Tag Archives: collaboration

Creative collaboration

I love working with people in creative ways. I’m happier creating music with other people than performing alone. I love having writing collaborations on the go and being in spaces where people interact creatively and support each other. The Hopeless, Maine project has been brilliant for me in this regard because there are some awesome people inclined to be involved with it.

I’ve spent plenty of time as a solitary musician – I used to busk a lot when I was younger and had more stamina. I’ve written a fair few books on my own (more than a dozen novels, eight non-fic titles). I can create on my own, but I don’t get excited about it in the same way.

There’s an energy to co-creation that I get really excited about. When people really gel as co-creators, there’s this wonderful scope to be inspired by each other in a way that keeps the inspiration flowing. There are usually challenges, negotiations, compromises and a lot more figuring out to do when whatever you’re doing has to meet the needs of more than one person.

I think some of this is because I’m excited about relationships. This has always been a significant aspect of my Druidry, that it’s a consciously relationship-orientated path for me. I exist in relationship with the land, and in relationship with my ancestors of blood, land and tradition. As a creator I have all kinds of relationships with people who engage with what I make. I find the kinds of relationships I can have with people around shared creativity really appealing. I have no doubt this is one of the reasons I have a strong relationship with my son – we’ve sung together since he was small, and we still do.

When there are more people involved in a project, it’s likely to be more than the sum of its parts. Even if there are only two people, some third thing reliably emerges that is not simply the sum of the two people involved. There’s a magic in the sharing of inspiration and ideas, and what grows in that soil can be marvellous indeed.

I’m increasingly drawn to thinking about what we can do collectively, as communities, and as small groups or even in pairs. I’m questioning the individualism I encounter, and finding that the more time I spend doing stuff with people, the happier I am.


Working Collaboratively

The one thing I never much liked about the book writing process is how solitary it can be. Going away for months, maybe years to make something before anyone else gets involved doesn’t work for me. I prefer to be more interactive. It’s a big part of why I love performance- that immediacy of engagement with an audience.

Currently I’m very collaborative on the performance front – as part of a team of four who go out as The Ominous Folk of Hopeless, Maine. Hopeless, Maine is itself a really collaborative project – I primarily work with Tom Brown on this, but there’s a much bigger family of writers, artists, performers, and makers who sometimes also get involved with things.

I’ve got one co-writing project on the go at the moment. I’m working with David Bridger, which is a lovely process and taking me to some decidedly interesting places. 

Recently I’ve been exploring other ways of taking a more collaborative approach to books. Back in the winter I was working on my Earth Spirit book, and I had a test reader who took content one chapter at a time and gave me really valuable feedback. Said test reader is also going to be involved with the new Pagan Pilgrimage project, and we’re figuring out how exactly that might work, which is exciting. I’ve also been talking to a lot of people about their pilgrimage experiences, and intend to do a lot more of that, because I want this project to be about more than my own limited experiences.

Every now and then I see something online where people in the writing business make unhappy noises about anything they see as limiting imagination. Issues of accuracy and sensitivity readers come up a lot. As though an uninformed imagination is something to be proud of. The whole notion of the lonely author in the high tower making things out of their own ideas has always seemed suspect to me. What use is an author without insight and understanding? What good are we if all we can put into the world is versions of ourselves? 

Creativity is a human activity, made by humans, about humans and for humans. It seems very odd to me to try and do that without really involving other people. I doubt I’d have very much to say at all if I sat in the metaphorical high tower trying to squeeze stories out of myself. It’s the interactions with other people that inspire me. It’s the opportunities to connect with other people that I get excited about. I’m always looking for new ways to connect because I know I’m a better writer when I do that.


Debunking the lone genius

I’ve been talking recently about meritocracy. I feel strongly that for meritocracy to work, one of the things we would have to do is give up the story of the lone genius. It’s not a true story, but it is a story that feeds into the idea that some people are more entitled to lead than others. 

