What 3 Great Creative Teams Did Differently

From the days of construction paper hearts with glued-on macaroni right on through to university, I always hated groupwork.

No matter if we were planning a book report or studying en masse for a major exam, one of two things would often happen: either the control freak in me would go rogue and take on way more of the project than I could  handle, or the other people in the group knew this about me and so would step back, making it so that I had to take on more than I could handle.

This system, although it stressed me out to the max, was one I thought “worked” for years.

The problem is, most of the world runs on teamwork and collaboration of some kind.

And the creative stuff, be it painting a portrait or writing a beautiful piece of software, is certainly no exception.

From your new earworm’s producer, songwriter, lyricist, and recording artist to the teams behind major artistic movements, collaboration is essential not only to inspiring great creative works, but making these works relevant to as wide an audience as possible.

So what do great collaborative teams do differently? And how can we do it that way, too? Here are the stories of three different teams, and how they have gotten things done.

Elton John and Bernie Taupin

  • Elton John and Bernie Taupin have together been writing iconic pop songs like “Crocodile Rock” and “Bennie and the Jets” for almost 50 years.They’re musical legends, not the least for the power and longevity of their artistic partnership. So how have they collaborated so well for so long?
  • The reality is that they haven’t; Taupin largely writes the lyrics himself, and John sets the songs to music. They rarely see each other.
  • As Taupin revealed in a 2015 Rolling Stone interview: “The fact is, you have to see each other for [resentments] to happen. We live such separate lives. We are two separate people. I think had we been the same kind of personalities and been in close proximity of each other these past years, I think there probably would have been a more acrimonious kind of thing between the two of us.”

Andy Warhol and Jean-Michel Basquiat

  • Two of the great masters of modern American art met for the first time in 1980:
  • Jean-Michel Basquiat and Andy Warhol.
  • Prodded along by art dealer Bruno Bischofberger, Baqsuiat and Warhol began to collaborate on a series of paintings that sought to erase boundaries between the “high” and the “low”, melding the street art that so inspired Basquiat with Warhol’s Hollywood pop sensibility.
  • They were collaborators until 1985, and often worked on the same canvas at the same time.

The Impressionists Who Almost Weren’t

  • When Renoir, Cézanne, Monet, Morisot, and other artists mounted an exhibition in 1874, they called themselves the “ Société Anonyme des Artistes”.
  • But after art critic Louis Leroy, referencing Monet’s painting “Impression, Sunrise”, jeeringly called the group “Impressionists” in a review, the name stuck and they mounted seven additional exhibitions together.
  • In this case, the artistic collaboration was already present, but without the art critic’s mocking epithet, we might not have remembered the “Société Anonyme des Artistes” as readily as we do the Impressionists.
  • Louis Leroy unwittingly became a collaborator in the creation of a major art movement.

“I’ll always be grateful to the public of intelligent amateurs.”
–Paul Cézanne  

It’s almost enough for me to rethink groupwork.


It’s My 10th Craziversary! Let’s party!

Hey there,

…and welcome to my 10th Craziversary Celebration! That bean casserole you brought looks delicious, and please help yourself to the chips and guacamole–what do you mean., you don’t see any guacamole? It’s right th–nah, I’m just messing with you. It is a Craziversary party, after all. Oh, you don’t know what a Craziversary party is? Let me fill you in. 

Ten years ago today, I was the happiest I’d ever felt. It seemed like everything I’d ever known about, thought, or believed was coming together in a perfect synergy of ideas that were going to solve all of the world’s problems as I saw them. I was Plato’s Philosopher King (well, Queen, but Plato couldn’t get everything right), the reincarnation of Jeanne d’Arc (didn’t dwell too much on the obvious theological quandary of a saint getting reincarnated, but whatevs) and, most importantly, the world’s largest tech companies had recruited me to lead a global Creative Revolution that would dismantle the unjust systems propping up the fears and ideologies I hated the most–racism, homophobia and transphobia, fascism. Shit looked promising for me. 

So why was I lying on a hospital guerney, cackling madly at hidden cameras that weren’t really there, in a psych evaluation room where the chairs were chained to the floor (obviously a representation of Plato’s Parable of the Cave)?

