My brother and I have been meeting to work on a new book. One recent morning we went to a coffeehouse. Joe had been up for hours, so he was ready for coffee and company. I was scrambling to have my beauty routine done and my electronics packed by the time he picked me up.
We’ve found a writing process that works for us: He talks and I type. This is really his book, but I’m the writer. He’s the storyteller. If I can manage to capture Joe’s stories, meaning keep up with him and retain the flavor, I’ve done something.
The way it usually goes, I interrupt him constantly with questions. I have to; it’s either then or later, when I’m refining my notes. He’d prefer it if he could just tell the thing without any typing or stopping, but our process is a compromise.
We schedule two-hour sessions. Usually we talk constantly, prompting one another, and I worry that we’ll get too loud. That morning we’d been working less than an hour when we fell silent. It was the first time we’d run out of material.
“Well, let’s just sip our coffee,” I said, “and not force it.”
Lots of times if I start doing something else on the computer, Joe will begin to talk and I’ll have to get quickly back to my typing. After a couple trickles, though, the stories dried up that day and my mind turned to the other things I had to do.
Neither Joe nor I had spent enough mental time preparing for that writing session. He’d been bored from waking up so early, and I’d been too busy getting ready. We hadn’t made space in our minds for the project.
In the past I’d given Joe assignments—thought starters for the next session. “I knew what it was like to be poor,” I might say, meaning that he should think about how he made it when he was on strike for 14 weeks with two children to feed. I might ask him to think about why even ghosts couldn’t scare him into quitting a night job. Sometimes I went for a particular kind of family memory. But not that day. That day we hadn’t done the mental prep.
Writing works best when we open our minds to it. All of the content is there; we just have to access it. The collaborative process at its most productive is a beautiful thing. And when those stories do start to come, my sage advice is pretty simple: Start typing.