Historically the lone genius has often been a man. Presenting him as a lone genius disappears from the story the ways in which that wasn’t true. We’re hearing more of the real stories now. There are many examples, historical and contemporary. Over here there’s one about John Le Carre and his wife – https://www.theguardian.com/books/2021/mar/13/my-father-was-famous-as-john-le-carre-my-mother-was-his-crucial-covert-collaborator

We might think about the way economist Adam Smith lived with his mum and completely ignored the role of unpaid labour (usually undertaken by women) in his economic models. Thoreau also left his mum’s critically important efforts out of his descriptions of living in a cabin and being a poet. 

No one is brilliant all by themselves. At the very least everyone is stood on the shoulders of the people who went before them in their field. We’re all shaped and influenced by the ideas, beliefs and actions of others. We overlook and downplay the role of supporting workers. But to clean the lab, or stop the scientist having a meltdown because they’ve not eaten properly, is also critically important. 

It’s important to name the team, and to acknowledge the community that makes anything possible. I’ve tried to be explicit about this around my own writing. I’m very aware of the people who make my work possible. The people who taught me as a younger human. The people who inspire me. The people who provide technical support, and practical support. 

Ideas, experts, creativity and all of that depend on community. When we put the community back into the story, then meritocracy will work in an entirely different way, I suspect.


Collaboration and creativity

I’ve always liked to collaborate. I’d much rather sing with other people than sing alone. I’ve been working creatively with my husband Tom for well over a decade now. I’ve co-written with various people along the way.  My blogging is held in part by my being part of a wider blogging community, where ideas flow between people. I think the idea of the lone creative isn’t true, it’s just that not everyone acknowledges their creative family, or the people enabling them to do the work.  Humans don’t exist in isolation and therefore cannot actually create in isolation either. We’re all held by our societies, and family histories and we all depend on people who make our food, clothes, electricity and so forth.

I’ve been collaborating intensively with one person for a couple of months now. I’m committed to two ambitious projects, and smaller side projects keep opening up. What’s particularly interesting about this collaboration is that it’s changing all of my work, not just the bits I’m co-writing.

I note that my ideas flow more easily, and I have a lot more of them. My imagination feels like a trim, lively sort of creature as it bounces about inside my head. I’m more relaxed about what I do, and more confident and that’s showing up in all sorts of ways.  I’m getting feedback from people who are involved with my work and can see the difference in other projects, too. I’m faster. Things that would have taken a couple of hours now fall into place in one, or less.

I like myself more as an author right now than I have done in the last twenty years. Oddly, I feel like I’m finding my voice – something I thought I’d done a long time ago. I’m also finding out, week by week, what a Nimue/Abbey voice sounds like, and what kind of stories that might lead to. It’s like nothing I’ve ever done before, and at the same time, it feels like coming home.

I’ve been sharing posts here that are me responding to Abbey’s ideas. Over on the Hopeless Maine blog, I’ve got pieces where his words and mine are much more interwoven, and the stories come from both of us.


Alchemy and a collaboration

With Gold In Her Eyes

She is alchemy and knows the secret ways

That turn sorrow into forms of art.

She sees your awful, limping progress

As you lurch slowly, painfully onwards,

Brings music to transform your ugly gait

Into some sort of dance move.

She says yes, she does see the blood

Seeping from your wounds as you dance

But look how the droplets fall as petals

See how you make autumn leaves, fine fruit.

Where you knew death, there is life

When Alchemy speaks she turns doubt into truth.

The wounded, staggering last desperate effort –

At her word becomes possibility.

No dead end after all, but a shift

In the story journey.

She is Alchemy, and makes words of your art

And art of your words.

No distance greater than a thought.

The wound closes in your side

You paint the sky with roses, or tiny red birds

Or giant crimson dragonflies.

You paint the sky with promises and hope.

(Art by Dr Abbey, words by me. Our first collaboration in a long time. The writing was inspired by a combination of the picture, and a comment from Edrie Edrie about the alchemy of turning sorrow into art.)


Collaboration and adventure

There probably are ways of collaborating that aren’t inherently vulnerable, but I’ve never looked for them. Working with someone else creatively always calls for a certain amount of letting go. It means accepting that you aren’t in control of the whole vision. It is of course possible to have people working together and one of them be in charge and control the overall shape, but that’s more like getting other people to help you realise a vision. It’s not the same as true collaboration, where everyone’s vision is equally important.

