Two writers in the ‘Bad Art Room’
“We must not see any person as an abstraction. Instead, we must see in every person a universe with its own secrets, with its own treasures, with its own sources of anguish, and with some measure of triumph.” – Elie Wiesel
Collaboration among writers is important because each of us contains so many worlds, from our own experiences to the books we’ve read in slightly different ways.
This is a story of two writers, Nicole Bade and Theresa Barker, who met in the winter of 2013 at Fort Worden in Port Townsend, Washington, and who have extended their individual writing work into collaborative efforts that have sparked imagination and creativity. Here we discuss our individual writing paths and how those paths led up to the collaboration we are now engaged in.
“My imagination makes me human and it makes me a fool; it gives me all the world, and exiles me from it.” -Ursula K. Le Guin
It was me. I broke the croquet set. How else was I supposed to make a light saber?
There were no sticks in the yard and the mallet unscrewed easily. Yes, I took the pointy broken croquet stick because it was elegant and feminine and dangerous. I wasn’t a boy, though most of my friends were, I was a badass. And as we all know, having a badass cross-dressing woman in your ranks is important. Come on people, who else is going to slay the Nazgul?
Twenty years later I was still one of the only women, but I was working in the Tech, struggling to write and my reading had changed: Margaret Atwood, Dorothy Allison, Raymond Carver, James Baldwin, Dostoevsky, Calvino, biographies of Hisenberg and Oppenheimer.
It seemed the more precise my technical skills became, the less access I had to the flow of written words. My coworkers thought of language as a tool and words as abstract substitutables. I began to wonder if I was the only one who thought words could convey meaning or that context mattered. Those were flat times, that taught me the difference between reduction and essentialization.
In some ways, I was still breaking the croquet set, trying to use what was in front of me to investigate meaning instead of forging my own sword. I was using symbols and toys as approximations instead of the real object. My writing suffered from the same lazy-symbolism. I chose words that ‘meant’ certain thingsbecause I wanted to be understood instead of trusting the reader to come along with me.
“If you haven’t surprised yourself, you haven’t written.” – Eudora Welty
Like so many of us, I had fallen in love with reading from a young age, especially with books that took me to imaginative worlds. The Wizard of Oz, The Chronicles of Narnia, The Hobbit. Edward Eager’s Half-Magic series. Lloyd Alexander’s Chronicles of Prydain. I devoured these and many other books of the imagination.
How I longed to live in those magical worlds I read about! Find the way to Oz. Discover an old wardrobe filled with fur coats that led to an enchanted place. Wander into a magical garden through a secret door with a lost key.
My little sister and I – latchkey kids – would come home from school in the afternoons, draw the curtains in the front room, and act out short scenes from our imaginations. We’d play with a whole gang of kids from the neighborhood in each other’s yards where we pretended to be in ancient Greek times or in Robin Hood times or from times when horses ran wild (we were the horses).
People around me – teachers, neighbors, friends – said, “You should be a writer! You have such a great imagination!” But I didn’t believe them. Who does, when you are a shy eleven-, twelve-, thirteen-year-old?
In my twenties I was an on-again, off-again writer, working as a computer scientist in between spates of trying to write my science fiction stories. In my thirties I was at home with small children, writing in my basement at night. In my forties, at the end of a detour that took me into graduate school, I was asked the question, “If you could do anything knowing you were guaranteed NOT to fail, what would it be?” And without missing a beat, I said, “Write another novel.”
Write another novel? Was I crazy? Who was I to think I could finish another short story, let alone an 80,000-word novel.
But there it was.
And now you’re here. Welcome.
Collaboration matters because we’re all crazy little primordial soups of experience, stories, dream and imagination waiting for lightning to spark some life. When the soup does start to move it’s always a little bit different than I’ve envisioned. It doesn’t do what I tell it too, though if I’m very lucky, it’s open to suggestion. To make lightning requires energetic transfer between the heavens and the earth. Other people are a good form of energetic transfer. By rubbing against each other we create friction be itembrace, verbal sparring, or fisticuffs. Sometimes those other people are made of flesh and blood, sometimes they are books.
