Last night I had a Skype meeting with a film-maker friend who told me he needed my help. He’s starting work on a short stop motion project that he wants to build a world around. It’s a dystopia. There are robots, along with a mysterious religion that is the only form of true societal structure. I was in it immediately, tossing out ideas, talking about what we need to put together to get the ball rolling. Now, in spite of spending a lot of time among film majors in college, I am not a film-maker at all. Sure, I’ve made a few shorts and written a few scripts, but it is not something I’d name as a marketable skill in my arts arsenal. But nothing inspires me more than collaborative art projects. In addition to writing and editing at Side B, I also edit non-fiction for Printer’s Devil Review, and will be performing in an upcoming installment of the Somerville Encyclopedia Show. Juggling collaborative projects can be difficult, but if multitasking makes you as giddy as it makes me, I have a few pieces of advice. The following is a quick list of ways to make sure a collaborative project will drive you to do your best work .
1 – Don’t be afraid to say ‘yes.’
Everybody has their niche. If someone were to ask you what kind of art you make, chances are there is a medium that springs to mind before any others. But pushing those boundaries will give you new ways of thinking. If a friend wants to work on a project that drags you out of your comfort zone, don’t say no outright just because it asks you to do something new. Maybe writing for a web comic will help you pare down your fiction. Maybe painting a mural will help you see how your poems work together to paint a larger picture. Maybe you need to shake things up to get past some writer’s block. New techniques can be learned (and mastered) on the fly, so you should never be afraid to participate simply because you’ve not been asked to contribute something you know you can nail.
2 – Make sure your collaborators are just as tirelessly passionate as you are.
Everyone I know has a pet project they want to get off the ground. And lots of them reach out for help in realizing their dreams. My friend Charley moved clear across the country to launch a web show called Wrecked. The hours are long, the funding comes from Kickstarter, and he is hustling his ass off. But so is everybody else involved with the show. They promote tirelessly. They work incredibly hard. They are all equally committed, and they are making something excellent because of all that effort. When you start a project with someone, make sure they are just as committed as you are. Delegate responsibilities in a way that plays to everybody’s strengths. And be sure to celebrate your success with some positive reinforcement, followed by more hard work.
3 – Communicate.
There is nothing more disappointing than going to your separate corners after a production meeting, working your tail off on your portion of the project, and returning to your collaborators only to find that your visions were not in sync. Scrapping something you’ve put a lot of yourself into can be truly heartbreaking. The best way to avoid time-wasting is to make sure you talk about all of it. Make a list of shared references–movies, TV shows, books, articles, art, etc.–to refer to when talking about your project. Building a shared vocabulary will make it easier for you to articulate what you are trying to do together. Send emails whenever a “what if” pops into your head. Keep the team on board with your thought process. If everyone is thoroughly in the loop, it is much easier to keep your objectives from morphing into disparate beasts.
4 – Set realistic goals.
A lot of the pitfalls of collaborative art come up because people have different ideas of how much time it takes to accomplish a given task. It’s important to be clear about how much time you’re willing to commit to the project, and also how much and what types of work you can contribute towards the end product. How many words are you willing to write per week? How frequently can you meet to touch base? Is email or Skype easier than face to face meeting for you? Who will be in charge of delegating responsibilities and determining deadlines for the project? Is there someone who could pick up the slack if one of the team members falls behind? The more clearly articulated expectations are, the easier it is for everybody to do their best work. Make a shared calendar with all of your deadlines. Adjust it whenever their are delays or new tasks. Artists are a notoriously disorganized lot, so make sure you have plenty of fail-safes in place to keep everyone on task and honest about how much of the workload they can handle.
5 – Make sure you’re having fun!
I never say yes to collaboration if there is not the potential for riotous good times. This isn’t to say that I expect everything to be smooth sailing, but the risk has to be worth the reward. If I’m carving out time in my schedule for a project, the hard work I put into it has to at least be proportional to how much fun I’m having. This project with my film-maker friend is going to demand a lot of writing; I committed to writing three pieces of flash fiction a week until the Kickstarter launches this spring. That’s a whole flash fiction collection in the space of a few months! But I love writing short shorts, and it’s something I don’t do nearly as much as I’d like to because of the other writing projects I have on my plate. This collaboration gives me an excuse to dig in and make huge strides. I get to write sci-fi. We are inventing the scripture and structure of a completely new religion. I get to reread the Bible with an eye towards penning strange cartoon robot religious tracts. I get to build a completely new world with somebody whose brain totally clicks with mine. For me, that’s what art is about–imagining ourselves into new spaces every time we sit down to create. Even better if we don’t have to go it alone.