Collaboration requires compromise. It means accepting that your ideas are going to change and evolve. People who want to control the whole thing, and people who want to stay in control of their own bit, seldom make good collaborators. This works best when there’s a fearless leap into the dark and a willingness to embrace the unexpected.

It’s an interesting counterpoint to business-as-usual. Our culture encourages us to stick to our guns and hold our positions, as though life and creativity are military operations we can win or lose. So often, changing is framed as weakness and lack of commitment, but for creative collaboration, it is the magical essence at the heart of the process.

Letting go is liberating. Not having to dominate, or win, or direct is a really freeing experience. Being allowed to change, is wonderful. Being able to give up on things because you’ve seen something better, is glorious. And yet, in normal life we are not often encouraged to do these things.

Don’t fight your corner. Don’t hold your position. It’s much more fun to surrender to the process, get swept away by other people’s ideas sometimes, and be open to the unknown. Life is so much more of an adventure when you do not have to be right, or in charge or in any kind of control of what’s happening.


Sharing a world

I like collaborating with people. Making stuff up is fun, but making stuff up when that process is shared, is a greater joy. I think this is a big part of what motivates people to engage with both fan fiction and folklore – that it puts you in a community with people who love what you love and who want to play with it. With folklore of course there’s no sense that any one person can own the material. With fan fiction, the tension between original creator and people who want to play can be a thing. Where does celebration end and exploitation begin?

Hopeless Maine has always been a kind of ‘open source’ project with room for people to get involved. How the money works is an interesting question, but there’s not so much money floating about around the project to make is worth ripping off, and the people who want to play with us tend to be inclined to play nicely. Which technically makes it some sort of unofficial anarchic co-operative.

Thus far, co-operation has included people making creatures and objects for the island, writing for the island’s newspaper, performing with us at events, composing music inspired by the island, creating a role play game, and now, prose books. I enjoy this process immensely. The island is a big enough place to really benefit from having more people exploring it. Hopeless Maine feels more like a world in its own right because it has so many real people involved with it.

I do my best work when I’m writing for someone, or because of someone. Left to my own devices I’m not reliably creative. Give me a co-creator who is expecting content, and content turns up in my head. Give me people asking questions and wanting to read stuff, and my output improves. I’ve never been the lone creator in the high tower, my work has always had everything to do with the people in my life. And I like it when some of those people are involved in making things with me.

At the moment, I’m doing a kickstarter to launch one illustrated prose book of mine, and a second by Keith Errington. Both are set on Hopeless, both are illustrated by Tom Brown. Keith’s story also owes something to fellow Hopeless Maine collaborator Meredith Debonnaire. We’re simply raising enough money to print books (in case anyone wonders about the financial implications of this sort of thing.) Get in for both books by the end of the week and you might get an obituary – at time of writing there are 38 slots left for obituaries. You can read the first obituary here – https://hopelessvendetta.wordpress.com/2019/08/26/bertram-fiddles-death-mystery/

And here’s the kickstarter link – https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/countrostov/tales-of-hopeless-maine


Naturally collaborative

We tend to talk about nature in terms of competition and predation. The idea of ‘survival of the fittest’ can make life seem like a fight to get the best stuff. However, not only is collaboration between members of the same species normal, there’s also a lot of cooperation between species as well.

A pack cooperates for hunting and to raise young. A herd cooperates to raise young as well, and to reduce the threat of predators. Flocks of birds work together to improve their safety. So do shoals of fish. Humans have a long history of working with each other, and also of collaborating with other creatures.

Herding isn’t unnatural, or necessarily something humans have imposed on livestock. The same patters happen with fish, where predatory fish will herd the fish they eat – giving protection from all other threats in exchange for easy meals. Farming isn’t unnatural – ants cultivate fungus. They also herd aphids.

Wolves and corvids often work together. Crows and ravens will alert wolves to dead or dying animals. The wolves get in and tear up the carcass, making it easier for their helpers to get a meal.

One of my favourite relationships is that between tree roots and mycorrhizal fungi. This is intrinsic to woodland, and essential to many plants. There are relationships going on in the soil that we barely understand, and that are key to the very existence of plant life.

