People have all kinds of crazy ideas about collaboration, and many have had awful experiences with it as well. Group presentations in school? Writer’s groups lorded over by some petty dictator? Work groups that get nothing done because the whole time is spent “processing” everyone’s feelings? Puh-leeze. A complete waste at best; at worst, a holy nightmare.

Our ideas and experiences may have been toxic, but the fact of bad collaborations doesn’t mean that collaboration is a bad thing. There’s a whole lot we can do to make collaboration work better, in schools, in writer’s groups, and in the workplace. And there are a lot of different ways to collaborate. We can learn to collaborate well; we can also expand our notion of what counts as collaboration.

Let me give you an example: I recently attended an art night, hosted by a friend of mine. Everyone brought their own stamps and card stock, scissors, glue dots, and paper. Each person worked independently at their own table, making cards and gift tags. People mostly worked quietly, ate snacks, and shared supplies. We talked some: gave each other advice when someone got stuck (“Does the red paint look better, or the green?”), wandered looking at other projects when we needed inspiration, and oohed and ahhed when projects were completed. We borrowed stamp pads and ideas. As we refilled out coffee cups, we  swapped stories and traded embossers.

It was a blast.

Each person worked on their own thing. But we did it together. Psychologists call this “parallel play.” Kids do it all the time. We can, too. Artists in shared studio space; entrepreneurs in co-working space; writers sitting at Starbucks with a laptop and a latte. Working alone. Together.

If I want to be more faithful about getting some writing done, I might schedule to meet a friend at Starbucks, or the library, or her office or mine, two hours a week maybe, same time each week. We might share snacks, answer questions, or give each other advice. But mostly, we would each be working quietly on our own projects. Just doing it together.

Here’s the funny thing about parallel play: We  don’t even have to be in the same place (or even the same time zone). There are two women that I pray with at lunch time every Monday. Except that we live in totally different places. And we don’t actually meet together. I just know that if it’s Monday, whenever I get a chance to take a break for lunch, that time is set aside to pray. And I am more likely to put in the time simply because I know two other people who will be doing the same thing. There’s a tiny bit of structure, a little accountability. But structure and accountability is not the big thing.

The big thing is simply knowing that I am not doing it alone.

About Diana Glyer

Diana Pavlac Glyer is an award-winning writer who has spent more than 40 years combing through archives and studying old manuscripts. She is a leading expert on C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien; her book The Company They Keep changed the way we talk about these writers. Her scholarship, her teaching, and her work as an artist all circle back to one common theme: creativity thrives in community. Her new book is BANDERSNATCH: C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and the Creative Collaboration of the Inklings.

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