Art is often collaborative. Collaboration can be really healthy–it allows us to hold our work loosely, and it’s a great way to avoid turning our art into our identity. Unfortunately, it’s also really hard. And when I say it’s hard, I’m not even really talking about the emotional difficulty of letting go of your work (though that is tough); I’m talking about the practical side. You’ve decided you want to collaborate with another artist; you’ve done the emotional work of letting go of your art so that someone else can contribute to it and have a measure of ownership. Now what?
I remember sitting down at the house of a friend of mine who is also a songwriter. We had planned to meet up specifically for the purpose of collaborating on a song. I showed him a couple of different song ideas, he picked the one he wanted to work on together, and then . . . we sat there. I ended up writing a little bit of the song that day, there at my friend’s house, and then finishing it myself months later. Not a lot of actual collaboration happened.
A starkly different example: Maybe a couple of years ago, my sister sent me some lyrics she had written, and she asked if I would be willing to set them to music for her. My sister is a musician (and an excellent lyricist), but her instrument is a drumset, which makes songwriting difficult for obvious reasons. I readily accepted this request, and before too long, we had a finished song. More recently, my friend and bandmate Katie sent some lyrics to the band’s group chat, asking if Seth or I could add music. She had been sitting on the lyrics for some time, and while she had a general idea of how she wanted the song to feel, she hadn’t landed on specifics, so she opened the song up to the rest of the band. To my surprise, I finished the song in an evening.
I don’t offer up these examples to boast about my skills as a musician–in fact, between lyrics and music, I’m far more comfortable writing lyrics than I am writing music–rather, I want to shine a spotlight on the only collaboration method that has ever worked for me: Work together, but separately.
I can think of a couple of reasons why this works. For one thing, it’s a lot easier to be creative when there’s no one looking over your shoulder. The pressure is off, and you can create freely. For another, this method narrows the focus for each collaborator. In both of my examples, one artist wrote the lyrics and the other wrote the music, but this doesn’t have to be the case. I have one song that contains a few lines contributed by Seth and Katie. I showed them what I had, and maybe a week later they sent me some ideas. The point is, in none of these examples was I sitting in a room with other artists trying to share the nebulous task of writing a song. No one was responsible for a whole song, no one had to figure out where to start, and no one had to worry about their work stepping on someone else’s toes.
Regardless of why this approach works for me, my main point is that it works for me, and I think it might work for you, too. Obviously, all my examples are about songwriting, but I think this method could be applied to almost any medium. And my secondary point is that collaboration doesn’t have to look a particular way–it really is all about figuring out what makes sense for the artists and for the art.
Candidly, I don’t know if this method will work for everyone. I’m also aware that plenty of artists have had great success doing exactly the opposite of what I’m doing (John Lennon and Paul McCartney, who wrote many of the Beatles’ greatest hits while sitting in the same room with each other, spring readily to mind). My goal here is really just to offer a suggestion. If you’ve found yourself wanting to collaborate with others on your art, but you’ve struggled to make it work on a practical level, maybe try this approach. If nothing else, you will have tried something new.