The Magic of Collaborative Writing

Author's Note: I am a marketing intern here at Lighthouse, and while I love being behind the scenes of all the magic, the writer in me wanted to get a taste of what LH is all about. After sharing this with my mentor, Alexa Culshaw, she eagerly signed me up for my first Lighthouse workshop. 

The thought of collaborative writing seemed beyond intimidating. Not only do I fear the unavoidable arguments about the fine details, but I also fear having a witness to my chaotic writing process. But more than that, I fear to show fear. So, when Alexa told me I’d be attending a collaborative writing workshop, I smiled and gave a shaky “great!” with two thumbs up. 

As the workshop approached with just a day remaining, I had really worked myself into a tizzy. I remember sitting down and trying to reason with myself: I’m not doing this to prove something or make an impression, I’m doing this to learn something new. I couldn't understand why I was getting myself stressed about knowing how to write collaboratively before stepping into the classroom. That internal critic, The Judge, was judging me before I even walked through the door. 

The next afternoon, I entered the classroom.  Steven Dunn and Katie Jean Shinkle, the workshop instructors and authors of the recently published novel Tannery Bay, were sitting across from the door with welcoming smiles. As we began soft conversations, the class curiously asked the authors about their writing process and how the two were able to work together doing something that we deem so individual.  They shared with the class that they, too, had our fears—arguments over the fine details, the vulnerability of witnessing one another’s process—but they also shared how magical and fun collaborative writing can be when you just lean in. 

After introductions and chatting a bit, the pair gave us a few writing exercises to do, asking us what and who we collaborate with when we write. The “who,” they explained, can be anything: a person, the street art you pass by everyday to work, last night’s dreams, the song stuck in your head, your current read, the place you just visited, your routines, emotions, quirks, religious beliefs… literally, anything. After writing down a list of my own common collaborators, we were then asked to choose one of these collaborations to write with. We all looked up at them, waiting for more instructions. They repeated, “Just write”. 

The silence of the room sent my thoughts scurrying. I felt like I was living my test anxiety days in high school all over again. My mind was completely blank. Not only were my creative gears frozen, but I couldn’t even write a sentence without questioning if it made any sense. It’s one thing to have writer's block in the solitude of your room or local coffee shop. It’s another to be in a room of pens moving line to line with bursting creative thoughts.

 I simply sat there – my pen pressing ink through the other side of the page. 

Eventually time ran out. They asked if anyone wanted to share. I looked down at the emptiness surrounding the three sentences I wrote. I was so embarrassed. I was already worried that I was receiving unwanted attention for being the youngest in the room, and  I anxiously looked around the class wondering if anyone noticed my blank page. 

But no one had. And even if they did, they didn’t think anything of it.

The thing about Lighthouse is no one is here to judge you but yourself. Being the youngest in the room meant I was surrounded by the wisdom of writers who have accepted writer’s block. They understand its persistence and randomness. 

I felt myself beginning to sink into my imperfection as a newborn writer as I looked around. No one cared I was the youngest, nor cared that my pen wasn’t moving as fast. I suddenly became mindful of the warm support I had, so strikingly opposite to the cold competitiveness of my workshops at university. As I let myself trust those around me, I began to give myself the same compassion. The Judge, once so loud in my mind with its criticism, began melting away. 

We were next prompted to tear a piece out of our notebooks—just a sentence or two—and trade with someone in the class. My hand wobbled as I gave someone a sentence I was not proud of. I remember telling myself you’re okay. Once we had someone else’s words in our hands, Steven and Katie instructed us to incorporate them into our writing. 

Sometimes, we don’t own the key to our writer’s block. That day I found it in the gifted words of a stranger, a collaborator. My pen didn’t lift from the page until time ran out, and all it took was a little collaboration. 

We like to think of writing as an isolating practice, but the reality is that, as writers, we are constantly working together with what surrounds us: memories of a past self, current reads, wild dreams, conversations, and art. To write collaboratively is to intertwine and expand worlds of ideas, memory, and knowledge.

Katie and Steven shared with us how they stepped outside of their comfort zones and became stronger writers and people when they started writing collaboratively. The two created a safe space to represent both characters in their book they identified as, Steven, a Black man from West Virginia, and Katie, a Queer woman from Michigan. They spoke about how they refrained from holding each other’s hands—such as in the coaching of how a black man spoke or how a queer woman loves—but instead maintained an awareness of the ways stereotypes wire implications and corrected each other without emotion. This really impressed me as I feel we are often so quick to be offended. I walked away thinking about how I, as a Queer woman myself, haven't allowed for the possibility of miseducation when I am offended.

Writing is a vulnerable practice. When we place our thoughts and ideas on the page for someone else to read, we expose our inherent flaws. While it seems so essential that the environment of a workshop be warm and understanding for its members, what Lighthouse continuously creates is rare. I was terrified going into this experience. In a room full of writers much older than me, I initially looked down on myself as less of a writer than them, but as time went on, I felt seen as one and the same. As each person so daringly shared their vulnerable writing, I had the safety to do so as well. That day, I left Lighthouse with new collaborators and a hesitancy to take offense, and a quieter, more tender, self-critic. 

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