forthcoming from Cleveland State University Press.