I began collaborating with Theresa Barker in my last year at Goddard. I had been exiled from my studio apartment after my cats discovered biting my power cable got me to stop writing. The kitties were okay but seven hundred dollars in chargers later, I took refuge in local coffee shops and began meeting Theresain the ‘Bad Art Room’ of Cafe Racer twice a week.
Instead of reading our work aloud, we checked in and sat next to each other, day after day. I watched her novel take shape, her son recover and then die of cancer. She kept writing. My manuscript was rejected, I tossed the whole thing, my ex threatened my life, I finished a new manuscript. I kept writing next to her.
Eventually, the staff at Racer knew us and that we were writing Speculative Fiction/ Science Fiction manuscripts. They asked us how the writing was going and kept our mugs of steamed milk and coffee full. Sometimes they would feed us. “So, when the books are done, will you do a reading here?” Whitney asked one day. Yes.
Collaboration doesn’t have to mean working on the same project together, it can be the space people create side by side. We voiced our separate challenges, recommended books and exercises to one another but the most important thing we did was show up, week after week. Theresa’s background in Engineering helped me articulate some of the creative problems I faced, letting go of the stillness and control of programming and trusting words to take me somewhere new in my writing.
We still meet twice a week and have begun hosting a monthly SF/F reading series called Two Hour Transport. Hearing new work from twelve writers each month is a reminder that we are all struggling at the edge of the unknown on our own separate pages. Though many of us have read the same books, the spaces we challenge are new. Performing together we create a larger story of the territories traveled eachtime we meet.
Writing is a solitary endeavor. When we think about writing, we probably all picture the lone writer in his/her/their study/attic/local coffee shop scratching away on a yellow pad/laptop/typewriter. That’s how the writing gets done, right?
Hemingway wrote by himself in his rented workroom in Paris. But he also met up with other writers – Scott Fitzgerald, Gertrude Stein, Ford Maddox Ford – to talk about writing, to comment on theirs and his writing and to compare notes on the business of writing.
That’s how Nicole Bade and I started our collaboration. We started meeting twice a in the spring of 2014 at a café in the University District, Café Racer. Nicole was deep into revision of her thesis novel, Chipped, for her final semester at Goddard. I was working on the first draft of my thesis novel, Daylight Saving Time, in my G3 semester. It helped that we were both science fiction writers, and even more rarely, we were both women science fiction writers. But we write very different work, and we were at very different stages in our work.
For several months we sat at a table in the “Bad Art Room,” surrounded by purple upholstery, drinking espresso drinks and hot coffee, along with splurging on the occasional order of nachos. Week by week we made significant progress on our own writing projects. Over that time we had many conversations about craft, about strengthening our own writer’s voices, and about writing to the heart of what we loved. And we discovered there was profound power in the act of holding the writing space.
We were not giving feedback on each other’s work. Once in a while we might read a brief excerpt to the other, just to ask about a specific aspect of craft or to illustrate something we had been discussing. But mostly we sat and wrote. In the same space.
The writer inhabits a world of her/his/their own writing. But when she/he/they come together with another writer, whether for support, for inspiration, or both, there are often startling and rich synchronicities that arise. As Elie Weisel observed, each person is their own universe, with secrets and treasures, with personal anguishes and particular triumphs. For two writers immersed in the worlds of their own imagination, the synergy that emerges between them can be amazing.
The Girl in the Black Raincoat
We‘re putting out a call for submissions to a writers’ anthology, “The Girl in the Black Raincoat.” The collection is open to any type of writing or art from Goddard students and alums. Deadline for submissions is October 31, 2015. Submit!
Two Hour Transport
A monthly Speculative Fiction & SF/F reading series in Seattle. One hour of Open Mic readings, followed by one hour of Invited Reader performances. Join us the fourth Wednesday of each month at Cafe Racer.
Nicole Bade explores the limits of language and information through creative writing and Linux/Unix administration. She enjoys the cadence of sentences, the secretive thrill of jargon and the transformation of story.
Theresa J. Barker was born in Tucson, Arizona, and she has lived in Seattle for most of her life. She writes science fiction and poetry, and she earned her MFA in Creative Writing from Goddard College in 2015. She has three children and three cats, all of whom live imaginative and independent lives, to her great delight. Theresa is also a mathematician with a Ph.D. in Engineering, and she is studying piano jazz.