One of the great joys—and most complicated challenges—of creative work often involves collaborating with other people. When you are working on something that can’t be done on your own, what are the best strategies for communicating your vision, being open to other ideas, and truly hearing input from other people? Each of the interviews, guides, and pieces of wisdom shared below explore different strategies for healthy collaboration.
I remember at some point, I thought, “Well, can I at least write one song that’s not really just drawn out of a collaboration?” I just felt like I was taking so much energy from others into my songwriting. I know that’s also me thinking, “Am I exploiting a project if I keep thinking about a subject or a way of composing music and I bring that into my own work from a collaboration? Is that then not mine? Am I not allowed to do that?” Conversation works. It’s sort of boundless in that way and seamless. You can never just decide to stop thinking about something you’re really interested in. I can’t. Many times I’ve taken so much from my collaborators that I’ve written a bunch of my own new stuff because I couldn’t stop thinking about the collaboration, so I just had to keep going with it on my own. I think that’s what collaborations should do. They should bring forth something that you didn’t see in yourself and something you can’t stop thinking about, something that changes you, something that opens you up to something. I haven’t really done much beyond my own work the last few years, so I’ve chosen to sort of focus on collaborating on the performances instead. It’s shifted a bit into being part of my solo work, the collaboration, from being kind of different projects. That’s been really interesting, too. The nature of what it is to collaborate.
I always try to leave the expectations at the door and go for the immediate experience together and be open to see what happens. The only expectation I would have, or try to have, is that I don’t know what’s going to happen.
With collaborators sometimes you continue to work together, and it’s in parallel. Then, there’s always a point of differentiation where you come apart and you stop working together. Sometimes that happens quickly. Sometimes the collaboration lasts a long time, which is a real gift. Like any relationship, you develop over time and form nuance and complexity and history together with those ideas… and on the personal side, too.
But I don’t go out of my way to try and keep things going with people. If it’s naturally working and all of the mundane stuff around it is agreeable, then just follow that flow. There are plenty of collaborations that I thought would be great, but were boring or didn’t work, or we might have a great connection, conversation, and then when we play music together we just can’t synchronize.
in 1977 or ‘78, Patti Smith asked me to collaborate on a book of poems with her. She knew Wanna Go Out? and she liked my writing and we were friends. I thought, “Great.” We wrote two or three poems together—they’ve been published—but I called it off. It was when she had a lot of downtime because she’d broken her neck. She had the neck brace on, and so she invited me to come over. She was living on Fifth Avenue, and I’d go over there a day or two a week and we’d write poems together. I liked how it was going, but she made me nervous.
That’s something valuable about collaboration, too: You modify the way each other works. You’re trying to write something that holds up as a fully achieved piece, and you tend to follow each other’s leads in the way the writing is done, so the lines will conform to each other in a natural way.
I love that about collaboration. It frees you from self-consciousness. It makes the poem something that you’re doing for fun and pleasure and mental challenge. You have this stimulus of what the other person has just produced, and you play off one another. You can subvert it, you can extend it, you can take it in a direction suggested by one word in it. You get out of yourself. For me, that was really useful. I’ve found that I’ve never stopped liking collaborating. To be that intimately involved with how somebody else’s mind works in the same arena as you’re in, and that you’re bouncing off of each other in that way, is just freeing and inspiring.