As humans we depend on our relationship with the friendly microorganisms living in our bodies. We carry as many, if not more bacterial cells than we have cells of our own. We’re a super-organism, rather than being discreet biological units. The life that lives within us helps with our immune systems and digestion. Our health depends on these microorganisms. Every single living human being is engaged in a complex set of mutually beneficial collaborations with numerous microorganisms. We are all collaborative creatures, whether we know it or not.

You wouldn’t get far without the tiny things that live in your digestive system. It’s a good thought to hold in face of rampant individualism and stories of conquest and power. As humans, our lives depend on the co-operation of tiny beings. That’s a thought to both awe and humble a person, and I think as a culture we could do with more awe, and more humbleness.


Keeping creative

Over the years, I’ve tried all kinds of approaches to creativity, and the only thing I am sure of is that different people, at different times in their lives will find they have different needs. How best to serve those needs will be individual. There’s a big aspect of self knowledge in finding ways to be creatively effective.

Some people respond well to deadlines and are suddenly able to work like demons as the deadline looms. I am not one of those people. I meet deadlines, but I dislike them and they don’t really motivate me.

I benefit from feeling at least a bit accountable to someone else. Rather a lot of you show up to read this blog day after day, which gives me a reason to make sure that there’s a blog here for you to read, or in your inbox as you prefer. I’m finding the Patreon stuff works the same way – I put up a small piece of new writing (usually a poem), a longer piece of fiction (usually Hopeless Maine related), an excerpt or a video, and a newsletter week by week, cycling round that each month. This has proved sustainable and feasible and I deliver. I’m hoping that sending physical stuff to people is going to open up some new ways of working, too. (Patreon stuff is here – https://www.patreon.com/NimueB )

Other accountable things have worked less well – I once wrote a novel in about eight weeks, and when offered the chance to keep doing that for about a thousand pounds a go, I declined, because the first one left me so burned out, sleep deprived and jittery that there was clearly no way I could keep working at that pace. I know other people who can, and for whom it works – all power to them, but it’s not for me.

During the period when I went to a folk club every week, I learned new songs regularly and I practiced music more often. I’m not as motivated to do that if I don’t have somewhere to go. At the moment, I have access to a regular poetry gathering, which means I’m writing more poetry than I used to, because I have somewhere to share it. Yes, I’m a sucker for the applause. It gets me moving. I don’t create well in isolation.

Much of my best work happens when I have someone to create for. Often if I’m working on a wordy project, I’ll have specific readers in mind. People I want to impress, or amuse, or delight.

For me, creativity works best when it feels like part of a dialogue with others. When I’m responding, sharing, participating in something that is more than me and not just about me. This is no doubt part of why I love working collaboratively – when you work with someone, they are there to be created for, I can try to impress them, I get feedback from them and the inspiration that comes from seeing what they do.

I know for a lot of creators, the process is far more private, and exists between them and their muse. There are of course no right answers here, no correct ways of working, but it helps a lot to figure out what sort of person you are and what enables you.


Nature is my collaborator

One of the things I’ve been doing recently is painting on shells. The shells in question have generally turned up as unwanted things other people had around their houses. I wouldn’t source large shells by taking them directly from a beach because you can’t easily tell if they are inhabited (even if the first occupant is dead, other things may have moved in). I’m also wary of supporting shell selling businesses for all the same reasons – empty shells are part of a beach ecosystem. However, people have been taking shells for a long time, better to do something with them than send them off to landfill.

One of the things I’ve found paining shells is that it’s a very different experience from painting on a manufactured or already crafted surface. There’s a lot of variety in a shell, in terms of shape, texture and colour. I could have just put my intention onto them and used the shells as a hard surface to paint on, but I didn’t.

I’ve taken each shell as an individual, and tried to work with, enhance or respond to what the shell already is. In effect, I’ve been treating the now deceased shell maker as my artistic collaborator in this project – respecting their choices, and trying to see where I might add to that. Of course there’s a power imbalance, we can’t talk about it, one of us is dead… but nonetheless I’ve found it a really powerful experience.

I’m an animist, so taking a physical thing and treating it in line with the belief that is has acted deliberately and has intentions and preferences I can work with, is not a difficult line of thought for me.