Sunday, November 8, 2015

#DigiWriMo / Collaboration, Mentoring, and the Stigma of Writing in Isolation.

In terms of writing, collaboration is important and sometimes critical in expanding ideas and concept. Even fiction writing can be collaborative and exciting (as our Story Jumpers proves). But what is the power of creative collaboration?

Experimental Collaboration 
A few years ago, I wrote a story with someone else and the idea was similar to our Story Jumpers, I would write five pages, and the other person would write five pages and we would see where it might go. The hardest part was never really being sure where the story was going. It feels odd to write something that you are ready to connect and relate with, and then pass it off to someone who has their own ideas and connections. That was difficult because even if I planned something with implications to the future, it might be shifted or dismissed in the next few section. And that was unsettling. The writing that the other writer presented was excellent and often connective, but without the ability to move through a story arc, plot, or character development - it felt like every submission was a let's wait and see what happens. 

What happens when we lose control? And why is it important for us to see the whole things? Some writers feel like they should know the end before they even start a story or a creative endeavor. For that type of writer -- this idea of collaborative writing might be maddening. No closure, no completion. 

What good outcomes come from creative collaboration? One of the most interesting ideas that came from this creative attempt was to be creatively flexible. Nothing was promised and nothing guaranteed, so you have to write each element like it will be the most important idea or something passing by and forgotten. It also turned me into a chess master writer -- if they write this, I will write that, if they write that, I will write this and then maybe that. I became strategic and nimble in the way I approached ideas. And lastly, for better or worse, it pushed me to not get too attached to any character or idea for fear that it would be dropped or lost along the way. It might seem like this was an adversarial experience (like a chess match), in fact it was exciting to share this with someone else. Writing is isolating and sometimes solitary -- and this didn't feel like that in this space.

Mentor vs. Collaborators 
In a previous post, I discussed how I communicated and shared a digital relationship with an old writing mentor through very basic writing documents and the conversational form that became an excellent vehicle for ideas and writing. That was a relationship based on mentoring. Teacher to student. And what was happening was collaborative, but it was instructive and insightful. 

Is there a difference between those who will contribute their writing and those who will edit it and direct it? Mentors are contributors to your final product, but they aren't writing words they are shaping ideas and pushing you in different directions. In some cases, they are editing and giving your some editing feedback. Collaborators are not directors, they are side-by-side with the writer adding content and shaping the words on the page. What do we need more - help writing, or help thinking about the writing? Maybe both? Maybe none of the above?

One of the most important role I seek out is a sounding board for my ideas and concepts. Not because I don't trust myself, but because I want to see how the writing is challenging someone intellectually and what their response might be to it. Incidently, I acted as an unofficial mentor for a poet during a thesis semester (known as a shadow-mentor), and I found the conversations, the work, and the challenge one of the most inspiring and complex conversations about the world that I've had. Intellectually, that is what I need. I need people to not just like or dislike, but people to connect, shift, and bring new ideas to the table. I learned how to respond - and how not to respond to things. I learned that nothing is wasted. And even while I was uncertain of my ability to comment and be effective with poetry, I wasn't really being asked to define the poetry, but share that experience and explain what it meant. It was complex and very excited to engage literature and writing in that way.

Isolation of Writers 
Mentoring is about sharing and connecting things to show others what you know, think, and feel when you read the work. For collaboration, it is about valuing the skills and writing that they can add to the project. Writers are not good collaborators because creativity is thought to be mystified into a magical process. Let's face it, we all have to put our butts in the chair and write (I had to sit for an hour to write this post), but the nature of collaborative writing and creating is something that is not fostered in writing, publishing, and thinking (while more likely in academia). But it should be. I would love to stand among great writers like those in this DigiWriMo group, but there is a part of me that doesn't trust collaboration (my own hang up from group work when I did all the work while people slacked off), and the fear that when I revealed myself among collaborators, they would see that I am just a weak writer, a fraud, and tell everyone.

I really admire the fact that this group of writers in DigiWriMo are creative, smart, and realize the potential of technology. But more amazing is realizing the shadowy ways that writers protect themselves, hide, fear new modes of thinking and sharing. For me, this month is about who I've become as a writer who needs to shift and connect - but have been told to isolate and do it alone. Sometimes, my responses to the ideas in this group are limited because of my outdated view of writing in isolation. Sometimes, I just need to listen. I am learning. 


  1. Hi Ron, thanks for this beautiful reflection. This is my first story-jumpers collaboration ever. It made me realize that on e my role was over, I was more like a reader, waiting for the next installment. Sure, there were parts of the story i had influenced, but it was largely unknown and exciting for being so.
    I have done a lot of collaborative writing with people from rhizo and other groups, they are all different, but also all better than undergrad group work :) but also nothing like story jumpers because there is discussion sometimes over final product (not always, not the case for the untext) and it's definitrly NOT linear.

  2. Ron, your post had me thinking! It seems to me writing has become complicated by the sophistication of technology. Digital writing is much richer than the traditional way of writing, which is the isolating, alienating work you wrote about. Digital writing doesn't remove that part because we still have to work at it alone first. But participatory networks have made it a tad less so. I find that I still have to slog over the writing, mull over words and write as best as I could. Yet knowing someone in a community is going to read it, helps me to learn to release the writing into the open, to let someone comment or not, and to deal with the need to rewrite or revise. It's become a bit less isolating. It's changed how I prefer to write. Academic writing has more structure, but blogging is more a stream-of-consciousness sort of writing, with some structure and clear message to convey, of course.

  3. Hi Ron

    I also wonder how this story will turn out without an overall arc - I guess we'll find out. I'm finding that this story jumper is a mixture of trepidation and excitement - both due to not knowing what is going top happen and not having any control over that.

  4. Thanks for your comments. Yin Wah, I agree that we still need to put in that isolating work (particularly with big projects), but an inspiring concept that came from rhizo15 for me personally was that there was an audience and a body of critical thinkers consuming my work, commenting, making new work, and expanding out. The most powerful element was wanting to contribute to the network. I watched different ideas and projects unfold and I wanted to contribute in my way through my own voice. It was inspiring. I did feel empowered and I was motivated to write and contribute. Each entry was done alone, but the community that used, responded, and innovated around all of the ideas made me very excited and motivated to work. I also get that sense with the DigiWriMo participants.Perhaps thinking about the network and purpose of a contribution is what makes digital writing more complex, more purposeful, and more responsive.

  5. Maha and Sara - I think it is hard when you know you only have a piece of the puzzle, not the full view. When I started reading the connective story, I thought - wow this got silly and fantastical really fast. Then I thought about that - why? The personalities we created in the story are what we know about the network and about who we are collectively. The connections to real participants is a nod to the collective knowledge of the group as writers. The crazy, fantastical elements, that shows creativity, dynamics, and brillance of how we think. Definielty out of the box writers and thinkers. Perhaps the concept of plot and those structures that we own as individuals get tossed aside in collaboration - get side stepped for the sake of interconnection. There is a plot, but it is a collective plot. (It might be fun to analyze that when it is done). We all own the plot and all that happens, and we all only get to influence a part of it. That changes our concept of plot, character, and even time/setting. Thinking now, I shouldn't be surprised, but I am so entrenched in thinking with those tools that it is hard to innovate them without feeling uncomfortable and confused. Perhaps that is the state I should be in all month. Thanks so much for your comments and thoughts. Very inspired this morning