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Writing the Jazz Way

Collaborative writing is getting authors out of their garrets.

By Charles Campbell 11 Apr 2007 |

Charles Campbell is a Tyee contributing editor. Other winning entries can be found at Vancouver Writes.

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Stephen Galloway

There's an old homily that writing is a lonely pursuit. It originates with American author Jessamyn West: "Writing is a solitary occupation. Family, friends, and society are the natural enemies of the writer. He must be alone, uninterrupted, and slightly savage if he is to sustain and complete an undertaking."

Well, not where journalists are concerned, even though they are usually savage, and their families can be a distraction. After all, there's generally a savage editor involved in a journalist's work, and sometimes a psychotic co-author. The writer also depends on the quality of the words that he or she extracts from other stories and Internet quotation databases -- you know, research, or plagiarism, or whatever they're calling it these days. Sometimes obtaining quotes and information from actual people becomes an unavoidable part of the process.

In other words, writing is often a social activity. This was certainly the case at the Winterruption festival on Granville Island last month, when the Vancouver International Writers Festival hosted Vancouver Writes, an evening of collaborative writing that also involved jazz and alcohol. Tables of paying aspirants led by mentors such as Steven Galloway, Caroline Adderson, Bill Richardson, Timothy Taylor, Elizabeth Bachinsky had just half an hour to produce a piece of text. The results were adjudicated by even more actual people, and a winner -- offered in full below -- was declared. The triumphant text's success is unsurprising. After all, who would dispute "I came from the gym feeling bison but looking bologna" as a great first line?

Writers desperate for company

There's a lot of this sort of thing going around. Emily's Monkey, an informal group of Vancouver journalists, stages first-line contests as part of its regular social gatherings. Last year, Book Television marked the annual Labour Day weekend Three-Day Novel Contest by drawing writers together at an Edmonton Chapters store, an event chronicled on The Tyee by Ron Yamauchi. It wasn't fully collaborative, and may not have been truly mutually supportive, as mini-contests pitting writers against each other were held throughout the weekend. But it was the act of writing as a shared experience.

Some number of years ago, more than 20 if I'm honest about it, I participated in writing a collaborative Three-Day Novel. It was done tag-team style, with chapters written in succession by different authors, once we established a central storyline (that the Second Coming had occurred but a prosperous Catholic Church put a stop to it). We may have been inspired by International Rocketship's 1984 collaborative animated film Anijam, in which 22 animators began their own segment with the last image from the previous animator's work.

Perhaps writers, like animators, are just sick of being the lonely enemies of their own families. They're looking for a place where they can drink heavily while gaining the approval of outsiders as they imitate other art forms, like music and theatre.

More interesting than Wikipedia

Technology, of course, has made artistic collaboration not only more achievable but sometimes necessary. And the internet has made all sorts of collaborative writing possible. The obvious example is Wikipedia, which unsurprisingly has an extensive entry on the history and practice of collaborative writing.

Nothing in that entry, however, is as amusing as what emerged one late February evening at Performance Works, where Steven Galloway led John Harris, Lauren O'Rourke, Daryl Stennett, Jane Theriault, Carrie Villeneuve, Rebecca Whyman and others in the creation of the following piece of ephemera:

I came from the gym feeling bison but looking bologna. I was thirsty. I walked into the Lounge El Ninõ filled with dusty ferns hanging in macramé and naugahyde bar stools perched next to potted plants.

I sat at the bar trying to remember how to conjugate Spanish verbs. If the Bolivian made an appearance, I wanted to be ready. "Another," asked the bartender. I tapped my glass with my swizzle stick. "Fill her up."

I heard leather heels on the barroom floor and looked over my shoulder. I tried to juxtapose the edgy style in the boot leather with the tired, wrinkled face on the other end. What did I want?

Was it a one-night stand, a partner, a crutch?

Balanced on the cusp of true love and the crash and burn, I knew I shouldn't say it, but I did, "Nice shoes. Wanna fuck?"

It lacked panache, but I was willing to cook breakfast in the morning…or afternoon.

The Bolivian smiled, those eyelashes fluttered, those lips parted in a wet invitation.

"Prada. Out of your league."