On Collaboration in Poetry, pt. 3: Ideas, Schmideas

Next week, Joshua Young and I will be releasing The Diegesis through Gold Wake Press on February 15.

In Part 1 of this series, I talked about the value of collaboration in poetry.
In Part 2, I talked about how awesome it is not to have any time for anything.

I’ve focused on these subjects because they’ve been the most surprising (and exciting) aspects of collaboration. Today we’re going to round out the trilogy by talking about the nature of ideas.

Why are we going to talk about ideas? Because, well, it’s a good idea to.

If a writer isn’t complaining about not having enough time, they’re complaining about not having any good ideas. It’s always something with us damn writers.

You are guilty of this. I am guilty of this. Admit the guilt, and let’s move on.

Rapt and waiting for divine inspiration

Here’s the problem: if you either don’t have enough time or you don’t have any good ideas, or *gasp* you have neither, how the hell are you ever going to write anything?

It’s a pretty rare moment indeed when not only do you have both the time and inspiration simultaneously, but you’re prepared to wield that power with authority. As we’ve discussed, good writers make time. Actually, bad ones probably do too. As Woody Allen has famously said, “Ninety percent of life is just showing up.”

So, now that we’re committed to showing up, what the ever-loving expletive do we do next?

Ideas are a funny thing. I’m not sure where it started, or if it’s just been a trait of “creative” types since time immemorial, but there’s this notion going around that one can’t begin writing until they’ve received divine inspiration, until their pen has been blessed by some cherubic muse that flies around giggling and sprinkling pixie dust on you as you furiously jot your masterpiece down.

Now, don’t get me wrong: that sounds incredible. But in truth, that kind of feeling is fleeting. Many of us have felt it from time to time, but most of the time when we’re writing there is no such feeling. Based on the reports I receive from my fellow writers, I think the feeling of self-loathing while writing is much more common. Unless you’re Joshua Young. That fucker always seems to have a few ideas banging around in his pockets.

The truth about inspiration

So for me, there’s two takeaways to this:

  1. Inspiration is amazing
  2. Waiting for inspiration is bullshit

Whether it’s through collaboration or not, you’ve got to write through those periods of self loathing. Chances are, someone’s going to really like what you produced during those moments anyway. It’s even possible that your best work can come from these moments. Who are you to say?

Stop judging, and write. I am far from the first person to propose this idea. Most of the time, you will write yourself right into inspiration. Or at least you’ll do a good enough job faking it that when you’re some huge literary celebrity you can totally bullshit to everyone how fantastic your brain is.

Brains are sexy. Writers need to become sex objects again. But I digress.

It’s not my idea anyway…

Collaboration is a great workaround for the idea conundrum. The generalized advice that you’ve got to keep writing to get good ideas is a good one, but it can be kind of dangerous to just sit around writing aimlessly. A hundred monkeys with a hundred typewriters, and all that.

So set goals. Write with obstructions. Did you know there’s a book out there that entirely avoids the letter “e”? Did you know that was possible? Words, man. Words.

In absence of a clear goal, collaborate. Ride the coattails of someone else’s ideas. Get yourself into a new environment. It’s not laziness, it’s liberating. I’ve said in many places already that Josh was the catalyst for getting The Diegesis started. This is important to note, but it’s not like I was some lazy-ass in my involvement either. Once he kicked my ass into action, I jumped right in.

Now, I’m no scientist, but it turns out that—as long as we’re not egotistical pricks—we tend to get just as excited about the ideas of the people we trust as we do about the ones we come up with on our own. Sometimes more so, in a certain sense, since most of us don’t bring our own personal brands of tortured self loathing to other people’s ideas.

In this way, the process becomes quite liberating. Freed from the pressures of having to live up to your own (bullshit) pressures of craft and inspiration, a funny thing tends to happen: you write to serve an idea instead of writing to serve yourself. And when it’s not your idea anyway, you’re often more willing to take risks and live inside a new world instead of living inside your own ego.

Write for someone else

Writing with a collaborator focuses you in another way too, in that it defines who your “audience” is.

If you’re like me, you often commit this other big sin: during the writing process, I often lament to anyone who will listen (usually my “signif”) that I don’t know if “anybody” will like it.

Who the hell is “anybody,” and why are you writing for them? Define your audience. Know your readers. Even if they’re just one person.

Again, I’m not saying anything that hasn’t been said before here, but once you’ve lived it and learned it for yourself you tend to want to dispense the same advice as everyone else who learned it before you.

Hello, someone else

With a collaborator, that someone is right there in front of you. Sure, as writers, you both have egos that can bruise, but in a good partnership collaborators tend to be more interested in servicing the project rather than themselves, so in this way the individual contributions take a back seat to the cohesiveness of the whole.

Does this always happen? Probably not. Not everyone is used to collaborating, and some people are just kinda jerks no matter what they’re working on. But Josh and I were both used to collaborating. We knew how to talk to each other, we respected each other’s work, and we (at least I) were writing to please each other.

I wanted my contributions to sound like Josh’s, whatever that means. I’d been invited to play in his world, and I wasn’t about to kick his sandcastle over, so to speak. I wanted to show that I belonged, and that we could build our strange city together.

I hadn’t had any ideas before that. I didn’t know that I could sustain any kind of thoughts about a city. I didn’t know that I had the permission or the capability of creating fictional characters in poetry, and I didn’t know I could have them interact with the nonfictional ones. I didn’t know much of my twenties I’d bottled up and was eager to talk about.

The greatest byproduct of ideas is more ideas. To me, it doesn’t matter if the first one was mine or not. If I’m invited into the sandbox to play, I’ll do my damndest to make sure that sandcastle is the shit by the end of the day.

Preorder the Diegesis by Chas Hoppe and Joshua Young at SPD BooksAmazon, and Barnes & Noble.

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