I work alone. I have almost always worked alone. That’s the nature of freelance writing – or so I assumed.
A year ago I began working with Winifred Bird on a series of stories about managing forest ecosystems in the wake of nuclear disasters – Fukushima and Chernobyl. What started with an occasional exchange of emails grew to an almost daily correspondence before we even landed our first acceptance. Our magazine assignments launched a collaboration which, for me, transcended the stories we co-crafted and brought me the gift of professional partnership.
Winnie and I had a basis for working together. Several years ago she applied for a mentor through the Society of Environmental Journalists’ Mentor Program, which I co-coordinate. Her application had an uncanny familiarity: Winnie lives in Japan, where I spent several years. She is interested in forest ecosystems and the people who live in and care for them. Ditto. We later learned our husbands share an engagement in post-and-beam construction. Submitting to the obvious, I assigned myself as Winnie’s mentor. We spent a year reviewing her magazine proposals and essays, occasionally chatting by Skype. By then she was off on a successful career.
Teaming together as co-writers and researchers took the connection to an entirely new level. It was a gamble: We didn’t know if we our styles or paces would be compatible, or if we would get along through what promised be a protracted and intense working relationship. Winnie wisely suggested that we share our all of field notes and digital recording transmissions. I provided the benefits of Dropbox.
Throughout the research, writing and editing process we maintained almost daily contact, balancing one another’s highs and lows with what anyone but a down-to-earth journalist might call cosmic harmony. During one of my wee-hour wrestles with words I posted a mild Facebook moan about spending the night with radionuclides. Winnie was right there to encourage me. While I always felt a day late – and literally was – being on different sides of the International Dateline allowed one of us to work on the stories while the other slept.
We weren’t easy on one another: I’m sure she more than winced when I tossed her carefully crafted sentences into the Track Changes margin – just as I bemoaned the loss of my lovely images when she deemed them unworthy. We challenged fact after fact. For me this was scrutiny that preceded an editor’s and I treasured it. The one disagreement we did not resolve was whether our essays should be written in the past or present. That amused us both: After writing more than 10,000 finished words together, we differed over tense.
The process of co-writing is exhilarating. Working together has given me new ways of looking at information and better ways of accessing and analyzing it. Out of the usual chaos of too many facts, irrelevant scientific studies and random interviews, something beyond a series of stories has emerged. Beyond sharing the labor is the synergy that transports single ideas to concepts greater than either of us could have come up with on our own. The power of partnership is transforming.
Now if I can just get through Winnie withdrawal…