Some writing absolutely must be done alone. Hemingway said it perhaps most famously, but Kristina Moriconi gave the idea her own spin in this very column this past July. I don’t quibble with either.
But for me? For me, it took writing with a partner to revolutionize my relationship with the blank page. Once I did, procrastination and fear of inadequacy got out of the way. My output, writing quality, and sense of well-being all began to soar. As we continue, the process of writing in partnership reveals ever more unique advantages.
“Having a writing partner is the rudder that has shifted my barge. It has accelerated my work as a writer, given me an anchor within myself, and offered some general truths about getting things done and being generative,” says Sebastienne Mundheim, a painter, interdisciplinary performance artist, and founder of the White Box Theater.
How lucky am I that Sebastienne’s path crossed mine when it did? She was seeking to more solidly incorporate writing into her arsenal of creative expression. I was looking to expand beyond my professional work as a business journalist into more creative literary pursuits. A strange and amazing writing exercise emerged—and we’re both completely sold on it.
Let me explain what writing in partnership means for us. We convene on the phone weekly and each bring a few prompts—a stanza of poetry, a random New Yorker cartoon, a line from a museum exhibit. Simply “writing the week” is also always an option.
“The prompts don’t matter that much,” Sebastienne says. “In the beginning we really tried to respect them, but over time we realized they mostly serve as indexes of things we’ve been drawn to thinking about.”
I agree completely. Whether conscious or not, the ideas we proffer end up connecting in direct or indirect ways to what we’re turning over in our minds anyway.
We spend a few minutes checking in, share our prompts, set a timer, and write until the timer chimes to indicate 12 minutes have passed.
“We respect the timer and stop,” Sebastienne says. “We read out loud. Earbud to earbud. And we really listen. We each jot down a few notes about what we heard. Sometimes we make comments about the content. Sometimes it’s an appreciation for style. We leave the conversation to two to three minutes. Sometimes we don’t talk at all except to say, ‘Can we just keep going? Is that okay?’”
We repeat the process three times. Then time’s up, and we say, “Great. Talk to you next week!”
Only it’s become so addicting that we can’t contain ourselves to only once a week.
“The writing sessions are like having a secret lover,” Sebastienne says. “It feels like cheating on my work, cheating on my other obligations—thrilling—intimate—totally mine. The rushing of the words, the cramming into time slots, the confessions, the unwillingness to do anything unnecessary because the time is so limited.”
Why has such a simple construct helped us both so much? Accountability, for starters. In protecting and defending the time I’ve set aside for my calls with Sebastienne, I’ve slyly, simultaneously, guarded time to write for myself. A first for me, despite decades of trying.
Our structure—the 12-minute writing bursts—is also grounding. “The short time containers make for an undistracted urgency that lets anxiety and other distractions disappear,” Sebastienne says. “They make me scan the brain quickly to determine what I want to attach myself to in terms of my memory.”
Suspending the creative process and inviting feedback and alternate perspectives at incremental steps contributes its own magic. “This choreography of total immersion in oneself within a relationship (the 12-minute writing chunk), followed by sharing it, followed by being totally present for someone else’s story—it teaches so much about an equitable, balanced relationship,” Sebastienne says.
I agree that the mutuality is critical. We both show up, we both write from a place of honest self-disclosure, and we both trust that what we share will be met without judgement and kept safe. Writing to someone else can also distract from some of the self-doubt and preoccupation with mediocrity. Connected to an immediate audience through the phone line, I become completely engulfed in the role of storyteller. It ups my writing game and keeps me from descending too deep where more words aren’t warranted.
The short time containers also help sharpen our storytelling skills. “It forces you to get at what’s essential, because you have limited time,” Sebastienne says.
But it is enough time to complete your thought uninterrupted, followed by a measured, reciprocal reveal and careful listening. “I think mediation, which I’ve never experienced, might work this way,” Sebastienne continues. “Especially with the expectation that we give back what we heard of what the other presented.”
Because we were both getting so much from it, we have increased from one scheduled writing session per week to two. The first is loose and free—an opportunity to write whatever we need or want, whatever comes up. The second is more purposeful, part of a strategy to advance defined individual writing projects. (I am working a book of reflections on my childhood as a Red Diaper baby, Sebastienne on a folio of poetic prose about lovers, art-making, and being the child of a refugee.)
Like the oxpecker and the hippo, ours is a symbiotic relationship that benefits us both. At once generative and grounding, writing in partnership has provided so much more to us than writing alone. What might a writing partner do for you?