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Collaboration: What's in It for Me?

A few evenings ago, I attended a celebration hosted by the Clayman Institute for Gender Research at Stanford in honor of my dear friend, and esteemed co-author, Marilyn Yalom. Late afternoon sunlight haloed the sequoia trees in the background, and made the grass and the wine glasses sparkle. The large crowd of Marilyn-admirers smiled and applauded in agreement when speakers praised her charm, incisiveness, soaring intelligence, kindness, and effectiveness as a leader at the Institute. I knew what they were talking about, having just completed two intensive years of researching and co-writing with Marilyn The Social Sex: A History of Female Friendship (HarperCollins, 2015).

The four people who offered encomia, and Marilyn herself, all cited the spirit of collaboration that has imbued and sustained the important scholarly research of the Institute over the past 40 years. This research has been conducted largely about women by women, and often, in collaboration with other women.

This lovely event gave me a marvelous opportunity to reflect on my unique collaboration with Marilyn over the past two years, and its continuum. Marilyn and I, friends for more than twenty years, differ in temperament, working style, writing style, and to a certain extent, world view. Given the ambitious aim of The Social Sex (which spans 2500 years), we complemented one another in a way that I have no doubt strengthened the final product.

As Walter Isaacson made clear in his entertaining history: The Innovators: How A Group of Hackers, Geniuses, and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution, computers and the internet were not the result of singular eruptions of genius, but rather grew out of collaborations of smart, driven people with complementary working styles. Similarly, co-writing creative nonfiction is a dance of fully engaged partners -- each drawing out the best in the other, as opposed to egotistical one-upmanship. Marilyn and my egos did not clash, but we often challenged one another, strengthening the book's arguments along the way. This process, where a product or outcome is improved by collaboration, constitutes the opposite of vapid, groupthink or committee-writing.

The meta-icing on our collaborative project was that we are friends, and our subject was friendship. Our struggles to make our book the best it possibly could be provided the interpersonal heat that tempers friendship, and, we think, makes our book a stronger, more interesting history than it would have been if either of us had attempted it alone. Collaboration is good. Collaboration between friends is better.

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