Honoring Old-School Collaboration

I’m old enough to remember being able to stay in touch with people only by letters—or by phone, when long distance calls actually cost something and there was a literally-required association between area codes and geography. And I remember my step-dad working abroad for a year and his and my using computers to dial into a closed system that allowed us to write something cheesily called “email”. And I remember my best friend asking if he could write to my step-dad, because he thought I was b.s.’ing him about email.

It goes without saying how far everyday communications technology has come…

But I wake up to a post on “Collaborating with a 4-year Old” this morning (thanks, Christine Z.) that basically CMS/W’izes the whole tech-marching-inexorably-forward process as the author reflects on her daughter’s insistence that they partner on hand-drawn illustrations. We think of collaboration being Google Docs and code repositories and 10 PRINT, but sometimes it’s still paper, pen, a mom, and a daughter:

No longer had I drawn my first face (I love drawing from old black & white movie stills) had she swooped over to me with an intense look. “OOOH! Is that a NEW sketchbook? Can I draw in that too, mama?” I have to admit, the girl knows good art supplies when she sees them. I muttered something about how it was my special book, how she had her own supplies and blah blah blah, but the appeal of new art supplies was too much for her to resist. In a very serious tone, she looked at me and said, “If you can’t share, we might have to take it away if you can’t share.”

Oh no she didn’t! Girlfriend was using my own mommy-words at me! Impressed, I agreed to comply. “I was going to draw a body on this lady’s face,” I said. “Well, I will do it,” she said very focused, and grabbed the pen. I had resigned myself to let that one go. To let her have the page, and then let it go. I would just draw on my own later, I decided. I love my daughter’s artwork, truly I do! But this was MY sketchbook, my inner kid complained.

Not surprisingly, I LOVED what she drew. I had drawn a woman’s face, and she had turned her into a dinosaur-woman. It was beautiful, it was carefree, and for as much as I don’t like to share, I LOVED what she had created. Flipping through my sketchbook, I found another doodle of a face I had not yet finished. She drew a body on it, too, and I was enthralled. It was such a beautiful combination of my style and hers. And she LOVED being a part of it. She never hesitated in her intent. She wasn’t tentative. She was insistent and confident that she would of course improve any illustration I might have done….And the thing is, she DID.


And from it all, here are the lessons I learned: to try not to be so rigid. Yes, some things (like my new sketchbook) are sacred, but if you let go of those chains, new and wonderful things can happen. Those things you hold so dear cannot change and grow and expand unless you loosen your grip on them a little. In sharing my artwork and allowing our daughter to be an equal in our collaborations, I helped solidify her confidence, which is way more precious than any doodle I could have done. In her mind, her contributions were as valid as mine (and in truth, they really were). Most importantly, I learned that if you have a preconceived notion of how something should be, YOU WILL ALWAYS BE DISAPPOINTED. Instead, just go with it, just ACCEPT it, because usually something even more wonderful will come out of it.

Seriously, the collaborative drawings are great. It just went to remind me that even when CMS/W has a reputation for being future-oriented, a lot of what our students and faculty have focused on comparing media over time. Right-wing broadcasting in the 50’s and 60’s. 19th century recombinatory literature. The history and future of photojournalism ethics. Homosexuality in ’80’s superhero comics. Early electric signage.

To others out there, what’s your favorite old-school collaboration?

Andrew Whitacre

About Andrew Whitacre

Andrew conducts the communications efforts for CMS/W and its research groups. A native of Washington, D.C., he holds a degree in communication from Wake Forest University, with a minor in humanities, as well as an M.F.A. in creative writing from Emerson College. This work includes drawing up and executing strategic communications plans, with projects including website design, social media management and training, press outreach, product launches, fundraising campaign support, and event promotions.