Two years ago, my husband had a crackerjack idea for a dystopian novel set in a unique world. He made the mistake of telling me, his wife, The Writer. He designs computer chips. Sure, he can fix my laptop, but he doesn’t use it to craft words into perfect prose. How could he, of all people, develop this concept?
But the idea was good. It was really good. Being a benevolent soul, I offered to write it myself. He said no. I said please. He said no way. We batted it around for a few days and came up with the perfect compromise: We decided to write it together.
And yes, we’re still married.
Through trial and error, we developed a process that works for us, building off each other’s strengths. I add more emotion to his chapters, and he spices mine up with action and suspense. Sometimes we respectfully agree to disagree on a plot point or a particular scene and move on. But as someone who has spent almost three decades writing under a single byline, this project makes me wonder: How do partnerships work? I interviewed three writing couples who work in three genres, and each stressed two critical elements: mutual trust and respect. The prose isn’t going to sing if you think the other guy is a hack. They also cited other benefits. You can’t skip work and sneak away to the gym when another person relies on you. And it certainly cuts out the loneliness of working alone.
Of course, all partners have quarrels, but the arguments can never be personal. You have to work at the relationship, even in times of deadline stress. David Isaacs, who has written screenplays with his partner Ken Levine for more than 40 years, sums it up in a way that makes sense to me – and to my better half. “It’s like a marriage,’’ he says. “If you don’t find a way to respect and accommodate the other person from time to time, you’re going to get a divorce.”
Sheila Heen and Douglas Stone are professional arbiters who teach negotiation at Harvard Law School. They have been collaborating for more than 20 years, and their lives are enmeshed in more ways than one. They run a consulting company, write business books together, teach negotiation skills to high-end clients including Fortune 500 companies and the White House and, perhaps most important, they are close friends. In fact, they are so simpatico that when they finish a project, they can’t remember who wrote what.
They met in 1991 when she was a student at Harvard Law and he was teaching at the Harvard Negotiation Project. After she graduated, she joined the project full time, and the two began discussing what would become their first book, Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most. It took seven years to write. “It was an emotional rollercoaster,’’ says Heen. For Stone, it was more than that. He had worked as a lawyer for several years, then tried his luck with screenwriting, and then returned to Harvard Law to teach part time. “I didn’t have a Plan B, and I didn’t want to go back to practicing law. I would rather have gone to jail,’’ he says. “I had to write the book because I had no other plan to make a living.”
Difficult Conversations, a primer on how to apply negotiation strategies to everyday situations, has sold more than a million copies since it was published in 1999.
They have honed a unique system for writing over the years. First, they create a chapter outline, and then each tackles a chapter alone. After a few days, they trade chapters. But they don’t track changes. Their only goal is to improve the prose. “We are trying to combat our perfectionism,’’ says Heen. “It is more fun to work on something that is better than it is work on something that is a total disaster.” That could mean changing a few words, doing a complete rewrite or scrapping the whole manuscript and starting from scratch.
They pass the chapters back and forth until each is satisfied. “There is no permission,’’ explains Heen. “There is the assumption that we both have good intentions.” Each chapter often ends up going through 30 to 40 drafts until they agree that it’s right.
That process would drive some writers crazy, but by working this way, they eventually develop a unique voice that blends both styles. When they were beginning their second book, Thanks for the Feedback: The Science and Art of Receiving Feedback Well, they weren’t sure what voice to use. Stone came up with a concept late one night. The book begins with an anecdote about someone who has been “graded, rated, and ranked. Coached, screened, and scored. I’ve been picked first, picked last, and not picked at all. And that was just in kindergarten.” The voice is edgy, designed to enable the reader to be a first-person participant, not a third-person observer. “I emailed it to Sheila at two in the morning,’’ Stone says. “I said I was so excited I wasn’t going to be able to sleep.”
The emails fly back and forth, at all hours of the day, and the two authors balance each other out. She tends to hold onto ideas, even if they aren’t working. He has no trouble deleting problematic prose. “If it is just not going to work, I get rid of it. I’m good at killing our ugly children, our nondarlings,” Stone says.
The partnership is all encompassing, considering that they also conduct negotiation workshops together all over the world. But they have an unspoken agreement that they don’t talk shop when socializing. Heen, who is married to another Harvard Law graduate, has three children, and Stone is a frequent guest at their home. “It is rare for us to talk about the work when we are being social,” Heen says. “Doug is close friends with my husband and with each of my kids.”