And why was I being interrogated “psychiatric residents” who were, it was nakedly obvious to me, really employees of Google?

The short version is that I was extremely ill. 

The longer version is that an erratic sleep schedule, excessive amounts of natural supplements, large doses of antidepressants, self-medication with alcohol, and a rocky breakup all teamed up with my existing bipolar disorder symptoms to take me down in a psychosis-filled blaze of glory. 

I spent two months in the hospital that time, but the reality is that I’ve been continuously recovering ever since. I actually hate the word “recovered” because it implies some sort of weird hierarchy where the mostly asymptomatic (like me, these days) are placed on some kind of pedestal above those who still find every day to be a symptom-laden struggle. That hierarchy is garbage. Instead I like to say that my mania and depression are “in remission”, because they still need to be monitored very closely. 

This Craziversary, I’m not celebrating “winning” my tug-of-war with my maverick brain. Instead, I’m celebrating the strength it takes to carry on with the tug-of-war itself, and all those brave people who pull for their side every day–even on the days when it feels like a loss.

Especially on the days when it feels like a loss. 

So sit back, enjoy some imaginary guacamole, and watch this Claymation remake of Bringing Up Baby starring the voices of Kyra Sedgwick and Slyvester Stallone. It’s okay if you can’t see or hear it–I can’t these days, either. But this Craziversary, I’m celebrating all those tough and wonderful people who, despite their best efforts, still can. 

What to Do When Your Beginner Stuff Sucks

A couple of years ago, I stole the words of a 16-year-old writer and passed them off as my own. In a writing contest. For money. Pretty evil, right?

Well, I passed the words off as my own because they were my own…just 11th-grade “my own”.

Yep, like my pretentious “McCarthyist” Hallowe’en costume, strangely floppy haircut, and militant veganism,  the words I re-used yesterday were born of a time when I was unaware of how blissfully un-self-aware I was.

At 16 I thought I was nigh on enlightened.  I read Alan Watts books and listened to Patti Smith on repeat. I was a poet, for chrissakes. Obviously, I knew what was up. So my poetry had to be pretty great, too, right?


Well, it didn’t stink, and it even won me a couple of contests. During this time, I learned that

a) 6-hour flights are actually pretty fun when you’re not jammed into economy class (thanks, scholarship!)

and b) it’s normal for 16-year-olds to receive fan mail and talk to Pulitzer Prize winners on the phone.

You know, those universal truths that apply to every teenager and make you have a balanced, even view of your own importance. Oh, and I never edited a single word of my poetry back then. Here’s part of what I submitted to the Bridport Prize in 2009:

Rot showed

in teeth, in trellis. “No place,” she hissed, “to grow

a world.” She wrote in books, kept everything defined

as it pleased her—inked in characters, lines,

gaps in the woodwork. A bright shock of candles

revealed where anonymous rodents ambled

inside. She was handsome, our encyclopedia—

inaccurate face, pale as anemia

patients’, and poorly arranged in a grin.

Her hands: cramped, curled, their skin

thin and marbled as vellum. She droned

on about lepers on islands, alone

and ravaged (“At least the guards had their guns

to love”), though the lepers, she knew, had done

it: they were happy.

It rambles on like that for two pages. I *think* somewhere buried in the inscrutable ruins of page 2 is some sort of weak point about racism, but that is as much as I can figure out.

Point is, I just dashed the thing off and sent it away from the nest long before it had legs, let alone could fly. That’s how I thought writers wrote.

I’m reminded of that famous Mark Twain quote:

“Substitute ‘damn’ every time you’re inclined to write ‘very’; your editor will delete it and the writing will be just as it should be.”

My old writing includes copious metaphorical “damns” AND “verys”, but I didn’t have the perspective–wouldn’t let myself have perspective, more like–to see and delete them.

But I had ideas, gobs and gobs of ideas, and patient mentors who guided my hand like a stern but kind piano teacher making me do scales.

I’ve met a few young writers like me–either too cocksure or too unsure, and either way they usually have no idea what makes their “good” work good and their “bad” work bad. Every 16-year-old writer needs a very damn good editor to help them over this awkward hump. Which brings me to the time I reused my work.

