Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Faculty Voices with Jackie Briggs Martin: Side by Side

Betty Comden and Adolph Green
New York Times photo/SuzanneDeChillo
Every working day for more than sixty years, Betty Comden and Adolph Green sat down together to write song lyrics-- for composers such as Leonard Bernstein (once their accompanist) and AndrĂ© Previn. We all know their songs—“Make Someone Happy,” “Just in Time,” “The Party’s Over,” “New York, New York.” 
Audiences loved them.  In 1958 Brooks Atkinson, theater critic for the New York Times,  called them “good enough for just about any civilized corner of the world.”  According Comden’s obituary in the Times,  (November 24, 2006), “They met daily, most often in Ms. Comden’s living room, either to work on a show, to trade ideas or even just talk about the weather.” Theirs was a life-long collaboration.

And that’s really what I want to consider: collaboration. Comden and Green wrote song lyrics. We write stories, books. It’s all words.  How does it go when we work with words with others?  Ms. Comden said of their collaboration: “We don’t divide the work up. We develop a mental radar, bounce lines off each other.” (New York Times; October 25, 2002).

I expect each instance of collaboration is different. But perhaps they all involve some kind of “mental radar,” and the joy of sharing ideas, "bouncing lines."

Ron Koertge and Christine Heppermann have been collaborating on a series of early chapter books—Backyard Witch (Greenwillow; July, 2015). Ron says of their work, “It always strikes me in collaboration that somebody has to drive the car and somebody has to/wants to ride shotgun.  Chris drove our car.  She’s much more focused in general than I am, so I could just  — I’m going to wring everything out of this car-metaphor that I can  — look out at the cornfield.”

But, in spite of the useful car metaphor, the writing gets passed back and forth. And there's some shared understanding of what the final story should look like—mental radar.  

Christine said, "[Ron] is probably right that I had the more definite vision, at least in the beginning, for who the characters were and where I wanted the story to go. But as we got deeper into the process, I think we became equally invested, to the point where now, when I go back to the finished text, I can't always remember who wrote what. We're both pretty meticulous about word choice--Poets!--so each sentence has a little of each of us in it, I'd bet. I love the two-minds-as-one aspect of collaboration." 

As a picture book writer I’ve always felt that a picture book is a collaboration of many minds—writer, artist, editor, book designer. And I’ve thought my books were better for the multiple perspectives. But it wasn’t until my daughter moved to California and gave birth to our first grandchild that I wanted to collaborate on the actual text. 

Here was this grandchild in California. Here was I in Iowa.  Insert powerful need to see grandchild.  Insert missing a daughter.  And the result is a story about a granny who walks to California to see her grandbaby, a story that Sarah and I worked on together.  She had the new infant so maybe I was the one who drove the car. I’d write a draft and she’d fix it—whenever she had time.  We both agreed on what we wanted the story to be.  The work was fun and we did it for each other.  Of course we wanted to publish, but we also wrote to amuse each other. Whoever else might see it was a little further from my mind than when I work alone. (And, we are now in the middle of another tale.)

I’ve  recently been working on a non-fiction piece with Phyllis Root and Liza Ketchum. In this instance there were three distinct parts of the story. And we divided the responsibility for the research.  We each wrote up what we had learned. Then we got our hands into the clay, combined the three parts and worked together to smooth out the seams.  Again, though we all believed the story was important and wanted it to get out to the wider world, we wrote to please each other.  And we had a wonderful time, so much fun that we are looking around for another project.

Think about writing a piece with someone else, someone who shares your passion for a story, someone you love to work with.  You don’t have to be like Betty Comden and Adolph Green, who only worked together. “Alone, nothing,” Mr. Green once said. “Together a household word…”  Working with someone can be just part of your writing portfolio. My daughter is a poet who is continuing to publish books and chapbooks. Phyllis, Liza, and I have individual writing projects. Both Christine and Ron are continuing to publish their own work, as they collaborate.  Working with someone can be just one of your writing projects—a treat for you and a writer friend.


  1. Love this post. My classmates and I are always talking about how we should try more collaboration while we are in the program because we see each other on a regular basis for two years. Should be a perfect opportunity. Works for you great professors, too!

  2. I hope you'll have a chance to try collaborating with one--or more--of your colleagues, Donna. It's fun and occasionally surprising, as the work can take a whole new direction.

  3. Jackie, what a great topic to focus on. I learned so much when I co-wrote my gold rush books while in Alaska. Jane Haigh taught me about archival research and photo collection and ... And we kept each other going on our down days. Thanks for the insights.

  4. Thanks Claire. I love working with others. There's the keeping each other going aspect, as well as the synergy of ideas aspect.

  5. That's so wonderful and true. I just saw the illustrations for my first picture book, and it was odd being simpatico with someone I have never met, and wonderful.