Creativity is frequently a lonely proposition. 

Many of us tend to slip away in order to have time to ourselves to be who we most truly are. Few people get to share this part of us. In my life, there have been a mere handful of people who ever got to witness or participate in my creative process.

And it is a deeply personal, incredibly intimate thing. I completely understand why we want to be alone to do it. Creatives tend to be, how shall I say it, comfortable being alone. Sometimes to a fault. Some of us relish being alone. Yeah, I’m one of those. My alone time is guarded like the time-space equivalent of Fort Knox. It’s way too easy for me to shut people out and hide, even when I’m not being creative.

But eventually, it gets sort of . . . masturbatory, and we realize that we need contact with other creatives in order to continue to create. 

But stretching the metaphor a little further, casual creativity isn’t always a good idea. I once tried to co-write with a songwriter that was a total mismatch. She was really locked up and insecure, and could not allow herself to be vulnerable in front of me. When I couldn’t connect with her enough to get anything happening, I shut down. In hindsight, it was just as well. I learned later that she had torched a few bridges for me that I hadn’t discovered yet, and I would be really unhappy to have, yes, been that intimate with her – and to have written a song with her that we might have to figure out who got custody of–and what’s more likely is neither of us would have ever felt comfortable playing it, so the song would have died of neglect.

You gotta be careful who you . . . folk with. 

Ahem.

One thing that happens when you go from solo to ensemble work is you have to open your ears and listen to what each creator is doing. Writers have to read each other’s work very carefully to make sure they aren’t contradicting their co-writer in the next section or duplicating efforts in an inefficient way. Songwriters have to listen deeply to the tone, the tempo, the chord voicings and harmonization so the song doesn’t sound like two people writing two separate songs and shoving them together.

Everybody has to accept the creation as its own thing and allow it to become what it wants to be. 

That’s way easier to do when it’s just you and there are no competing egos involved. It takes time and trust and effort and compromise. You have to work through any disappointed that a thing isn’t being faithful to your original vision, and remember that you agreed to work with this other person because you admired their work, or because you wanted to do something different, or because you thought you were ready to throw caution to the winds and see what the hell could happen. It’s hard to remember that when you’re feeling threatened.

Because often, we learn the most about ourselves when we bump up against other people’s creativity. Of course.

We learn that we have biases we didn’t know about. We learn that we don’t like not being in control. We learn that we’re more easily intimidated than we thought. And every time it can be a slightly different lesson–if we make it through the project and live to co-write another day. Sometimes our co-writer is holding up a mirror–at a very unflattering angle. Resistance comes up, our hackles rise, we go on the defensive, and the session is blown.

Yet, it can be an amazing exercise to co-create with a partner or group of people, because it’s always incredibly educational. We all have something to teach each other, and if you keep your ears open you can learn a lot from somebody who does what you do in their own way. You may learn a new way to put words together, or a new way to create harmonization. One thing is for sure, you will discover new ways to break old rules, and that is one of the most valuable lessons there is.

So how do we overcome our resistance and defensiveness toward co-creating?

Compromise is a wonderful thing. Learning to let go of preconceptions and let a piece of work evolve naturally is hard to do, but so worth the pain. Clear your expectations right out of the way. Don’t try to be in charge of anything. Put yourself in the frequency of allowing, receiving, being the instrument through which the music or the story is born. You may need something to remind you to relax and observe your thoughts so when defensiveness or combativeness come up you can shut them down immediately.

Ground rules, boundaries, and clearly understood goals are essential. Come up with a statement of intention that the whole team can own together. Before a single note gets played or word gets written, ask and answer a few simple questions.

  • What do we want to accomplish?
  • Why are we doing this?
  • Who is responsible for what?
  • How will disagreements be resolved?
  • How do we ensure the workload is balanced between us so nobody feels left out or overworked?

If the work is going to be published or recorded, be sure you have a contract between you, and that everyone is happy about who is getting credit for what and how the money is going to be divided. Contracts are great. They let you keep the friends you create with.

There is power in co-creation, the power of surrender. Perspectives get broadened, boundaries expanded. Ideas that would never occur to “me” start to flow when it’s “us” doing the thinking together. That itself can be inspiring. No matter what, letting your guard down enough to create with other people will ignite your creative fires in entirely new ways.

Dare to be vulnerable enough to let someone else see this deep and beautiful piece of you. 

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