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A Dialogue in Process

This summer, the modernist scholar Johanna Winant and I found ourselves working on a number of converging projects, from book chapters to essays on Stanley Cavell’s philosophy and Donald Hall’s poetry. Below we reflect on the process of writing together, sharing work, and discovering the kinds of friendship that collaboration makes possible.

WH:

I’m interested, Johanna, in what the fruits of sharing your writing have been for you—what you depend on others for.

JW:

So many! The primary of which might be benefitting from another person’s perspective on where writing needs more room and where it can be more economical. I tend to turn a thought over and over and then I’m not sure, when I’m writing, where I’m being cryptic and relying on a kind of shorthand.

WH:

That makes sense. It’s not always clear to me when I’ve left something unwritten, so I need help in reading the silences in my writing even more, perhaps, than the existing text. I’ve usually decided to collaborate when there is a specific context for doing so and when there is someone for whom writing together suddenly seems like a natural extension of our existing relationship, whatever that might be. Like you, I seek out friends with different assumptions—and from different disciplines—to read my work.

JW:

Sometimes I overcompensate for my worry about leaving something unwritten by unpacking at too great a length. (You recently read an essay of mine and called what I was doing throat-clearing and I loved that.) I’m sure my throat-clearing is also tied to anxiety about establishing my own authority to speak on a subject, and certainly someone else can remind me that I have the permission to do it. Getting the zoom right, so to speak—not being too close and in-the-weeds, not being too far and gestural—is one of the great triumphs! And I do frequently rely on other people telling me when to come nearer, farther, or stay exactly where I am over the course of an argument.

WH:

I’m not sure that I even have ideas that arise in isolation from my relation to others. To use a term from Stanley Cavell that I think you and I both like, the acknowledgment of others can frequently go missing from the writing process. And I don’t mean the acknowledgment line at the end of the essay or the acknowledgments page at the end of the book. I mean something more fundamental—that the process of having an idea is also the process of coming into relation with other people and thinking together. I believe there’s far too much an emphasis on maintaining private-property rights to the writing process and its results.

With this in mind, I guess it makes sense that co-translating has been one of the major forms that planned collaboration has taken for me, at least so far, and one of the means by which I’ve formed or strengthened friendships.

JW:

Translation itself is already a collaboration, isn’t it? (I haven’t done it.)

WH:

That’s a good point. And then doing the translation work with someone else—well, I think it changes the nature of that collaboration a little. Co-translation might require its own philosophy: the task of the co-translator. The process of translating has to be shared, agreed upon, tested, sometimes defended or argued. The terms have to be set: for philosophy, which is the only genre I’ve translated so far, will the translation be fairly literal, in order to carry the meaning to the reader as quickly as possible, or will it play with the density and strangeness of philosophical writing? When translating with someone else, your position as a translator is exposed and denaturalized—that staticky telephone line from the author to the translator gets turned into a conference call.

Let’s shift the topic a little. The sciences are quite good at fostering collaboration, but the humanities seem to resist (perhaps that’s too strong a word) training graduate students in the sociality of writing and research. What do you think of the way we’re socialized, or not, into collaboration?


Fig. 1. Noel Olivier, Maitland Radford, Virginia Woolf and Rupert Brooke. Photographer unknown. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

JW:

Have you heard the term hidden curriculum? It usually refers to K-12 education and the unintended lessons that are taught along with the acknowledged pedagogy. I’ve found myself thinking a lot about the hidden curriculum of higher education—how we socialize students to college classrooms in English, how we transmit our norms—and even more so of graduate education, where sometimes it seems like nearly all the curriculum is hidden.  Collaboration—why, when, how, and with whom one should, how to begin, how to continue, how to end a collaboration—is part of that hidden curriculum, isn’t it?

WH:

I haven’t heard the term, but I think one of the pillars of a collaboration-based curriculum would have to be a workshop model. Where I attended graduate school, at the University of Virginia, we did have a dissertation workshop, and I enjoyed reading others who were farther along than I was. It would be tricky, but I think possible, to turn the graduate literature classroom part of the way towards a writing workshop. I’m sure there are great models people have used or experimented with, and I’d love to hear from our readers about these. 

