Writing partnerships: the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly
Hollywood on the Couch
The inside scoop on Tinseltown, USA.
Now and again a screen or TV writer patient of mine wrestles with the idea of taking on a writing partner. Having done dozens of therapy sessions with writing teams over the years—plus having begun my former career in Hollywood as half of a sitcom-writing partnership—I have more than a few thoughts about the potential benefits, liabilities and turmoil of doing so. Let’s call these (with apologies to Sergio Leone) the Good, the Bad and the Ugly.
The Good: The obvious benefits of a writing partner can be reduced down to the familiar adage, “Two heads are better than one.” With a partner you have the advantage of a sounding board for your ideas, a straight man (or woman) for your jokes, and a life-raft when your inspiration is sinking.
A partner brings less obvious benefits, as well. If you’re prone to procrastination, just knowing that your partner is waiting impatiently for you to join in will help motivate you. A writing partner can pull the two of you up when you’re feeling down. Moreover, when pitching a story to a producer or studio exec, your memory might suddenly flag, or you’ll get the narrative elements out of order, and panic sets in. In which case, a good writing partner can step up and pinch-hit for you. (It helps, too, when a pitch goes badly to have someone with whom to commiserate over beers at the inevitable post-mortem.)
Finally, a writing partner can be the obvious solution to a well-known downside to the profession: It can be lonely. For many TV and film writers I know, taking on a partner rescued them from an experience of loneliness that, after a number of years, had grown literally intolerable.
Next up, the Bad: For just as many writers I know, the thought of having to compromise their vision, negotiate scenes and dialogue, and split credit (and fees) is equally intolerable. The inverse of the loneliness to which writers often succumb is the sublime privacy and freedom from interference that a solo writer enjoys. “It’s bad enough,” one of my patients told me, “to have to take notes from agents, producers, directors and actors. But having to take them from a writing partner is maddening.” This patient, as you may have guessed, had worked with a partner for years before going her own way.
Which brings up another dilemma that plagues writing partnerships: how you’re each perceived in the marketplace. Is one of you considered the more talented, funnier, easier to get along with? Within the partnership itself, is the division of labor fair, effective, logical? And who decides these concerns? Which of the two of you assumes the role of team spokesperson, agent liaison, the one who has the star’s ear on set?
And, lastly, what happens when the two writers grow in different directions? When, for example, one has ambitions to write dramatic film or TV scripts, while the other prefers to stay in comedy? When one writer wants to try his or her hand at a novel or play? Or decides to go on a three-month spiritual retreat? What does the partner do, sit around and wait? Or start looking for a new partner?
Which brings me, regrettably, to the aspect of writing partnerships that I’ve dubbed the Ugly: As I mentioned up front, I do see writing teams in my therapy practice, and usually for the same reason I see romantic couples—issues involving money, communication, power, jealousy and fear of abandonment.
As in any long-term relationship, a writing partnership creates an environment in which old interpersonal and intimacy issues emerge. Issues that existed long before you joined up as a team. Think about it. If the tools of communication are poor in other areas of your life, what makes you think you’ll deal with a writing partner in more effective ways? If you’re prone to envy, let’s say, this will prove to be true in the partnership as well. If, to avoid conflict, you surrender your own needs and beliefs in your other relationships, you’re likely to do the same in your writing partnership.
As I’ve seen in my office, these problems can become especially painful if the writing team is successful. Like the unhappy couple that stays together “for the sake of the children,” there are writing partners that stay together to maintain their level of professional success. “I can’t afford to get a divorce,” I’ve heard many a husband or wife say privately to me. I’ve heard many a member of a writing team tell me the same thing.
Now here’s the good news: As with most couples, the issues disrupting a writing partnership can usually be addressed and worked through if each of the writers is willing. However, as any therapist who does couples counseling will attest, there’s no one blueprint for achieving effective communication and fostering intimacy; each relationship, ultimately, is a mystery. The same is true for writing partnerships. Even productive, successful ones. Some days are good, some are bad, and some are just plain ugly.
Like with most things in life, the pleasures and pains of writing with a partner are particular to each writer and a function of that writer’s temperament. In other words, the more you know yourself, the better you’ll be able to decide if writing with a partner is right for you.
A former Hollywood screenwriter, Dennis Palumbo is now a licensed psychotherapist in private practice, as well as the author of the Daniel Rinaldi series of mysteries. For more info, please visit www.dennispalumbo.com (link is external)
Reposted From Psychology Today