A Letter about Creative Collaboration
In which a girl who loves real-time group brainstorming learns the power of passing the baton.
When you think of “creative collaboration,” do you imagine a room full of sticky notes and people swapping ideas? Folks in different cities adding notes to a shared document? Or something else entirely? I’m writing to share some recent experiences that have challenged and expanded my own thinking about creative collaboration as I transition from working in cultural organizations to writing crime novels.
But first, I would be remiss if I didn’t let you know that my debut novel, MOTHER-DAUGHTER MURDER NIGHT, is coming out September 5. It’s a big-hearted mystery about a grandmother, single mom, and teenage girl who work together to solve a murder in the Monterey Bay. This week only, you can preorder it at 25% off from Barnes & Noble with the discount code PREORDER25. When you preorder a book, you help it get noticed by booksellers and media. You also contribute to first-week sales numbers, which makes it slightly more possible to earn a spot on a bestseller list. So if you like moms, murder mysteries, and discounts, please consider preordering MOTHER-DAUGHTER MURDER NIGHT today.
And now onto the thoughts, aka how I’ve started to question everything I know about collaborative work.
For twenty years, I’ve been a cheerleader for real-time creative collaboration.
I started my career in interactive science and history museums, partnering with designers, educators, curators, and developers to co-create exhibitions. Everyone brainstormed, prototyped, and explored possibilities together. Everything from exhibition “big ideas” to label text to the color of the walls was up for discussion. We’d talk, split up to work in parallel, regroup to share what we’d made, and do it again. We operated on the theory that our diverse skills, knowledge, and perspectives would help us create something better together.
I believed in that theory. Lived it. Wrote books about it. For eight years, I ran a whole museum on the principle that everyone—from staff to volunteers to visitors off the street—could meaningfully contribute to co-creating a vibrant, successful institution. One of my greatest pleasures was sitting in the repurposed storage closet we called the CoLaboratory, hammering out ideas for festivals, exhibitions, and other projects with colleagues and partners. We nerded out on facilitation techniques, developing dozens of ways to invite people to contribute in real time. Every hour of the day, the CoLaboratory was packed with passionate people doing real-time group work to advance our mission. I loved it.
But I don’t work in a museum anymore.
Now, I’m writing novels. Instead of doing a real-time group project, I’m partnering with individuals—beta readers, agents, editors, publicists—in a slow-moving relay race to usher my book to completion. I do my part, pass the baton, and they do theirs.
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Writing a novel starts as an individual act. For MOTHER-DAUGHTER MURDER NIGHT, I was lucky to discuss each draft with my mom. But the writing—the blank page—was mine alone. My mom, agents, and many generous friends read the evolving drafts and shared feedback, but it was on me to do the work.
Perhaps my biggest misconception about the publishing process was my misguided belief that this relay race would turn into a group project once my agents sold my book to William Morrow. I imagined marathon Zoom sessions with my editor, populating a Google document with our respective ideas, cobbling a final version together. But it wasn’t like that at all. I would submit a draft. My editor at William Morrow—my creative, wise editor—would read it. Weeks later, she’d get back to me with questions. Lots of questions. Insightful, annoying questions. Why does this character do that? What happens between this scene and the next? Can you pick up the pace here? All her questions were good ones. And it was on me to answer them.
I have terrific relationships with my agents and editor. We communicate often, we’re honest, we push each other, and we respect each other. But we almost never do the kind of real-time group work I did in my museum career. We don’t share a whiteboard or a CoLaboratory. Instead, we pass the baton—working sequentially, increasing the novel’s value with our respective efforts—until it’s done.
I’m not suggesting baton passing is better or worse than real-time group work. But it is different. Here are three big differences I’m noticing:
Baton passing forces me to do my whole job. Sequential collaboration can be painfully slow. It’s agonizing to send a draft and then wait weeks to hear what my agents or editor think of it. But these built-in delays challenge me to send my best work when it’s my turn with the baton. I don’t want to waste their time on material that’s half-baked. Sometimes it can be great to collaborate in half-baked mode. But these days, I often notice I can push myself further. And I sense that if I sent something half-baked, I’d be taking a lazy shortcut.
This makes me wonder: how many times in the past did I call a meeting to brainstorm something when I hadn’t yet thought it out to the best of my ability? How often did I hope a collaborator would solve my problem for me? How often did I jump to to asking for other people’s time when I wasn’t yet ready to use it to full advantage?
