To Skype, To Write, To Publish?

Posted by Michael on April 30, 2013

By Brian Kahn

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(Photo above: Home office)

The Skype call ends and I pull my headphones out of my ears. I look down at the blinking cursor in the chat window in my quiet apartment and type a note to Emily, my writing partner.  
"How do you think that went?" I ask, referring to the interview we just conducted with a source based in Pasadena for our To Think, To Write, To Publish story on climate model uncertainty. It's a topic Emily and I discussed in person when we met at the first To Think workshop in October. It was a discussion that led me to want to collaborate with her for our yearlong fellowship.
"Emily is typing" flashes on the screen.
"Pretty good! What do you think?" comes the reply a second later.
"I think we got some good stuff! :)," I type back*. "Let's talk a little more later. I gotta go get dinner ready. Catch ya later."
"Sounds good. Bye!"
With that, I close my laptop and shuffle from my table to the kitchen counter to chop some vegetables for tonight's dinner in New York. In Pittsburg, Emily turns to wrapping up her PhD and preparing to move to Cambridge, Massachusetts. 
Up until this point in my relatively short writing career, I've worked as a lone wolf: every story I've written has been under my byline and my byline only. Sure I've dealt with editors, but the process of writing has been my own to grapple with and establish as I see fit. With To Think, I've suddenly been tossed into a world where I have to know how to work the three-way call option on Skype and be accountable to someone other than myself. 
I won't lie. At first it was a bit unnerving. I mean, you have no idea how difficult it is to set up a three-way call on Skype. Plus I know how my process works and its worked for me to date. Why mess with a good thing? 
As we delved into our story, though, I began to realize the benefits of working with a collaborator. I have a bit of rash streak and am prone to pursuing tangents. Working with Emily has helped temper those instincts, and I feel our story is the better for it. 
The collaborative nature of To Think also lends itself to a different kind of give and take from the traditional editor/writer relationship. We're not just in the same boat trying to get it going in the same direction. We're doing the same job. We identified our source in Pasadena, drafted questions for them in a shared Google Doc and struggled with the mercurial nature of Skype together. 
Even when we're not pulling on the same oar, our work has been at times mirror image. Emily has in-person access to two of our sources. That's led her to take the lead in writing those sections of our story while I've crafted our Skype interviews and how we imagine life inside a climate model into scenes. Then we've swapped parts, edited each other and come back together to create transitions so the pieces become a whole.
This isn't to say our collaboration has been all smooth sailing. Life beyond To Think has altered how we approach the piece. Big professional events such as Emily finishing her dissertation and moving on to a postdoc at MIT and big personal ones such as my taking a backpacking trip in Hawaii (not a fair exchange, I know) have slowed us down. Luckily we've managed to navigate these doldrums and our story has stayed (mostly) on track.
When I first jumped into To Think, I thought the most important skill I would gain would be how to effectively use creative nonfiction to communicate science and innovation policy. In this regard, To Think has not disappointed.
However, I've also realized there's another key skill I'm learning: how to be an effective collaborator. While I've become proficient enough to troubleshoot Skype, I know I'm still a ways from being the perfect writing partner. Still, To Think has certainly helped me make inroads. I hope Emily agrees.
* Full disclosure: I wasn't a big user of emoticons until To Think, To Write, To Publish. I'm not sure this development is exactly what Lee and David had in mind when they started the program in 2010.