Will write for crab cakes
A humorous essay about the joys of co-writing
Published: August 22, 2011
|I’m a humor writer. I’ve edited a dozen humor books, and my work has appeared in magazines ranging from The Christian Science Monitor to Beatniks From Space. My pal Janet is a history professor whose writing had been confined to academic books and journals and the occasional op-ed. On a drive back from the Jersey shore one day, we were kibitzing, and Janet had a funny idea. |
“That would make a good essay,” I told her.
“You can write it,” she said.
“Let’s write it together,” I suggested.
We came up with a plan. We’d turn Janet’s funny idea into a humor piece, sell it to The Funny Times, and spend the money on crab cakes at our favorite lunch spot the next time we went to the shore.
(Janet: I couldn’t turn Roz down—none of my other friends can ever take off midweek to go to the beach with me.)
I didn’t know whether Janet was serious about writing together, but when I got home, I came up with a good title, pulled together an adequate first draft, and emailed it to her. Within an hour, she’d punched up my lines, deleted what didn’t work, added some funny business of her own, and shot it back to me. With a better title. And thus, a writing partnership was born. The piece went back and forth till we couldn’t make it funnier. Then we submitted it to The Funny Times. The editors took it.
Acquiring a partner this late in my writing career was completely unexpected. I felt like the friend who’d had one of those late-in-life babies. You think the pattern of your life is set, then suddenly—surprise!
(Janet: At our age, a new writing partner is much better than a newborn.)
After a childhood watching the characters on The Dick Van Dyke Show cracking each other up in the writers room, I’d always suspected writing with another person might be fun. It is. And it’s easier, too. You know how it feels when you—creatively speaking—hit a wall? The piece needs something, but you don’t know how to make it right. With a partner, there’s always a door in that wall. When you’re stumped, you just open the door and lob the mess you’ve created at her. It comes back fixed. Or at least, improved. With Janet, I can even place an order. “The third paragraph needs a movie title that’s a pun about monetizing nature documentaries,” I once requested. Within moments, she came back with Crouching Tiger, Hidden Profits.
(Janet: Even though we live in the same neighborhood, walk together, and play on the same trivia team, we rarely talk about writing. It all takes place by email. If the president ever hits that Internet kill switch, we’re doomed.)
Acquiring a partner this late in my writing career was completely
unexpected. I felt like the friend who’d had one of those late-in-life
babies. You think the pattern of your life is set, then
Our brains don’t always work together as one. Janet once put a wisecracking baby elephant in an early draft. I didn’t think he was funny, so I deleted him when I returned it. When her redraft hit my inbox, he was back. As we sent it back and forth, redrafting and polishing, I kept removing the baby elephant, and Janet kept replacing him. Finally, the piece was done. Except for the elephant. In or out? By then I figured the piece was strong enough that an unfunny elephant wouldn’t stop an editor from taking it. Let the editor delete the elephant! I punched up the elephant’s lines, and he stayed in. Later, when I read “Gone With the Wildebeest” in print, I thought the baby elephant was hilarious.
(Janet: You’re welcome.) We’ve encountered a few unexpected glitches. Whenever I emailed one work-in-progress to Janet, it vanished. Turns out that her prudish spam filter kept dumping it in her spam folder because it contained the words “erectile dysfunction.”
(Janet: My spam filter obviously didn’t get the joke.)
We haven’t merged into a single Humor Writing Brain yet. We both continue to write solo. But I can count on Janet to add a funny line to anything I’m working on. (She hasn’t asked me to make any of her academic papers funnier. But I’d be happy to try.)
(Janet: My academic papers are hilarious enough already, thanks.)
Some ideas are best developed on my own. Others require Janet. Hearing that a new book claimed that some nature documentaries were staged, I imagined a director “giving direction” to a lion. It wasn’t a bad idea, but to make it work, I needed to know something about screenplays. Luckily, Janet has been working on a screenplay since I’ve known her. Putting our heads together, we got the job done. I never would have been able to write that one alone.
(Janet: One of these days, I really am going to sell that screenplay.)
Although we work well together, we don’t think alike. I love Terry Gross; Janet changes the channel when Fresh Air comes on. I spend my evenings reading magazines; Janet prefers movies. She’s happily married; I’m happily divorced. But we’re both opinionated and fairly clever. Neither of us is afraid of falling on her face when reaching for a joke. And we throw out each other’s lines, paragraphs and ideas with impunity because we both recognize that it’s not that important—it’s humor writing, not brain surgery. It’s fun. And there’s a big reward: crab cakes.
(Janet: Make that a tasty reward. The crab cakes are actually pretty small. It’s not as if we’re stuffing our faces like those morons who enter hot-dog-eating contests.)
So we sit at our respective computers, batting our work back and forth until it’s done. She’s in charge of keeping us moving forward, and I’m in charge of sending the completed work out. We’re currently working on a darkly comic mystery novel set in a suburban library. Who knows if it’ll sell? But we’re having a blast writing it.
(Janet: If it does sell, we’ll celebrate with crab cakes at the beach—in Aruba.)
So the next time you’re chatting with a friend and she comes up with a good idea, don’t just grab it. Offer to share. You never know what could happen. Maybe we’ll run into you enjoying crab cakes at the shore next summer.
(Janet: But please remember, the left front table is ours!)
Roz Warren and Janet Golden are a Philadelphia-based writing team whose work has appeared in The Funny Times, Metropolis/VoxPop and Women’s Voices for Change. Janet is a professor of history at Rutgers. For more about writer/editor Roz, go to her website, rosalindwarren.com.||