Real-time group work feels energetic and fun, but I don’t actually know if that good feeling is always correlated with good outcomes. I miss the CoLaboratory. I miss that zing of creating together. Some mornings when I sit down to write book 2, I feel a desperate yearning to map out the story with collaborators. But there’s a part of me that knows while that might feel good, it might not help me finish the draft. And heck. I’m someone who likes the energy of real-time group work. Not everyone enjoys that feeling. There are probably many people in many jobs for whom non-stop real-time collaboration is a lousy way to work—even if a facilitator is being thoughtful about varying modalities of input.
How often in the past did I insist on getting immediate feedback from colleagues, and in doing so, prevent them from taking time to reflect and share their best ideas? How often did I opt for a collaborative process that felt interactive and exciting (I love interactive and exciting) without considering whether other approaches may have produced better outcomes?
Baton passing requires deep trust, whereas real-time group work can mask or accommodate shallow trust. I’ve always been someone who likes to get my fingers in everything. Partly it’s because I’m curious. But if I’m honest, it’s also because an egotistical part of me believes I can add value to projects, even in areas I know little about. When I was collaborating in real-time, I could mess around with other people’s business, and so could everyone else on the team. I didn’t have to fully trust any one of my colleagues as long as I trusted the collective wisdom of the group. There are lovely aspects to this—we could cover each other on off days and inspire each other with fresh ideas. But there’s also a darker side. In a low-trust environment, real-time collaboration can become performative, false. Now that I’m in a baton-passing collaboration, I’m not presuming I know better about my partners’ jobs. Instead, we trust each other, deeply. My agents and editor trust me to write. I trust them to edit, package, market, and sell. Sometimes they tell me what I’ve done isn’t good enough—something I rarely, if ever, heard in my museum work. When I first heard that about a draft, it terrified me. I heard “you don’t belong in our group.” But that’s not what they were saying. They were saying “I trust you can do better with the guidance I’m providing you.” I listened, worked at it, and made the story better. Because they pushed me. Because they expected it of me. Because they trusted me to do my part.
In the past, how often did I use real-time collaboration as a way to insert myself and exercise control over other people’s projects? Did I ever ignore trust issues with partners, or avoid inviting them to step up their game, rationalizing that the collaborative process would carry us through?
If I were to run an organization again, I’d still invite lots of people to get involved. I’d still set up a CoLaboratory. But I hope I’d also be more thoughtful about supporting slower, asynchronous forms of collaboration. I’d try to hold myself to a higher standard for the work I produce before asking others for help. And I’d focus more on building deep trust with colleagues and partners, so we could push each other to do our best work.
I’m curious how this strikes you and your own experiences with creative collaboration.
Do you have your own theory on what kind of collaboration works best (or works best in specific contexts)?
Have you ever abandoned one model and adopted another?
Are there any models for creative collaboration you’ve admired but haven’t yet had the opportunity to try?
I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.
Wherever you are, whatever you’re working on, I hope you are finding worthy problems, honest partners, catalytic energy, and satisfying outcomes. I am rooting for you.
p.s. Did you want to pre-order my mystery novel for 25% off? Here’s one more chance to do so. Enter the discount code PREORDER25 at checkout. The sale ends April 28.
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Amazingly right after I read this, someone had shared a link to a study in Harvard Business Review noting that asynchronous work can often lead to greater creativity - https://hbr.org/2023/04/research-asynchronous-work-can-fuel-creativity
You are definitely resonating with the gestalt or something.
"Studies show that women and people from marginalized communities are given fewer opportunities to speak and are criticized more harshly when they do in a range of synchronous work settings."
We found that women’s performances were rated 17% higher when they recorded asynchronously, and that this effect was driven by the degree of creativity in their singing, based on ratings by experts in Baul folk music. (The experts assigned overall ratings to every track as well as timestamped all creative choices made by the singer.)
This creative freedom when singing alone was further captured in interviews with the experimental subjects. After recording asynchronously, one woman said, “I was completely free. I could sing as I wished. I missed some notes at a place, but then I caught on with it later on. I had complete independence and it felt like I was flying like a bird.” Men’s performances were not significantly different in the two conditions, and thus asynchronicity seems to help women without hurting men."
I have always felt the collaborative process results in "more than the sum of the total". Much of what is prooffered is uninhibited and provides those"outsied the box" thoughts. Thisd kind of collaboration stimulates participants to places they've never thought about before and can result in really innovative approaches. That is exciting! However, there are also adventures which need a guiding hand element to steer the energy in a more desirable direction - particularly in problem solving, where resolution is needed quickly. I love your realization about being more thoughtful about what you are passing on, and wondering if, had there been more time for more thought in the spontaneous collaborative process, would the results have been somehow more meaningful/effective. The bigger picture in the baton passing is that you, and you alone, are really responsible for the end result. Good to see your reflections on all this. Thanks!