The Power of Creative Collaboration: a Personal History.

I used to be Mormon. My fellow inkpunk Galen used to be Mormon, too.

We became friends because we were atheists who found ourselves stuck in the LDS Church, and we bitched about it on the same online forums.

You may be asking yourselves, that’s all fine (or John, that’s not fine at all), but what does this have to do with writing and creativity?

It has everything to do with creativity, for me, and maybe for Galen as well.

I started my personal blog to hash out the painful and drawn out process of extricating myself from a powerful religious institution. With each post, I realized that there were a lot of folks who were like me. We sought each other out. We craved deep connection to others to replace the embrace of the tight-knit religious communities we were leaving behind.

Over time, I slowly started replacing my anti-Mormon angst-ridden posts with group creative experiments. I started a photography project called “A Certain Slant of Light”, in which group members issued photographic challenges to each other. One challenge was “body writing” and here are my and Galen’s responses:

she who learns... Inscribed (365:002).

As I was winding down my involvement in that project (which carried on without me), I went to a friend’s pumpkin-carving party. I remember how energized and inspired I felt to get my hands dirty and to be sculpting something while in conversation with intelligent, creative people. This was the result:

My Zombie + victim

I came out of there realizing that I could be make art outside of words and photography. It wasn’t great art, but it was entertaining and pleasing to some extent, and deeply satisfying to me.

The next spring, on one of Galen’s visits to Southern California, she suggested we draw together in an collaborative exercise called “Exquisite Corpse.” I felt uneasy because I sucked as an illustrator (and still do). But there is something about this exercise that gave me permission to lean on Galen, and to reach past my comfort zone. We created these pieces over lunch in a veggie cafe, exchanging pieces and adding to them every minute:

Collaborative Art: Galen + John.

If you’re interested in this exercise, Galen has written more about Exquisite Corpse as the Art Nerd, at the Functional Nerds blog. This experience further deepened my desire to explore the limits of my own creative expression, and to see what I could do working with others.

About a month later, I organized a virtual choir to celebrate the coming of Spring by singing Jonathan Coulton’s First of May. It came as no surprise to me that of the eight who responded to my call, from California to Idaho to Virginia, four were fellow ex-Mormons and one was ex-Catholic. (Here’s the post with the final version if you want a listen. Galen starts it out for us, and it picks up around 1:40.)

Since then, I’ve tried a number of group creative experiments and collaborations, but I wanted to draw attention to two more. Last spring, I organized an online experiment in which I drew a Tarot card at random (I captured the shuffling and the selection on video and posted them to YouTube), and then invited everyone who wanted to participate to create works inspired by the card. On the second day we drew the Hermit, and participants created poems, digital art, sketches, music, and even a paper fortune teller. If you go to the post and scroll down to the submissions, you can see works by inkpunks Christie, Wendy and Sandra, as well as by Galen, myself, and others. Here is Christie’s; I selected it because it struck me as deeply spiritual:

299,792,458 m/s

Finally, I’d like to draw your attention to one last collaborative effort. Last Fall, I had returned from the Clarion West workshop, where one of the unexpected benefits I felt was that I had finally kicked Mormonism–for the first time in two decades, I felt the label no longer applied to me, and I no longer needed to obsess over my non- past- ex-relationship to my old religion. Then Galen asked me to collaborate with her on a short graphic novel for a Mormon anthology. I had just turned down an invitation to contribute a piece to a bound collection of essays by former Mormons. She convinced me, and our script and sample art was accepted by the Monsters and Mormons anthology. We just submitted our final work this morning. The publication should be out this winter.

bloody pages

I’ll be honest–this project wasn’t easy. I was going through a divorce and Galen was working long hours on multiple projects. Our combined work style is highly collaborative (we plan to write a post about it later). Galen was heavily involved in ideation and the scripting, and I was continually involved in layout and art decisions. The whole process introduced some strains on our friendship that we had to work through.

Again, what does this all have to do with writing? In exploring my creative, collaborative history, I’ve learned the following:

  • All forms of creative expression feed one another: even though these other expressions take time, and I’m not as proficient at them as I am at writing fiction, they inspire my stories, and open up creative paths that would otherwise be closed to me. In the two years that I’ve begun this creative exploration outside of writing, I was accepted into Clarion West and had my first four story sales.
  • There is power in communal creation: I used to think that writing and art were solitary pursuits. I find that connecting with others leads to greater productivity, inspiration and, perhaps counterintuitively, originality.
  • Creation is a spiritual act: creating art and writing fiction allows me to discover my depths, to find catharsis, to connect more deeply to others and to the universe.

I don’t think these apply universally, but they may apply broadly. And for Galen and I, the creative community has filled the void left by Mormonism, and has become our church and spiritual life, in all the good senses of those words. Working on the Mormons and Monsters project helped me to continue grappling with my Mormon heritage in a productive way. My professional collegiality and personal friendships with many of you, with the inkpunks, with my girlfriend & fellow Clarion West graduate Tracie, and with my creative children have all brought deep healing, inspiration, and artistic output in what could have been a dismal year, otherwise.

I hope you can use the comments and twitter not only to share your own experiences and opinions about creative collaboration, but also to share links to your own creative experiments and collaborative successes.

Thanks to Galen for her help on this post.

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  1. Galendara
    22/09/2011 at 12:02 am Permalink

    it has been a powerful journey. 

    thank you, friend.


  2. J.M. Perkins
    22/09/2011 at 3:37 am Permalink

    Thank you for sharing such deeply personnel recollections, this is probably the best discussion about the benefits of creative collaboration I’ve ever read.

  3. Adam Israel
    22/09/2011 at 4:43 pm Permalink

    Thanks, John, for sharing something so personal and enlightening.


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