That Collaboration I Have Nightmares About

Collaboration: The Sorrowful Backstory

I took a creative writing class when I was thirteen or fourteen. I was excited to have the opportunity to do something that was more directly related to what I wanted to do than King Lear or argumentative essay writing. The teacher was earnest, and hard-working, and I liked her well enough, although I don’t remember her name, now.

She was not a writer.

Nope.

So, she gave assignments, and she graded them, largely based on whether the grammar was proper, and whether we’d set the tabs on the word processor correctly. I was disappointed from day one, but I was too young to understand just how bad the class really was.

It was bad. She submitted our work (en masse) without our consent, and the place she submitted it? Well, it was one of those scams. Not pay-up-front, of course. Public schools don’t have that kind of money. More along the lines of “And then, the “publisher” makes their money when the parents buy copies for all their friends. (Just in time for the Holidays!)

And it was going to get worse.

You see… it was collaboration time!

Everybody grab a buddy.

Actually… rewind a bit. This particular collaboration? It wasn’t just between kids in the creative writing class. There was an art class anxiously awaiting the stories to turn them into their semester projects, and a desktop publishing class that was supposed to turn them into actual, stunningly formatted “books.” Which were then supposed to be added to the school’s library.

You see the approaching train wreck? Get your (rather lengthy) story done, so the other two classes can have it, so that they can get their work done, and so that… **horrors** the art teacher can get the pottery in the kiln.

And no. Nobody asked if we would like our work shared with forty to fifty other students, and nobody asked if it should be publicly available in the school’s library. (Insert rant about kids’ intellectual property rights.)

The Collaboration’s Bad Beginnings

Thou shalt write a saga.

No, never mind the fact that you do not want to write a saga. Never mind the fact that you have nothing at all in mind for this project. Thou shalt write a saga.

The English Class (Not your English Class, but never mind that) is studying sagas. To be precise, they are reading Beowulf. Therefore, thou shalt write a saga.

Exactly what a saga was, well… uhm… the definition was essentially that it was roughly the same time period as Beowulf, and that it was really, really long. Loooooong. Thou shalt write a saga.

The Collaborators: Best Friends and Worst Enemies

Obviously, you would like to work with a friend. That’s what junior high is: best friends and tight-knit groups, and no one put a lot of thought into choosing collaborators.

Specifically, the decision went like this: If the art teacher can fire seven vases in his table-top kiln, the creative writing teacher must divide her class into seven groups of two or three.

My partner and I were friends to begin with. We had a lot in common. None of it had anything to do with whether we were suited to write a looooong story together. Especially since that looooong story wasn’t actually going to be related to any of the things we had in common. Maybe it would have worked out, if we’d been writing science fiction together. Or if we’d been allowed to hash out what we wanted to do.

None of that negotiation happened. And neither of us was able to walk away from it.

In the realm of sagas? Well, her interpretation was a lot more Epic Fantasy, and mine was more historically based. Could we have worked it out? Possibly. If we had thought about it in advance, and if we knew there was something to work out.

We Who Are About To Die…

The good news is, we knew from day one that it was not working. The bad news is, neither one of us knew how to fix it.

  • We didn’t know who was responsible for what.
  • We were not on the same page, as far as what we were supposed to be doing.
  • We didn’t have a solid idea of what we–as a team–were capable of doing in the allotted time. If I’m capable of writing fifty pages, and you’re capable of writing fifty pages… WHY ARE WE NOT WRITING 100 PAGES?
  • We did not work out a plot in advance, or even a method for working together. Two people pantsing in completely different directions, while wearing the same pair of pants and arguing over the belt.
  • We did not have a method for working out disagreements. (You make decisions about the dragons, and I’ll make decisions about the architecture.
  • And all the other problems that go along with writing the first few loooooong stories.

And we didn’t have any guidance for how to work these things out. The teacher just couldn’t see what the problems were. She wouldn’t have had any suggestions, if she could see them.

From Bad Collaboration to NO Collaboration

We tried. We really did. Only, she was trying to produce one thing, and I was trying to produce another, and we argued over every single tiny detail. We fought for every word in that thing, and that wasn’t much.

We were not alone in this. There were seven different teams that were all creatively mismatched. Seven teams that were not making the kind of progress that we–or our teacher, or the two classes that were waiting on us–expected.

And we are hearing from the art class. They have vases to assemble. They are looking forward to their projects. They actually signed up to assemble clay into vases and have it fired. We get reminders of that multiple times a day, some days. And we have to get the stories to the desktop publishing people, too.

In the case of my team, the straw that broke the camel’s back was the spelling of a character’s name.

I don’t remember anything else about the story. But the character’s name was Katherine. We agreed on the K.

All I remember is the fighting. I told her that if we didn’t spell the name correctly, we would look like idiots, and the teacher would dock us points for being too lazy to fix it.

And…

That‘s when she informed me that was how her mother‘s name was spelled.

We “officially” stopped working together, and turned in separate projects.

Did I Mention the Reception?

Yes, there was a ceremony.

It was horrifying.

The two of us were not speaking. She read her version of the story, but there was not enough time for me to read mine. And sure enough, both of our names were on the printed copy. Other teams powered through their presentations and lapsed into silence. The vases were unidentifiable. The “books” were comb-bound monstrosities. There was an awkward politeness to the whole thing. Nobody really wanted to be around anybody else at that point. The parents knew something was wrong, and the teacher kept trying to pretend it was all okay.

Then, at the end of the year, we went to different schools, and neither of us ever made the effort to see each other again.

7 Comments

  1. Reply

    Ugh. I had a bad experience with a creative writing assignment in high school, but it wasn’t this bad. Creative writing should only be taught by creative writers. Otherwise, crap like this can do a lot of damage.

    • Reply

      I agree! It’s tough to teach a skill you don’t have. I don’t think the logistics even occurred to her.

  2. A.S. Akkalon

    Reply

    Sheesh! That sounds like a terrible (though probably well-intentioned) experience. It was obviously scarring or you wouldn’t still remember so much about it. I’m so glad I was never forced to collaborate on a fiction project in school.

    • Reply

      The weird part is that I think it might have worked if there had been more discussion of ground rules and more freedom to negotiate a topic that would suit the partnership.

  3. Reply

    That sounds terrible – hard enough for adult writers to make those kinds of initial, practical decisions let alone kids thrown into the deep end. Having said that, this is why I hate the idea of collaborating as an adult… I would definitely turn back into my petulant 14 year old self!

    • Reply

      I think the boundaries are incredibly important. I still have the feeling it might have worked out really well if we’d had more guidance on making a collaboration work and fewer restrictions on what we had to write. Not that I’m jumping to be first in line to do it again.

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