My advice to writers: if you feel stuck, find a collaborator - Ian McMillan

Although I very much enjoy the thing I’m doing now, sitting on my own in a little room writing, I also love the joys of collaborating, whether it’s with other writers or with composers and artists.

Whether it's writing lyrics or comedy, collaborating can be a liberating experience. (JPIMedia).
Whether it's writing lyrics or comedy, collaborating can be a liberating experience. (JPIMedia).

The other day I was walking around Elsecar Park, near Barnsley, with my mate the electronic musician Leafcutter John and we were planning and scheming something that we’re going to work on together and he said, as we passed a crowd of sleeping ducks, “Ian, I reckon you’re a born collaborator” and I reckon he’s right.

The thing I like about collaborative creativity is that it’s always different. I remember, decades ago, writing the radio series The Blackburn Files with my mates Martyn Wiley and Dave Sheasby, both of whom are no longer with us, although I don’t think that’s got anything to do with our collaboration.

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Three-way writing is quite unusual, and it involved meeting in a small room that seemed to overflow with words and Martyn and I pacing up and down throwing our ideas and gags around and Dave sitting at a desk writing on a very early word-processing machine that was as big as a cinema organ.

Martyn and I were doing a performative version of writing; in other words, we were on our feet trying our hardest to make each other (and Dave, although that was harder) laugh.

Dave, on the other hand, was kind of an editor-writer: he was filtering all the things we said and giving them pace and economy and narrative drive.

Eventually, when the scripts were recorded and broadcast, I’d occasionally recognise a gag I wrote, but thanks to Dave it would be funnier and tighter.

Our proximity in that little room definitely helped to concentrate our minds, except when the ice cream van went by, and an example of a collaboration where my co-creator and I weren’t in the same room just happens to involve ice cream.

I once wrote the libretto for an opera about ice cream for the marvellous Freedom Studios in Bradford, and the composer, Russell Sarre, lived in the United States.

This meant that our collaboration was a bit like those letters my mam used to write to my dad when he was away in the South China Seas in the war, although the timescale was quicker thanks to the internet.

I’d send Russell some lyrics and he’d reply in the middle of the night. I’d reply and he’d get the rewrites at some odd time of day that seemed perfectly sensible to me.

And in that way, without us ever meeting or even speaking on the phone, the opera got written, and a mighty fine work it was too.

I reckon with me and Leafcutter John it’ll be a bit like that, except that he’s not at the other side of the world, he’s in Sheffield.

Advice to writers: if you feel stuck, find a collaborator!