Pursued By A Bear: “How do I find my dream writing partnership?”

Pursued By A Bear is our weekly advice column with playwright Adam Taylor.  He’ll tackle your playwriting questions – from practical issues to existential dilemmas – relying on nothing but his bare wits, brute strength, and questionable personal experiences.    

“Can you list some pros and cons of writing with another person versus individually? Any tips on how to create a successful writing partnership?”

I can indeed write a list of some pros and cons of working with another person. I don’t really believe this will be the best use of either of our time, it would probably be more helpful to ignore that request and focus on the second part of your question.

But, in the spirit of partnership, I will diplomatically defer to your will and begin with a list (and you can count having to be diplomatic as the first con).

  • You don’t have to make the tea every time.
  • You have someone to talk to on breaks.
  • You’ve got someone to hide behind in case of a home invasion.
  • You can flick those elastic bands at another person instead of your cat.
  • When you’re dossing you feel less guilty because your partner’s dossing too.
  • You don’t have to decide everything alone.

Unfortunately it’s not all upsides. There are some considerable drawbacks to working with a partner:

  • You have to regularly speak to another human being.
  • The sound of their breathing can be distracting.
  • They sometimes think of great lines before you.
  • They get annoyed if you turn up to work in your pants.
  • You need two chairs.
  • You need a bigger screen.
  • You’ll probably have to use email.
  • There’s more chance of being bludgeoned to death with your keyboard.
  • You have to decide everything together.
  • You have to share your snacks.

While these are all valid and weighty points that will ultimately guide your decision, there are many other factors at play here.

We all know that a writing partnership can produce incredible work. There are countless examples throughout history, from the two Ronnies to Affleck and Damon to Michael Bay and his team of crystal meth addicted chimpanzees.

But as with everything in life, more isn’t always better. The Chris Brown song “Don’t Wake Me Up” for example, had ELEVEN writers. It goes like this:

Don’t wake me up (no)
Don’t wake me up
Don’t wake me up (yeah)
Don’t wake me up up up up up up

The most surprising thing about this song is that eleven people were willing to take credit for its creation.

In terms of sales Don’t Wake Me Up was certified Gold throughout most of Europe, but somehow achieved triple Platinum status in Australia (apparently Australians love a good lie-in)… all of which makes me shed a little tear for the future of the human race.

The above is an extreme example, I don’t imagine from your question that you’re looking for a partner to help you write soulless, manufactured pop nonsense for commercial radio. The point I want to make is that in any writing partnership (or committee of eleven) everything has to be agreed on.

It takes a special kind of partnership to really look at a piece of art with honesty. You need to be able to give and take suggestions and feedback from each other openly and without ego. In the case of the song above, it’s pretty clear that too many chefs resulted in what I’d say is a bland and pointless piece of writing which was produced by group consensus to be as inoffensive as possible.

I think there’s a saying that goes something like “In trying to please everyone, you’ll end up pleasing no one.*”

“except, perhaps, for Australians.

We love art of all kinds because it’s an expression of honesty. It’s very difficult to express yourself honestly while simultaneously balancing your tastes with someone else’s.

You really need to be on the same page. Literally and figuratively.

I guess here would be a good point to carelessly segue into another loosely related anecdote.

I once wrote a play in collaboration with five other writers. Don’t ask why, it was the introductory part of a young writers’ scheme aimed at getting us all acquainted. It then had to be performed in actual theatres with real audiences.

We began with the idea of a lonely girl committing suicide in a large shopping centre. I think it came from a news story at the time. The play would follow several characters in the lead up to the event.

However, none of us writers knew each other at that stage, and we hadn’t been writing for long either. We ended up in a sort of awkward situation where I don’t think anybody really liked the play or where it was going, but at the same time none of us felt we had the authority to speak up.

The main problem with this lack of honest communication was that pretty much anything, however ridiculous it was, ended up in the play. Purely because no one wanted to object to anyone else’s idea.

So I somehow ended up writing an insane subplot about a security guard who aspires to be a rapper.

And yes, he rapped in the play.

And it was awful.