I hadn’t looked at this one poem, which I wrote half for a friend and half for a poetry contest, in years. But the more I read through it, the more I realized I was mentally salvaging the bits that worked and chucking everything else, adding new starts and better stops. Editing my overexcited 16-year-old self. The result? I ended up with a piece for a contest I thought I’d have to skip that year. Guess I inadvertently took to heart the whole “put it in a drawer and look at it later” dictum. Just much, much later.  

To your past and future embarrassments–may they yield you material.

Everyone’s an Impostor

Recently I was working studiously on my book manuscript watching minipig videos on YouTube when a familiar wave of self-recrimination and doubt washed over me. This wasn’t my garden-variety (for me) anxiety and panic attacks, but something of an altogether different nature.

It was the general sense, quite plainly, that I was a fraud, that I wasn’t smart enough or a good enough writer to complete the projects I have set out for myself or, ultimately, create the life I want to live.

I knew what this thing was called, which almost made it worse (you know, how your cough seems really mild until WebMD tells you 27 things it might be a symptom of?). It’s called Impostor Syndrome, coined in 1978 by the psychologists Pauline R. Clance and Suzanne A. Imes to describe high-achieving (female) Oberlin College students who felt like they didn’t deserve the successes they had in life.

But is this thing really a psychological syndrome? Because, like, I *really* don’t need another damn syndrome. Or is impostor syndrome, in itself, an impostor? 

First off, a story.  In 1894, for the very first time, a French translation of the poetry of lady-lovin’ Greek poetess Bilitis (a contemporary of Sappho!)  was published in Paris. The volume included an introduction to her life by a respected archaeologist and an index of the previously-unpublished poems featured in French for the first time.

The volume’s translator was Pierre Louÿs, who up until that point was somewhat known for his own erotic poetry. Louÿs went on to rub shoulders with the likes of Oscar Wilde and Claude Debussy–the latter even wrote companion music to Louÿs’ Chansons de Bilitis. It was a crowning literary achievement! Right? 

Well, yes and no. It was, and still is, a great example of French poetry (particularly erotic poetry) of the time. But the thing is, it’s written in very Baudelaire-esque prose poems, a form about as natively French as a crusty baguette. And that respected archaeologist who helped craft the narrative of Bilitis’ life? His name was “Herr G. Heim”, which loosely translates to English as “Mr. S. Ecret.” 

Yep. Pierre Louÿs invented the whole damn thing. He’s a French guy who made up a Lesbian poet.  (I’m tempted to do the whole thing in reverse and be “the lesbian poet who made up a French guy”, but I digress.) 

So why am I telling you all this?

Thing 1)

Most people who have success have to deal with “impostor syndrome” at some point in their lives. It’s not a syndrome, but a near-universal experience, and it’s certainly not relegated only to women.

As L.V. Anderson writes in a Slate article from April 2016, Pauline R. Clance has backpedaled. Big time. She regrets calling it a syndrome, and concedes that it happens to everyone (including, according to Wikipedia at this writing,  “Tom Hanks Chuck Lorre,Neil Gaiman,John Green,Tommy Cooper, Sheryl Sandberg, Sonia Sotomayor, and  Emma Watson.”) 

Thing 2) 

Even if we’re all really a bunch of frauds, sometimes being a fraud has almost no consequences. In 1922, Pierre Louÿs was made “Officier de la Légion d’honneur” in France in recognition of his work as a man of letters, and his work continues to be influential today. One of the earliest lesbian women’s organizations in the United States co-opted the name and became “The Daughters of Bilitis” in 1955, because it was obscure enough of a reference that most people wouldn’t know what they were talking about. Point is, even a fraud like Louÿs or a “fraud” like you or I can enjoy enormous success if one can learn to turn off one’s own self-doubt. Which is hard. Damn. 

I’ve been writing this with minipig videos playing in the background. They seem to snort derisively every time I type “fraud”. 

What AI Can’t Write

If you’re a creative writer who’s been following recent developments in AI and related technologies while chewing your fingernails down to bloody nubs, I have great news: the robots are not after your job.

