Open Mic Blog

SPOTLIGHT: Jane Congdon

Posted on March 24, 2014 at 10:50 AM

                                      Jane Congdon and Joseph Barnett
                          
                               Co-Author Lessons

Jane Congdon

 

“I would not say ‘fret’ under penalty of death.” My brother was reacting to my wording in the latest chapter of Mr. Joe, the memoir we were writing. My ability to absorb the critique and Joe’s ability to offer it in the first place were signs of our progress.

 

My job as co-author was to help Joe bring his story to the page. It was not a story I knew.

 

Joseph Barnett and I were strangers, having spent most of the previous forty years apart. As children we had been united against a common enemy: our alcoholic mother. Ours was a house of secrets; otherwise, I would have known that my little brother was haunted by our grandfather’s ghost; that he was claustrophobic, yet often crawled under the dirty laundry to hide; that in his teens he repeatedly ran away.

 

Both of us left our West Virginia village in 1966, going in different directions and missing most of each other’s lives until a brain tumor reunited us in 2006. As we embarked on the book project, Joe’s life unfolded on my computer screen. I came to know my brother again through the haunting, challenging, life-affirming story of a school custodian known as Mr. Joe.

 

Every writing journey is different. Here are highlights and insights from my six years co-authoring Mr. Joe: Tales from a Haunted Life (Bettie Youngs Books, 2013).

 

1. Have fun.

 

“Have fun” is one piece of advice that’s empty if you can’t follow it and unnecessary if you can. Initially I listed it last--a postscript--but it is the most important, because the challenges will come.

 

Writing Mr. Joe was an adventure of discovery and bonding for my brother and me as we shared childhood memories and learned about one another as adults: workers, parents, and grandparents. We surprised ourselves by being more alike than different. We did have fun. Today we live near one another and are the best of friends.

 

2. Nurture your relationship.

 

Thanks to the Internet, some co-authors may never meet. Because Joe and I sat across a desk from one another, it was imperative for us to create a safe working atmosphere, one in which we could comfortably express our feelings. That took time. We were family, but our relationship had gone dormant, and two polite acquaintances cannot write a memoir.

 

3. Understand your contract with one another.

 

What are your obligations as a co-author? A publishing contract will likely be a boilerplate document emphasizing the publisher’s interests.

 

Joe and I created and signed a COLLABORATION AGREEMENT specifying our responsibilities, the order in which our names would appear on the book cover, the division of royalties, and our joint commitment to participate in the various stages of the project. Our publisher amended it to our publishing contract.

 

I could have been a ghostwriter, a “with,” or an “as told to.” Joe and I reasoned that neither of us could have written Mr. Joe without the other, so we chose equal billing; to us, the title identifies the main author.

  

4. Find your process.

 

How are you going to work? Do you have the tools you need? Will you have to change your schedule? I used to get up at 5:00 a.m. and write; with Mr. Joe, work began later and required me to get dressed and put on makeup.

 

Through trial and error, Joe and I found a process that fit our skills. His sharp memory counterbalanced my need to write everything down, and my writing experience offset his desire not to type a 91,000-word manuscript. He told his story aloud to me, and I typed it. We met in coffee houses or in one of our homes. During our sessions my job was to keep up with Joe and capture his voice. Afterward it was to massage the material into a readable narrative while retaining that voice.

 

A memoir is a merger of good writing and the truth. Truth can be lost to word choices, and one of my challenges was to repress my wild desire to string pretty words together in my own way.

 

5. Acknowledge your fears.

 

Writing with another person can bring up all kinds of worries. Will the workload be divided evenly? Will he or she come through? Will the finished product meet or exceed expectations?

 

Joe worried about other people’s reactions to his revelations, for example, that he had seen ghosts. His other expressed fear was that my writing would smother his story and it would become my version of his life, which was unacceptable.

 

My fear was that he would chicken out. I had to condition myself that the work might come to nothing. I hated the idea of stopping for many reasons, one being my fear that we would face a lawsuit for breaking our publishing contract. I kept that one from Joe.

 

6. Buckle up.

 

Co-authors can have totally different experiences writing a book. Sometimes your book jerks a knot in you.

 

Joe went through the wringer reliving his darkest moments from the past, times he had managed to forget until we dredged them up. His torture was often relentless. Mine lasted only three weeks.