Despite such strong kinship, the partnership does have its, well, moments. When you work closely with someone and are under deadline stress, little idiosyncrasies can become huge. Stone had a habit of adding extra spaces between sentences, and it annoyed Heen. They had an exchange about it.
“I thought it was her problem,” Stone says. But now he is obsessive about deleting the extra spaces.
Most of the time, however, the two authors find comfort knowing they’re not alone in the proverbial writers’ room. “There is the feeling that we’re in this together, and if this is going to be terrible, it will be terrible together,” Stone says.
And there is also the reassuring notion that someone else can help. “It is like magic,” Stone says. “If you can’t fix something, someone else can fix it.” Heen nods emphatically. “It’s like you have elves in the back room.”
Mollie Miller and Natasha Garland agree that there is certain kind of magic in a partnership. They have been working on a screenplay together for two years, and they feel more confident knowing they share the same goals. “There is so much brainstorming, and it saves you from bad ideas,” Garland says. “You talk them out before you write pages and pages and end up in a corner.”
The two met many years ago in New England and remained friends after Garland moved to Italy 15 years ago. Miller has an MFA in directing from the University of Southern California (where Isaacs and Levine teach), has directed TV movies for Disney Studios and has had several scripts end up in what she describes as “developmental hell.” Garland is a marketer by day and has written several screenplays on her own.
When Garland returned to the U.S. for a visit two years ago, Miller had a concept for a script, but was having trouble getting motivated. On a whim, she asked Garland to collaborate. “It was a serendipitous fluke,” Miller recalls. “Some people said, ῾What are you thinking? Never write with anyone.’ But I had a selfish desire to spend more time with Tash.”
Miller lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and Garland lives outside Florence, but they’ve worked out a routine to accommodate the distance and the time difference. They try to write together five days a week, in five- to six-hour stretches. They connect online via Skype, which can be frustrating when the Internet goes down at Garland’s home. They talk through each line as they work, and they take turns typing. It helps to hear each line read aloud, sometimes over and over. “It sets your bullshit meter a little higher than if you were just seeing it on the page,” Miller says.
Their partnership nurtures both the project and the long-distance friendship. “It works because we have a deep knowledge of each other,” Miller says. “We approach things differently, but there is a mutual respect.” Miller focuses on details, while Garland keeps an eye on the big picture. They are on their seventh draft of All About Yu, a screenplay that takes place in China and New York. They have shown the script to several friends in the film industry and have received positive feedback.
The friendship doesn’t guarantee there won’t be disagreements. Like Stone and Heen, they had a flare-up over something trivial: typos. Garland is a messy typist, which frustrates Miller. “I made a snarky remark – ῾I can’t see through all these typos’ – and Tasha called me a bitch. I am not proud of that moment. I felt that my bossy steamroller thing got the best of me. We apologized and moved on.”
That problem was easily solved, but Miller has collaborated with other screenwriters with less success. Years ago, she was working on a screenplay about a group of nuns in Belgium. Her husband, Robert Rodat (who won an Academy Award for the screenplay Saving Private Ryan) volunteered to rewrite it. When he gave it back, it was unrecognizable. “It was too Hollywood, and I’ve never been able to pick it apart to put it back together,” she says. “That was the end of that.”
Her partnership with Garland has lasted. “Tasha is super smart, and it’s great to get into her brain,” she says. Making the commitment to know another person on this level is half the battle. “It is hard to lock yourself away for eight hours a day, and this is a really good example of sticking with something that isn’t this fantasy of writing in this pristine room all alone, with the chaos of life going on outside,” adds Miller.
The chaos can sometimes involve a sketchy online connection, and as if on cue, our Skype call is interrupted near the end of our early morning interview. We eventually reconnect, talk for a few more minutes and then I sign off. It’s easy to see how this method might be challenging. But Miller and Garland stay online, ready to begin another day of long-distance writing.
Life after the army
The partnership of David Isaacs and Ken Levine sounds like something out of an Irving Berlin musical. In 1973, they were both serving a two-week U.S. Army Reserve tour of duty at Fort Carson in Colorado. One day, Levine noticed that Isaacs was reading a biography of one of his idols, the playwright George S. Kaufman, and the two struck up a conversation. They were both aspiring comedy writers, and they shared the same heroes: Mel Brooks, Woody Allen, Jonathan Winters, Larry Gelbart. A few months later, they met at the legendary Hamburger Hamlet in Los Angeles and decided to work together to break into the world of TV sitcoms.
