A Meeting of Minds: The Bliss of Collaborative Writing

By: Heidi Jon Schmidt in Book Writing
on April 1st, 2019

Last Christmas I gave my daughter the autobiography of one of her idols. She opened it with great excitement, but a week later, as I was taking the tree down, I saw the book tucked under the tree skirt.

“She’s a great woman but a terrible writer,” my daughter said. “I just couldn’t plow through it.”

The book was written by a ghostwriter, of course, and I sighed, feeling sad that this famous, accomplished woman had left the telling of her life story to someone who couldn’t make it vivid and exciting for readers. Years from now, her book will still be on shelves, representing its subject as less of a person than she was.

As someone who helps others write their stories, I know the perils all too well. The bliss of my job is getting to know my client, learning about his or her journey. The stories I’ve heard—of a young Army pilot hovering in the shadow of an Iraqi mountain as a convoy of enemy tanks passed beneath him unaware; of a man who, inspired by an act of generosity, founded a business to be sure that others could feel such kindness too; and so many more! And the stories I’ve discovered, as a client came to trust me . . . How carefully people guard the most poignant details about themselves! But, of course, they—we—do. Part of my job is to show my honest respect and fascination to a client, so he or she can trust me with the raw material of life. I’m a writer, and the client is a businesswoman or a visionary—often someone who is used to charging ahead to the next accomplishment: I need to help that person slow down and consider all the aspects of a story, remember things she may have put aside, dare to think about the hard times and all that she has learned.

That’s why I want the client to be my collaborator, not my boss. Bosses worry: Can we cut a corner somewhere? Are we wasting time by exploring a tangent? Collaborators are free to play, to find inspiration in surprising places, to throw out wild ideas and make surprise connections. Collaborators bring different skillsets to the table, and the merging of those skills makes a book that is far more than the sum of its parts. I know nothing about the life of a soldier in Iraq, and most soldiers know nothing about the process of writing a book. When we bring those two experiences together: POW! Magic can—and usually does—happen.

Of course, I do have a boss, who has presided over hundreds of book projects and understands the managerial aspects, the scheduling, the promotion of a book. She can bring in another writer if the client wants a different perspective, and she be sure we have an editor to read drafts and see aspects we may have missed. But I’m free of the mechanics and can work entirely in the service of the client’s vision. By letting my client be a client, I am free to be a writer—someone whose originality can vividly showcase my client’s experience. And my client doesn’t have to worry about being a boss. As collaborators, we embark on an adventure, following the story where it takes us, in pursuit of a wonderful, authentic, memorable book.

And, oh, the conversations! I may say, “We need to bring the details of this story to life so the reader can really feel it.” One client was telling me about trying to start a chicken farm when he was young. I wanted to know how he brought the first chicken home, which led to a long explanation of how you transport a chicken in a burlap sack. Who knew?

Or a client may say, “This chapter just isn’t getting to the heart of my experience yet.” That is like a clue in a treasure hunt, telling us where to search next. On we go, deeper, farther, insight following on inspiration, leading to more questions, more understanding. And the excitement, the drama of this adventure is there on the page for the reader.

Look at the books on your shelf now: it’s likely that most of them have outlived their authors. A book is a legacy, a way to preserve your experience and the lessons you’ve learned for future generations, a contribution to the daily progress of history. You want your book to be the one that makes a reader miss his subway stop, that gets pressed into the hand of a dear friend. And you want the experience of writing that book to remain as one of your great illuminations—something that lit you up from within. Be sure you write it with someone who cares as much as you do, and that you are free to immerse yourself in the amazing relationship collaborators can have.