JW:

For both of us, I think, one of the absolute joys of being an assistant professor in a somewhat isolated location, no longer in a graduate student cohort and community, has been that we’re exchanging work with people more frequently. So one of my questions is: How can I make this aspect of writing less hidden? What’s the curriculum for collaboration?

We’re of course collaborating all the time, from discussion over drinks at conferences to written responses to each other’s work, but it’s often not acknowledged as collaboration and, as a result, rarely nurtured.

WH:

Yes—rarely nurtured is right. I don’t necessarily like the sense that what you produce for your PhD is the record of an individual mind, a contribution to a critical conversation that will be identified with your single proper name. There’s truth to the platitude that dissertations are, in some sense, autobiographical. But I think it becomes very difficult to write—or at least it was very difficult for me to write—with the idea that I would, magically, through some heroic feat of individual willpower or quantity of hard work, Shift the Paradigm. The Il Penseroso guise might work well for some people, and that’s good and necessary. But I tend to shut down if left alone for too long . . .

JW:

Sharing writing overlaps closely with friendship. So, to return to your question from earlier in the conversation, the second benefit of sharing writing for me has been the pure pleasure of conversation. I tend to share writing with people I like and want to talk with more—yes, it grows out of an existing relationship—but also sharing writing can develop a relationship in ways that are really wonderful.

Walt, you and I met about two and a half years ago in a somewhat-awkward professional setting, and have found our way to what you dubbed the summer of collaboration, in which we’ve been writing along similar tracks and sharing our writing with each other, and now writing together (or so it seems!). We’ve also found our way to a friendship. I don’t really want to rank one of those above each other, or even try to disentangle them. 

WH:

I’d also like to know how you decide when to share your work.

JW:

I’ll say that I usually don’t share work that doesn’t meet the following two criteria: 1) It’s a complete draft, which for me, means at least a third or fourth draft. 2) I am losing my own perspective on it and either hate it (the usual) or am worried because I love it. I’ll also say that I essentially never exchange work with people who aren’t already friends, by which I mean that I’m already having a more-or-less frequent conversation with them and then our work can be braided into it.

What I’m curious about is: What’s it like to decide to collaborate ahead of writing rather than sharing work along the way? How do people co-write? How do people choose their interlocutors? It’s been tremendously helpful to find friends and readers from beyond my graduate program because they (like you!) come with different assumptions. I have one friend from graduate school that I share work in progress with, but otherwise, it’s three or four people that I’ve met over the past few years. 


Fig 2. Buckminster Fuller and students at Black Mountain College assemble a geodesic dome, 1948.

WH:

Perhaps a piece I like that I’ve written has been a silent gift to someone, without any expectation of reciprocal exchange. Writing poems is like this too: I usually have someone in mind, who is not necessarily the addressee of the poem itself.

More recently I’ve found that the process of writing criticism also needs some kind of intimate third party—not just the writer and the anonymous readers, but someone slightly closer to the writer, looking over his shoulder or getting first dibs on the reading of the text.

I just finished, for instance, an essay on contemporary American poems about houses; most of it was written in a burst the two days after Barbara Lewalski, a professor of mine in college, passed away. Perhaps having that vector pointing towards someone is a kind of collaboration. Certainly it’s a catalyst.

JW:

The best writing advice I ever received is to write everything like a letter. (This advice, from an elderly writer when I was in high school, impressively to me at the time, quoted Dante; Beatrice says amor mi mosse, che mi fa parlare—love moved me so I must speak.) So many pages of my dissertation secretly started "Dear [X]," trying to tap into the sense that I was moved to speak out of love, not fear or anger or anxiety, and moved to speak to a person that I loved.

When you write about acknowledging others in the writing process, I think of this, and how I draft my loved ones into my writing process without their knowledge from the very beginning. Yes, the silent gift to someone; every article as a thank you note. And when I read the acknowledgements in books, I think about it too, that these are the people who are being thanked not just here at the beginning or end of a published work, but throughout. 

What I think we’re moving towards is an idea that every piece of writing has collaborative foundations, and that by being more aware of how our thinking isn’t just ours alone, we can clarify the process by which writing emerges.

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