Came upon this nice NYT interview with the lovely (in every sense of the word) Emmylou Harris this morning. Love her closing lines: “You asked me if I have any regrets? I regret that it took me all that time to figure out I could have a dog on the road.” Turns out Emmylou runs a dog rescue out of her home in Nashville, where she lives with her 92-year-old mother, who “is doing very well, as they say, for her age.”
Sounds like Emmylou comes by her graceful-aging genes honestly. I’d be willing to bet, though, that one big reason for her artistic longevity is her career-long passion for collaboration.
If you have a keen ear or are a reader of liner notes (certainly tougher to be these days), you know that even at the height of her commercial appeal, Emmylou’s dreamy voice was everywhere on her friends’ records. And she clearly has lots of friends.
As she says in her interview, she started out as a solo folk act, a “Joan Baez wannabe.” It was Gram Parsons who pulled her into country music, almost against her will: “I started as a harmony singer, that was his way to kind of sneakily turn me onto this extraordinary body of music, and in singing country music I really found the place that my voice was supposed to be.”
Emmylou’s openness to influence and collaboration never stopped, and it’s helped her generate one of the most gorgeous and impressive bodies of work in popular music. And when her career appeared to be winding down, it helped her restart it:
I count on being inspired by other people. I mean, a big example would be “Wrecking Ball,” and the chance to work with Daniel Lanois and just go, “Well, the radio doesn’t play me anymore, the record company doesn’t know what to do with me, and it’s kind of up to me to jumpstart myself.” I don’t think either one of us had a clue as to what we were going to do, but he’s a fearless producer and musician and I tend to trust the people I work with. It broke up whatever creative logjam I was going through.
My point (and I do have one….)
If you’re “merely” a music lover or Emmylou Harris fan, feel free to move along at this point. Thanks for playing! Fiction writers, though, please read on.
Writers seeking writers
Fiction writing is a solitary, potentially isolating, business. Some of us sit in coffee shops or libraries to do our work, I suspect in large part so we can peer out of our bubbles every now and then and at least watch others interact.
Some team up with other writers to create. I did, many years ago, with pal Bill Clevenger, and probably the best part of the goofy juvenile entertainment that resulted—the long out-of-print The Kid Can’t Miss! (Avon Books), published under the name Russell Almon (our middle names)—was the terrific fun we had in our early morning, pre-day-job writing/editing sessions.
Others (maybe most?) maintain a community of fellow writers and/or beta readers to provide first and repeated-as-necessary responses to the worlds we’re trying to create—and, just as importantly, incremental deadlines to make sure we get them created. Many turn to graduate writing programs and one-off creative writing classes and workshops for the same reasons. I had a great time getting my MFA from the University of Washington, spent a decade in the same writing group, and still gather ad hoc little “short-track writing groups” to serve those functions.
And then there are the critical hours spent drinking beer and shooting the creative bull with writing buddies.
Right. None of what’s described above (beyond my little co-writing adventure on that long-ago juvenile novel) approaches true collaboration. And of course that’s just how almost all of us want it. We write because we want to be heard, in one way or another, as individuals.
But I’d argue that a good editor can serve roughly the same collaborative function for a writer that a good record producer serves for a recording artist.
It never occurred to me to feel as though I was “collaborating” with my students during my 13 years teaching fiction writing through UW Extension, though now that I think about it, I began to move into the neighborhood during those years. Especially once I began guiding folks through the distance learning curriculum I developed there. All at once found myself in a more intimate relationship with the writer and the text itself. Using MS Word’s commenting and track changes functions, I was able to share with the writer much more fine-grained, nearly real-time responses to the moments being presented than I believe I would’ve working freehand. I’m just chattier and more coherent—and certainly more legible!—at the keyboard. (I’m guessing many, if not most, on-campus writing classes now operate with at least this much digital interaction built into them. But that’s only a guess, as it’s now been, impossibly, almost 15 years since I’ve taught!)
When I began my career as a book editor in September 2010, I was struck and, frankly, made a little uneasy by how freely and often authors spoke of enjoying our “collaboration.” I thanked them for the kind words, but hurried to assure them that the stories were absolutely all theirs.
And they absolutely were, and are.
But after working with upwards of 60 authors on upwards of 70 books, I’ve grown comfortable with the fact that yes, this is a collaboration. Or ought to be, when it’s working as it should (as it nearly always does).
The author is always by far the senior member of our little team of two. The book in question is no more mine than Emmylou’s “Wrecking Ball” is Daniel Lanois’. But I believe (and the vast majority of “my” authors would agree) that it’s always better for having the focused attention of an experienced, deeply invested collaborator.