 At least, not exactly. They can write content (sometimes riddled with factual inaccuracies -two recent ChatGPT sessions about a writing colleague of mine gave him two separate birth years and credited him with two novels he’d never written), they can write pretty credible passages in a certain style if given enough information, and they can write in a way that sounds like someone (you) gave them a template to follow. AI can also write content that might work to promote a B2B business, and articles about as accurate as a Wikipedia page written prior to 2021. 

AI can also write a blog post. Or can it? 

A middle-aged femme-presenting person wearing a cardboard and foil robot costume.

I asked ChatGPT to write me a 1000-word blog post about whether or not AI could write creatively. After prattling on for a while about what “creativity” is and whether or not AI could theoretically be creative, out popped this paragraph: 

“The truth lies somewhere in the middle. While AI can produce works that are original and impressive, it is unlikely that it can truly replicate the depth and complexity of human creativity. This is because creativity is not just about producing something new, but about the underlying thought processes and emotional experiences that lead to the creation of something truly original.”

(Which actually just means that this was the general sentiment of the language model used to train ChatGPT.)

All art, as hippy-dippy as it feels to me to write it, is at its core about feeling and connection.You can’t make your three-act play cause someone to feel catharsis if you’ve never felt it yourself. You can’t write a novel about heartbreak if you haven’t felt, or at the very least seen others feel, similarly distraught. And you can’t make someone connect to your painting of your pet goat, Sigmund, if you don’t love Sigmund enough to paint his portrait in the first place. Feeling and connection are to creativity what umami is to the palate: we can taste salt and sugar without it, but when you add it in you experience a richness that you couldn’t have gotten any other way.

AI can also be seriously wrong (as in, errors of fact), like Google Bard erroneously claiming in a public demo that the James Webb Space Telescope “took the very first pictures of a planet outside of our own solar system.”. That gaffe (exoplanets were first discovered using European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope) cost Google $100 Billion in plummeting stock.

AI, clearly, can make mistakes. Big ones. But what it can’t do is defend them, wallow in them, make them into song lyrics, get into a fight because of them, or use them as a reason to drown their sorrows at the neighbourhood pub. Chatbots and other forms of AI are dependent on the data models that their human creators have fed them. All the messy idiosyncrasies of being human aren’t understood by humans themselves (think of how much we still don’t know about how human brains process memory, for example). So how could a human train a chatbot on a set of data that doesn’t (as yet) exist? We cannot accurately map the human feelings of falling in love, stubbing one’s toe, almost drowning, or being provoked to seething rage. As of present writing (March 2023), we therefore can’t train an AI to map them into its neural network, either. Therefore, it can’t show signs of fully understanding these experiences.

You can also tell ChatGPT a style to write in, but it does poorly when coming up with metaphors of its own. ChatGPT and similar systems are trained on large samples from existing language patterns, so their metaphor output is rife with cliches. I asked ChatGPT to write 7 original metaphors for falling asleep, and here’s what it came up with: 

  1. Drifting off to dreamland like a boat on a calm sea.
  2. Falling asleep is like diving into a soft, fluffy pillow.
  3. The sensation of drifting off to sleep is like being wrapped in a warm, cozy blanket.
  4. Falling asleep is like a gentle, slow-motion freefall into a peaceful slumber.
  5. Sleep is like a soft, warm cloud that gently envelopes and lulls you to rest.
  6. Slipping into slumber is like slowly sinking into a feather bed.
  7. Falling asleep is like a slow, steady fade into a serene and restful state of mind.

These examples are neutered of all personality, to be sure, but each one of these suggestions also feels deeply unoriginal, even if we’ve never seen this exact combination of words before. You can’t (as of yet) train a bot into generating fresh and exciting language. You can’t, therefore, give its output the same level of personality as something created by humans.

Which brings me to the other day. I was watching an episode of the TV show Arthur with my two-year-old niece. We were watching the episode where Mr. Ratburn, the third grade teacher, is getting married and the class hatches a plot to make him fall in love with the local librarian. They go so far as to write the (female) librarian a love letter “from” Mr. Ratburn. Aside from the obvious flaw of Mr. Ratburn being in love with a man, the plan falls apart right here. You can tell a group of 8-year-old anthropomorphic animals exactly what Mr. Ratburn looks and sounds like, but when all is said and done they still have all the limitations of third graders. When they try to write a love letter to a librarian, it comes across as disingenuous – particularly as they have incorrectly spelled the word “library” multiple times.  