Both 23, they were ambitious, but neither knew the first thing about screenwriting. “We didn’t know what the hell we were doing,” Levine recalls. They got together every Saturday night to watch The Mary Tyler Moore Show, which they audiotaped on a cassette recorder. Week after week, they wrote an outline for each episode and analyzed it. That process seems archaic in these times of 24/7 viewing, but it was enormously helpful to the two young writers. “Those were wonderful days,’’ Isaacs recalls. “Neither of us had any kind of social life, and it gave us a place to be on a Saturday night. It cost us nothing, but we got a wonderful education.”
Two years later, they sold their first script, an episode of The Jeffersons. They quit their day jobs, and they’ve been working together ever since. It did, however, take time for them to get established. “We immediately went on unemployment for about six months,” Isaacs says. Levine doesn’t skip a beat. “We did not come shooting out of the cannon right away,” he adds. After working together for 40 years, the two men have a habit of echoing each other’s thoughts.
In the early years, they established a writing routine. Isaacs wrote the scripts longhand, and Levine later typed them. They eventually landed gigs on the writing staff of M*A*S*H and later Cheers, where they honed their process. A secretary took dictation as they worked, which opened up the creative process. “You didn’t obsess as much over each line,” Levine says. “You didn’t have that feeling that this line has to be perfect before I move on to the next line.”
They’ve been nominated for an Emmy Award numerous times and won in 1992 for an episode of Cheers. But it’s not only the awards and the financial success that keeps them together: It’s the joy that comes from the partnership. They describe themselves as Regular Joes who meet every morning at 9:30 a.m. and plug away until lunchtime. They’re both family guys with five children between them. “We’re boring,” Levine says. As usual, Isaacs concurs. “We had an agent who told us we would make more money if we were crazier,” he says. “Another agent took us out to dinner at The Palm and said, ῾I’m going to switch you guys to another agent because you are boring the shit out of me.’’’
They share not only the same work habits; they also share a sensibility. The best comedy, they say, comes out of character. Like the other writing pairs, they honestly don’t know who wrote what when they finish a script. “It sounds like I’m being coy, but we really can’t remember,” Levine explains. “Each of us will pitch a line, and the other will change a word. We shape it back and forth. We really do collaborate on every line.”
When they were writing for M*A*S*H, they did an experiment once a year. They would split up a script, and one partner would write Act One while the other went off to write Act Two. When they finished, they put the two acts together, and they fit seamlessly. “You couldn’t tell who wrote which act,” Levine says. “They were not very different in style or tone.”
Do they argue? Of course. But they never let arguments become personal. They’ve learned that it’s best to drop a joke if one partner disagrees. “We would be arguing over something and then it would be noon, so we’d go out to lunch and start talking baseball,” says Levine, who has done radio and TV play-by-play for the Baltimore Orioles and the Seattle Mariners. He also writes the “By Ken Levine” blog, which was included in Time magazine’s 2011 list of the best 25 blogs. They both feel that writers should spend time on other activities. “It takes the pressure off that pursuit of perfection, which is the death of creativity,” Isaacs says.
They have written independently and with other partners. Levine’s play A or B? debuted in October 2014 at the Falcon Theatre in Burbank. After he finished it, he partnered on a pilot with Isaacs and felt an immediate sense of relief. “When I sit down with Dave, it’s like, oh man, there is someone who can come up with the jokes. I don’t have to do it all myself. Sweet.”
And there is no guilt when they work together, because they have a set schedule and don’t want to let the other partner down. There’s no sneaking away to the movies in the early afternoon and the subsequent feeling of remorse. And since they’re used to working with another person around, they don’t squirrel up in a basement office when they work on independent projects. Levine goes to a library, where it is quiet enough to concentrate, but other people are nearby. Isaacs frequents Starbucks.
They always come back together, though. In 2013, they sold a pilot to NBC, but the network ended up dropping its comedy department, and the pilot was shelved. “We took a whole department down with us,” Levine says. And Isaacs immediately adds, “We go down hard. If you learn anything in this business, it’s that it is a business. Things change. You’re just a pawn, so you might as well keep working and having fun doing it because you don’t control it.”
Isaacs, now 65, and Levine, 64, keep plugging on. It’s been more than four decades since they first bonded over that book in the Army Reserve, and they have their own special shorthand. They have learned what makes a partnership work. “Find a partner who is better than you,” Levine says. “If both partners feel that way, you are probably in good shape.”
Patti Hartigan’s work has appeared in American Theatre, American Way, YM Magazine and Harvard Education Letter, among other publications. For many years, she was a staff arts reporter and cultural critic for the Boston Globe, and she continues to cover theater for the paper. She is working on two novels, one with her husband Bennet Ih.