 

We had a huge procedural issue and didn’t know it. As the stories spilled out of Joe, he assumed that only what he said during “work time” would go in the book. I assumed that he would censor himself; thus, anything he told me was fair game. The result of our clashing assumptions was disastrous. In an early draft sent to readers, I unknowingly included material my co-author presumed confidential. The trust we had built was nearly destroyed, but we did recover. The upshot: a signature line was added at the end of every chapter, and no chapter was final until Joe had signed his approval.

 

7. Hindsight is 20-20.

 

There is no predicting where the adventure of writing will take us. Only afterward do we see the whole story.

 

Mr. Joe was published in 2013. None of our fears came true. The bonds of family were stretched, but they did not break. In the end our voices merged on the page; Joe likes to say that he can’t tell where he stops and I begin.

 

One day when we were still working on the manuscript, Joe said, “I don’t care if we throw it in the fireplace when we’re done.”

 

“What?”

 

“I suggested a book because I knew it would take a long time, but I didn’t think we’d really write one,” he said. “I did it because I wanted to spend time with you.”

 

  

                                   *    *    *

 

Jane Congdon and Joseph Barnett are members of West Virginia Writers, Inc. Natives of Glen Ferris, West Virginia, both now live near Cincinnati, Ohio. After retiring from a thirty-year career as a textbook editor, Jane published the memoir It Started with Dracula: The Count, My Mother, and Me (2011, Bettie Youngs Books). Mr. Joe is her second book and Joseph’s first. It's available in paperback and e-book formats from Amazon and Barnes & Noble online. www.janecongdon.com/home.htm