I can’t remember how Kane the rapping security guard became part of the project; it was probably my idea. Regardless of how it started, as I was writing it, then in the rehearsal room, and even before the very first performance, I was certain someone would see sense and cut it. A shopping centre security guard stepping out of the action and dropping a verse about how much he fancies the checkout girl in Superdrug… surely no one would actually allow this to happen in front of a paying audience?

At the time, just starting out, and being a bit naïve, I got on with it and hoped it would turn out alright.

On the day of the first performance I remember there was a conversation about some cuts being required. Surely someone would mention Kane now? They would cut him from the show and my embarrassment would be over.

Nope.

They went through every other scene and decided it had to be kept in order for the narrative to make sense. But no one said a word about my scenes, which made so little sense in the context of the play.

Eventually I felt I had to say it myself. The conversation was happening, nothing else really stuck out as being superfluous, so I suggested we cut Kane’s scenes from the play.

Job done.

Except a funny thing happened; the group protested. I don’t know if they thought cutting half my contribution would hurt my feelings, or they were still just being polite, but they argued to keep Kane in the play.

In hindsight, having had more experience of these things (now that I’m an old man) I should have made my feelings over the character clear from the beginning.

As a writer, this was a pretty painful experience. Especially when the play was performed at Latitude and the mic didn’t work. We basically boomed out two minutes of a Biggie instrumental while the unfortunate actor danced around the stage, dressed as a security guard, waving to the crowd and rapping his heart out, completely unaware that no one in the audience could hear a word of it. He looked like P Diddy if he’d never made it in hip hop and instead ended up working for Securicor.

I actually overheard a guy sitting behind me asking his girlfriend; “Is this part of it?” The whole thing felt a little bit like when a streaker invades the pitch at a premier league football match. Except it was written and rehearsed…

I don’t want to unfairly disparage anyone involved in the project. The actors all did an admirable job of delivering the material they were given. And I did get to know the other writers a bit better over the rest of the year, and they were all very talented, awesome people.

But at that time, not knowing each other, and not having experienced each other’s work previously, we were not well-suited as a group. Instead of trust and honesty, we had only manners and diplomacy.

So you better make sure you pick a partner you feel comfortable arguing with. And when I say arguing, I don’t mean having a full-blown domestic and hurling crockery across the living room. I mean you need to feel comfortable discussing contentious points in a civilised and productive manner.

If you don’t feel able to disagree with the other person, they might as well be writing alone.

Likewise, if you don’t respect their opinion enough to always at least consider it, you might as well be writing alone.

In any writing partnership you need to see each other as equals. It doesn’t matter if they’ve had more success than you, or vice versa; the point of working with a partner is to utilise both your strengths.

Then there’s the project itself to consider.

Some projects lend themselves well to collaboration. If you want to write a musical but don’t know what the treble clef is you may want to partner up with someone who has a clue about music.

Other projects aren’t necessarily ideal for partnerships. Say you want to write an intimate two-hander based on the deeply personal relationship you had with your dearly departed granny, you may not want someone who never met her to trample all over your cherished memories.

The last point I feel has to be made is that you should make sure you’re both committed to the project or it won’t happen.

The best of intentions will mean nothing if you’re both working soul-destroying day jobs 24/7 and have no time to meet up. Once a month on Skype doesn’t make a great play. Even if you keep working on it for the next seventeen years you’ll never get into a decent flow without spending some real time on the project.

The right partner can provide inspiration, boost your productivity, see things from different angles, bring fresh experience and keep your morale up.

You’ll know when you’ve found the right partner because they’ll push you to do work that’s different to anything you’ve done before but you’ll be equally as proud of it.

At the same time, if you’re stuck with the wrong partner it can be extremely disruptive and demoralising, and the play will never get off the ground because you’ll be locked in a never-ending circular argument over the colour of the love interest’s trousers. Or worse still, you won’t have any arguments and you’ll end up with a rapping security guard. Or a Chris Brown song. In this case the best thing you can do is call it quits and go back to working alone.

I’ll finish by saying that everyone is different and so every writing partnership (which by default contains at least two unique individuals) will have its own pros and cons. I would try as far as possible to let a partnership form organically out of mutual respect and admiration rather than setting out to find that perfect partner.

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