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Kindly Surrender: Thoughts on Collaboration

By July 9, 2012Blog

I love collaboration. Collaboration is a window flung open to the skies. It’s a bulwark against stasis, a kind surrender to the unexpected. No matter how much I may enjoy working alone (toiling away in my dingy garret), collaboration reminds me to keep the windows open and let the light and air through. No one thrives in solitary confinement. My creative introverted brain is always replenished by outside visitors.

As a picture book writer, I have come to await that moment when I must relinquish my story. I have come to await it not as someone anticipating the end of something but as someone rushing towards the beginning.

Here is something I have discovered. A good collaborator will decorate your ideas and prettify your pages. A great collaborator will take your unfinished notions and put them through a process of enhancement and enchantment so astonishing that, by the end, they’ll have whisked you off to an even-better invented world.

I count my lucky stars that I have been blessed with great collaborators. Both Isabelle Arsenault and Matte Stephens make art that balances sophistication with playfulness, and cleverness with heart. Matte’s particular approach is to take familiar objects and people, and re-arrange them in surreal and delightful ways that are not obvious at all. Isabelle, widely celebrated for her beautiful depth of detail, has a terrific knack for using white space, a lot of white space, active white space. She has taught me that the best illustrations give room for, rather than confine, the imagination of the reader.

Isabelle and I have done two books together. In both instances, I have watched her move from initial sketches and mood boards to finished art. I have seen her go and live inside a story, exploring the emotional intricacies of a scene with a focus that might make some wonder if she was applying the Stanislavsky Method to illustration. Her intuition astounds me. She often seems more attentive to the inner workings of my stories than I am.

Here’s an example. There is a revelatory moment at the end of Virginia Wolf where Virginia is transformed from a wolf back into a girl. Isabelle used a clever visual trick involving silhouetted wolf ears and a large bow. Let me just say that I did not write or foresee this transition at all. Isabelle found it inside the story and, happily for everyone, it has become the crowning touch of the whole book.

This is the kind of out-of-the-blue magic that happens when you collaborate: you hand your collaborator a cube and they give you a dodecahedron in return. When you loosen your hold on a work, a communal form of talent takes over. There is room for anything to happen.

Reprinted from Uppercase Magazine, issue 14. Order it now to get a heartful serving of work and words by über-illustrators Matte Stephens, Isabelle Arsenault, Agata Dudek, Jon Klassen, Oliver Jeffers and more!

(Photos: Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss; Jeanne-Claude and Christo in the early days.)