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23 Comments

Reply Laura Treacy Bentley
8:49 AM on March 25, 2014 
Welcome, Jane! I am so taken with your thoughtful and wise post about co-authoring a memoir with your brother. It will help many people who want to work together on a book.
Reply Jane Congdon
9:11 AM on March 25, 2014 
Thanks, Laura! I'm excited to be a guest blogger on Open Mic. I hope my experience will help someone else out there. Co-authoring Mr. Joe was a wonderful experience, and I know it would not be so without my brother's sweetness, sense of humor, and highly entertaining stories!
Reply Christina
9:21 AM on March 25, 2014 
Hi Jane, thank you so much for your insights. I am co-authoring a book with my niece. It is a huge amount of fun. We already wrote one together. Meanwhile, I am inviting another friend to co-author a non-fiction book with me--much of your advice is very helpful and I will pass it onto my friend. Did you first write a proposal and submit to agents/publishers?
Reply Marie Manilla
9:27 AM on March 25, 2014 
Hi, Jane: What a terrific blog! I'm particularly impressed by your focus on honesty, not only when capturing Joe's story for the memoir, but in capturing the truth about the highs and lows of co-authoring a book, especially the issue of trust that was lost and rebuilt. As a writer of fiction, I also look for truths about the human condition to explore, but I can use fictional characters in order to protect the innocent--or guilty. How hard is it to write those difficult truths about other people? Is there a line you won't cross?
Reply marcharshman@hotmail.com
9:31 AM on March 25, 2014 
I enjoyed reading your comments about your recent book and found them wise and, I should think, very useful. As a children's picture book author, I have had a couple collaborative efforts published in the past and am looking forward to a new one soon. I know simply working with someone else in this fashion always stretches me in new and good ways, helps me to see more clearly what I want to say. I second the others in thanking you for sharing here on Laura's always insightful blog. Cheers, Marc Harshman
Reply Jane Congdon
9:32 AM on March 25, 2014 
Yes, Christina, we submitted a proposal. Fortunately, I had published It Started with Dracula, so the "sell" to my publisher was not difficult. I think a book proposal is a great tool because you can go back to it later and see what you promised. It's one way to stay on track. My two book proposals also have given me material for later documents such as marketing pieces.
Reply Jane Congdon
9:39 AM on March 25, 2014 
Marie, funny you should ask. When I knew that this post was going live, I began to get nervous because I had written a whole book with another person, yet I had not shown him my guest blog. There is nothing in it that we haven't addressed in Mr. Joe, but I got an uneasy feeling. It was much easier for me to reveal my inner truths in It Started with Dracula when it was "just me" writing.
Reply Jane Congdon
9:42 AM on March 25, 2014 
Marc, thanks. It's good to hear from you! "Stretching" is a good way to describe collaboration. Combining styles and ideas can be the most fun ever. Yes, we might have to drive over a bump or two, but what an enriching experience! Joe and I rode around Cincinnati one summer in his Miata with the top down, practically screaming our ideas to one another on Interstate 71. What a blast!
Reply Maggie Mo
1:36 PM on March 25, 2014 
Rock-solid advice, especially for the complex situation of writing with a family member. Jane, as you know, Joe and I go back about a dozen years, and I remember his joy the day he said he was finally speaking to you again. Reading about your childhood in Glen Ferris, then reading about Joe's was fascinating. In fact, I think the books should be sold as a boxed set! I just read a memoir from a rock star I had a crush on as a teen. I wish I'd never read it-- he came across as an arrogant jerk, and went into way too much personal detail for my taste. That is the delicate balance both you and Joe managed to maintain in your books---- telling enough so the reader knows how you felt at the time, but stopping short of needless angst. Although nether of you intended your books to be "self-help," I felt I learned some important lessons about coping with the ups and downs of life with courage and optimism.
Reply Susan
1:37 PM on March 25, 2014 
Did either of you get frustrated at the other person's "pace"? It seems like some of us like to work at one speed and another at a different one. Did you ever find yourself saying, "hurry up" or "slow down"?
Reply Jane Congdon
2:06 PM on March 25, 2014 
Thanks so much, Maggie. I'm glad you found our books inspirational. Though they aren't prescriptive, it's good to know that the stories they tell have the power to help others see solutions in their own lives.
Reply Jane Congdon
2:09 PM on March 25, 2014 
Susan, we really didn't have pacing issues that I remember. We agreed on what day(s) and time(s) to meet and we worked together. I will say that my caffeine intake often exceeded Joe's, and that's a sort of pacing, too. I was a handful sometimes. Okay, one other thing. Sometimes I had to ask Joe to slow down his storytelling so that my typing could catch up.
Reply Kathy Vitek
2:22 PM on March 25, 2014 
Lovely article. It reminded me of a recently deceased cousin, who after a career as a roofer, spent 24 years as a school custodian, I received a photo and a brief newspaper article depicting the affection in which "Mr. Frank" was held by the staff and students of the school.
Reply Cat
2:36 PM on March 25, 2014 
Nice post, Jane. Very different take on writing--the tandem approach :) I'm thinking I couldn't write with someone else--not now, anyway. I admire you and Joe for making it work well.
Reply Jane Congdon
3:09 PM on March 25, 2014 
Kathy, I'm sorry for your loss. I love your description of the way your cousin was regarded. It was the same with Joe, who is now retired. One chapter in our book, "Becoming Mr. Joe," tells how my brother transitioned from being a stranger to someone the children and their teachers could look to for help. It's one of Joe's favorite chapters.
Reply Jane Congdon
3:26 PM on March 25, 2014 
Cat, I think the success of tandem writing depends on the tandem. Mr. Joe drew my brother and me closer and allowed us to appreciate one another's talents and personalities. It was less lonely but occasionally more complicated than writing alone. I loved learning about my brother. It's funny: when I wrote It Started with Dracula, I had barely seen Joe in 40 years. In that book I speculated about his life. Now, in Mr. Joe, the portrait is filled in and finally accurate. I am so glad for that experience. Our family circle has widened and tightened as a result.
Reply Kathy Vitek
5:56 PM on March 25, 2014 
Kathy Vitek says...
Lovely article. It reminded me of a recently deceased cousin, who after a career as a roofer, spent 24 years as a school custodian, I received a photo and a brief newspaper article depicting the affection in which "Mr. Frank" was held by the staff and students of the school.
Reply Kathy Vitek
5:59 PM on March 25, 2014 
Jane...Thank you for the reply. One can only hope that upon one's passing that those remaining might have similar feelings about our affect on those with whom we've shared the planet.
Reply Jane Congdon
6:26 PM on March 25, 2014 
Kathy Vitek says...
Jane...Thank you for the reply. One can only hope that upon one's passing that those remaining might have similar feelings about our affect on those with whom we've shared the planet.


Well said, Kathy.
Reply Margaret
6:54 PM on March 25, 2014 
Hi Jane -- I'm not a writer but loved your advice and story about collaborating with your brother. What a unique experience you two have had. I'm anxious to read Mr. Joe.