Carved into the cliff-face: a man, a stalk of corn, a spiral (perhaps a migration symbol). They are faint now and, especially under the New Mexico sun, hard to see. But they are still there, etched maybe 10,000 years ago.
Farther up the path: ancient pueblo pottery shards with painted designs brought to the surface by heavy rains several days before.
Last night: I couldn’t sleep and looked out the bedroom window of our new home just southeast of Santa Fe. The crescent moon was yellow and low, the sky rich with stars. With my limited knowledge, I couldn’t name many constellations, but I could see patterns and knew that constellations, with their ancient stories, were there.
. . . . .
Recently, my wife Mary Lee and I began working on a middle grade novel together. It’s an interesting process and one very different from my usual way of writing. Usually I sit in a room by myself and, at least for the first draft, ramble here and there. My mind stays loose, and sometimes its meanderings and improvisations bring me welcome surprises. Not always, though. There are also dead ends, as well as paths, which, if followed, will lead farther and farther from the core of the piece.
Maybe it’s just that I’m not yet the world’s best collaborator, but I find the collaborative exchange doesn’t have as much spontaneity as the private act of creation. Why, I wonder, do I value spontaneity in writing?
There’s certainly some literary precedent for this:
“First thought, best thought,” wrote Ginsberg.
And further back: “Poetry is the overflow of powerful emotions,” wrote Wordsworth. The Romantic Poets burned brightly. They were the mad ones, as Kerouac might put it, the ones, “mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars.”
Let’s return to two people sitting in a room collaborating. Sure, as we pass ideas back and forth for particular chapters and for the novel as a whole, a yellow roman candle now and then spiders across the room. More often, our collaboration is a patient work. It is leading us toward what we both hope will be a good and enjoyable novel. Somehow, though, it feels too workmanlike, certainly less than the electric outpourings of a Coleridge or Kerouac.
But is the point the pleasure of such outpourings? Are they necessary for the work to have soul or spirit? Collaboration does have its own merits. Two or more people can spark off of each other. They can draw from different sets of skills and insights, which are brought by the different people involved. If one gets stuck, the other can unstick things. As part of all this, there is also less sense of ownership or ego — the story stands further “out there.” Perhaps what I’m experiencing is that collaboration puts inspiration in a backseat and moves craft to the front.
Collaboration versus individual creation raises other interesting issues, including our concept of who we are as artists. Is the writer a self-created Adam springing to life ex nihilo, an American pioneer pushing ever Westward on his or her own? Or can the artist, the craftsperson, be looked at in another way, as someone involved not so much in self expression as in a communal act, an act of communal understanding and insight?
And if we do, for the moment, say it is a communal act just who are the members of the community? Part of the answer lies in how we view time, how far back our community stretches. In writing about the Native American sense of time, Leslie Marmon Silko writes that time is more like a lake than a train moving from station to station and that in this lake what happened 500 years ago is as present as what happened yesterday. If we apply this to literature, what was written 500 years ago or 2,000 years ago is as present as the latest best seller. Every time we step into a library we experience this. The library is a very noisy place, what with all those voices talking to us or getting ready to talk to us if we’ll only pick up and open their books.
So, while I’ve been thinking about my collaboration with Mary Lee, it turns out that I’ve been collaborating all along, in some way with every book I’ve read.
The potter who made the pots whose shards the rain offered up to us, or the woman or man who incised a stalk of corn on the cliff wall were involved in an act larger than themselves, an act which joined them to their community and certain beliefs.
. . . . .
Last night, while sitting in a snazzy Santa Fe restaurant, I mentioned the petroglyph maker to Mary Lee and she asked how I knew it was a single maker and not several. Now that was a good question, and for all sorts of reasons. One is that it laid bare an assumption that I have about art, that is, that it’s the product of an individual. So much for my proclamations above about art and collaboration!
Our conversation about this, and a few other things, lasted through the first and main courses. It was a good conversation. And that, in a way, is what this reading and writing business is all about — a conversation with William Blake; another conversation with the great 19th century children’s writer, George MacDonald; a few words in Amherst with shy Emily Dickinson; and another conversation, perhaps at the Carnegie Deli, with Maurice Sendak. Pass the pickles and mustard, Mr. Sendak.
There are also our fervent hopes for future conversations with our readers, and even the conversations of those readers with other readers. Finally, we can also join much older conversations and collaborations, for example, with the stories I saw in the night sky: the princess Andromeda, Perseus with his mirroring shield and Gorgon’s head, as well as the stories of the stars in other cultures — African tales of zebras and lions
and Chinese tales of The Blue Dragon of the East, the White Tiger, The Black Tortoise, and the beautiful Vermillion bird of the South. Now those are stories worth joining and carrying forth to new books and lands.