AI has all the limitations of AI. Poets, novelists, screenwriters, and essayists (and especially that original: you!) just don’t.

Be The Best Reject

Imagine we’re at a cocktail party so fancy you can’t pronounce the hors d’oeuvres. At some point, I sidle up to you and introduce myself this way:

“Hi, I’m Sadie, and I’m a seasoned professional Reject. I’ve been writing poetry and fiction for over 10 years, and my work has been rejected by the best in the business–everyone from Seventeen to The New Yorker.

I don’t mean to brag, but I’m actually waiting for ten rejection form letters right now.

I’m kind of a big deal in the rejection world.”

Wouldn’t that change the way you felt about my writing ability, whether or not you’d read any of my work? 

And isn’t that awful? I mean, should rejection really change the way any of us feel about our own, or others’, creative output? 

What if the value of music was determined by how many people didn’t listen?

Or the importance of photographic prints was dictated by how many people decided not to buy one? 

Here’s the thing: I really *have* been rejected an awful lot of times. And I’ve learned a few things–the hard way–about how to deal with rejection and keep your Creative Spirit (TM) mostly intact. 

A) Maybe you’re just not the right fit. And maybe that’s okay.

In elementary school, I auditioned for the part of Young Cosette in a local high school’s production of Les Mis. I was way too tall for the part, and my voice cracked in the middle of “Castle On a Cloud”. I wasn’t going to be Young Cosette. But you know what? The two girls who ended up sharing the role were absolutely perfect for it. It just wasn’t the right fit for me. I’d much rather be told “no” than end up in a part or situation (or magazine) I wasn’t really prepared for.

B) You’re not the only one.

This one might seem obvious right now, but it’s amazingly easy to forget when you’ve just been snubbed by an amazing literary journal you’ve been poring over for years Seek like-minded company who’ve had similar experiences, and remember that every successful person has to be unsuccessful (at least, some of the time). 

C) Rejection means you haven’t given up. 

“I love my rejection slips. They show me I try.” – Sylvia Plath

The best rejection letter I have ever received was from Gaspereau Press, a small publisher of drool-worthy letterpress books. The handwritten note read, in part (italics mine): 

“My advice is to keep doing what you’re doing…Keep showing your work around…Keep honing your craft and finding your voice. What you are doing has merit. Don’t lose heart.

D) Celebrate the little successes.  

At the age of 19, I brashly submitted one of my poems to The Walrus. I had been told by “real” poets I knew that I had to build up a thick skin by submitting everywhere and then getting rejected everywhere (which, um, didn’t always work, but I digress). Imagine my surprise when in my inbox there was, not an acceptance letter, and not a rejection letter,  but a rejection with an invitation to send more work directly to the managing editor.

I felt like I had a golden ticket to Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory. 

You’ve probably had successes like that. Maybe you have a teacher who always told you to keep going, or a slam piece people remember from an open mic years ago, or a random person on the bus who recognizes you from a community theatre play you were in. These successes, though they seem small, are enormously valuable. They are empirical proof that your creative output matters to someone besides you and your childhood stuffed animal collection. (Fret not, though – Mr. Fluffers will always be your #1 hype man.)

9 Hard-Won Submissions Truths I Wish I’d Known on Day 1

At the risk of sounding like a geezer cracking wise in a rocking chair on my dusty front porch, I’ve been doing this whole “send your writing out to magazines” thing for quite a while now. I’ve learned a few important facts about writing submissions in that time – facts I would have given a kidney actual cash for if I could have known about them in advance. I’m giving them to you here for free, in the hopes that you won’t have to make all the big mistakes I did. Here they are:

A pair of gorilla hands type a writing submission at a Mac-style keyboard, a yellow prop banana close by.
  1. Don’t assume anything.

You don’t know as much about submissions as you think you do. Did you check each publication’s submissions guidelines? Odds are, they’re all different. Did you assume your poem goes right to the Editor-in-Chief? More than likely, it’s screened by an overworked slush pile volunteer. Did you address that managing editor named “Jordan MacKenzie” as “Ms. MacKenzie” without knowing the person’s actual pronouns? Yikes. There’s a lot you don’t know you don’t know. The sooner you accept this, the sooner you can start learning it all! 

