I envy musicians. Not just because they play music and entertain millions of people. Not just because they can spend hours and hours doing something they love, breaking silence with something that’s beautiful or joyful. Not because they can create magic with their instruments. (OK, yes, that. I learned bass guitar for a year during the pandemic, but haven’t touched it for several months.)
I envy them for their collaboration and support. I am jealous of the way that just a few talented musicians can get together, play for a couple hours, and make something that no one has ever heard. I’m jealous of the way they can swap out people and make something even differenter than the thing they did before. (Yes, I know that’s not a word. That’s something I can do that musicians can’t.)
This week, I listened to Justin Richmond interview Johnny Mathis on the Broken Record podcast. My mom loved Johnny Mathis, and we listened to his Christmas albums every year when I was a kid, so I didn’t want to miss this one.
In the interview, Johnny — Mr. Mathis — talked about how when he first went to New York, he visited jazz clubs to watch musician friends perform and that they would often ask him to go up on stage and sing with them. Or how he worked with other musician friends on different projects, singing on their records, or inviting them to sing on his.
Mathis was able to perform with whomever and wherever he had the opportunity. And he was able to choose who he wanted to work with, and the result was something unique and beautiful and was enjoyed by people all around the world, like my mom. It was this collaboration and cooperation that made him one of the most popular singers and artists of the 20th century.
A little closer to home, I watch my son play bass guitar in a few different bands around Central Florida. He gets asked to play fairly frequently because there’s a shortage of good bass players, and because they know he’ll do a good job for them.
At some of his performances, the band leader will sometimes ask a musician friend to join them on stage for a song or two. Or he’ll participate in an improv jazz session with some friends, and the performance will be so seamless, it’s as if they had practiced together for hours and hours.
I envy musicians for their collaboration and ability to just slip into someone else’s ensemble. As long as they know what they’re doing, it’s seamless, and you wouldn’t know they hadn’t always been there.
Music is all about relationships. Not just the notes between rhythm and melody, but in finding people you can mesh with and trust. As long as they’ve got the skills and you can depend on them, you can make some excellent music together. You can even record that and share it with the entire world, or play it in front of a live audience of one person or 50,000 people all at once.
Writers don’t get to collaborate
Writers don’t get to collaborate, not in that way. Writing is a solitary event. You do it alone, and no one is there to help. It’s hours and hours of writing and editing, but no one is looking over your shoulder to give advice. No one is typing on one half of the keyboard while you type on the other. No one is laying down a funky verb line while you dance around a noun melody with a staccato punctuation drum beat keeping the rhythm.
Right now, I’m sitting in a local coffee shop writing this, and no one is helping me. They’re off in their own little solo performances, tapping away at a laptop, looking at their phone, or reading a book. One guy next to me is writing in a small notebook. (God bless the pen-and-notebook people.)
Oh, sure, you can have editors or fellow writers pore over your work and make it better. But they pore over it alone, give it back to you, and then you go off by yourself and fix it. Then you can share it with the world, where it’s read by one person or 50,000 people all at once.
But you don’t receive real-time feedback as people read your book. You’ll never experience a room full of people all reading your book at the same time, cheering at the good parts or applauding at the end of each chapter.
Working together isn’t really collaboration. Not like musicians do.
There are three ways writers can work together on a project, but I wouldn’t call it true collaboration.
- Split the project in half and work on it. Like, dividing up chapters of a book and writing them individually — like Kyle Lacy and I or Jason Falls and I did on our books. You may be working together, but it’s not an ensemble, it’s a group of individuals all working at different times.
- Share a Google Doc and write in the same document at the same time. Jason and I did that in the first chapter of No Bullshit Social Media. We decided we hated it and never did it again. I would hate to try to do this with several writers at once.
- Sit in a room full of other writers and shout out ideas while one person writes them all down. This is how writers rooms work, especially for comedies, and I would dearly love to be in one of those for a day. This is the closest to real collaboration, but even then, each line comes from a single person and is improved on by other individuals. Sure, they piggyback off each other, but they’re not making music.
But those opportunities are rare. Or, in the case of the Google Docs thing, terrible.
So writers are left to their own devices and can’t collaborate to make beautiful work in the same way musicians do. And for that, I envy them.