  1. Be prepared to wait – measured in months and years, not days (or even weeks).

Magazines and journals are busy and intricate enterprises. Your writing might go through several rounds of editorial consideration, which can take months.(Many months, sometimes, if the staff have shortlisted your piece for potential publication.) I have had longer work, like book manuscripts, take over a year before I heard back. Patience is the name of the game, so get comfy and grab a beverage. You’ll be here a while. 

  1. Don’t depend on “name brand” journals – especially early in your career. 

Truth: most writers want to be in The New Yorker. Harsher truth: most writers will never end up in The New Yorker. It’s wonderful to think big and even to fantasize about having your essay in Yale Review or Ploughshares. But it’s a numbers game: the more name recognition a magazine has, the greater the likelihood that they get a staggering number of submissions. It’s all well and good to submit to these places (because hey, you never know!), but don’t depend on them as the backbone of your submissions strategy. Backs, when stacked with that much pressure, tend to break. 

  1. You will get rejected. A lot. Learn how to fall. 

I’ve been rejected over 200 times (and those are just the ones I kept track of in Submittable). Rejection is the most likely outcome for every literary submission. “How to be rejected gracefully” is one of the most important muscles you can exercise as a submitting writer. Practice being a “gracious loser”. Mentally congratulate the writers whose work is getting to be where your work isn’t; you’d want the same from them. 

  1. Rejection will hurt you. 

The first time I was ever broken up with romantically, I cried so much that it felt like there was no fluid left in my body. You won’t cry that much (hopefully) over a writing rejection, but you will still face disappointments. Some of these may sting. Maybe that contest you thought you had a really good chance at was a “no”. Maybe the same piece keeps getting rejected over and over again. Whatever the reason, bear witness to your own discomfort, and know that this, too, (however unpleasant) is a natural and expected part of the submissions process. Remember to breathe, sleep, and do the equivalent of eating your Wheaties. It will be okay. 

  1. Rejection might also help you

Maybe you sent that short story to a publication that wasn’t the best fit. Maybe, after submitting your poetry to X magazine, you hear about Y contest that would have been perfect for it. Sometimes, a rejection is liberating because it enables you to find where the work was actually supposed to go. One of my book manuscripts was rejected because it read (to the press’ editors) like it was written by multiple different people. The same book then found my dream publisher, ECW Press, and exceeded all of my most feverish expectations. Even the paper they printed the book on is perfect. If your work has been rejected, ask yourself: “is there a bigger ‘yes’ waiting for me somewhere else?”

  1. Don’t develop too thick of a skin. 

This runs counter to most advice about rejection. “Develop a thick skin”, editors and casting managers say, “and the criticism will just bounce right off.” That’s exactly the problem: criticism in all its forms is how we learn, develop, and rise to challenges as writers. If we get too toughened by the process, we treat all rejection as someone else’s fault instead of inspecting our sentence structure or submissions strategy and seeing what we might try differently the next time. Rejection and criticism are important feedback if we let them be. Don’t let them bounce off you – but don’t absorb them like a sponge, either. They’re trying to tell you important things about your writing career, not permeate the darkest crevices of your soul.

  1. Acceptance is a gift – not an inheritance.

Never treat acceptance as something you’re expecting to happen. This isn’t a trust fund, and the friendly, underpaid editors to whom you’re submitting don’t owe you jack. If you get a piece accepted, then wonderful! But that’s not a reliable benchmark, and there is only one guarantee in the writing world. 

  1. Good news: the only guarantee is completely within your control.

The only guarantee is that you keep growing and maturing as a writer, and -this part is crucial – that you keep writing.  

I once met an English professor acquaintance who needled me about my (at the time, still very young and bad)  writing career. He eventually confessed that he, too, had wanted to be a writer – but he quit because he couldn’t handle the constant rejection. It wasn’t worth it to him. 
I hope it’s worth it to you, because now we can’t read that guy’s stories and poems. But we still have a shot – a big, terrific shot –  at reading yours.