The online literary review Bookends published a flash fiction piece I wrote called "The First Time Once." I'm linking it here because it is a rumination on writing partnerships. Enjoy!
Leadership is tricky for many ‘word people’ (writers, dramaturgs, humanities scholars, editors, librarians, etc.) because 'word people' are often a bit like cats: independent, solitary, self-reliant, and a bit ‘stiff in the knees’ when asked to bow to authority. A cat-ish person trudges to meetings as though a stick prodded them to the room. They offer vague criticisms but no practical solutions, equivalent to the mauled bird corpses real cats notoriously drag around. Then they expect everyone's gratitude for their contribution and proceed to preen until they lose interest, and then glower at the clock indiscreetly until the meeting is over.
If this is a portrait of your last meeting, you may be a cat-ish person.
So instead of talking about leadership with the typical tactics (microphones, ‘80s music, powerpoints, exclamation points, and emoticons) I want to do in our language: through a character study. Enter Pamela S. Turner's biography of Minamoto Yoshitsune, Samurai Rising.
What Minamoto Yoshitsune Taught Me About Leadership:
1. Always be the first to the Emperor.
Once upon a time in the 1100's, Kyoto was controlled by a low-ranking warlord who terrorized its citizens. The retired emperor of Japan invited the Minamoto family to invade Kyoto with his blessing. Yoshitsune led the charge from the south while his half-brother descended from the north. Their enemy ran in fear, but instead of pursuing them Yoshitsune rode directly to the retired emperor’s house and announced himself as Kyoto’s savior. Because he beat his brother there, he gained favor with the emperor. His enemy didn’t distract him from making a great ally.
2. Ask your samurai what they think.
Yoshitsune had humble beginnings and was not raised to be a warrior. Instead of hiding gaps in his knowledge, he often turned to his samurai for help. When embarking on a sea invasion, he asked his men for advice because he was a man of the horse, and not a sailor. This was an incredibly uncommon thing to do in Yoshitsune's rigid society.
Asking for advice does not make you look weak. Even if you have the answer, the point of this exercise is to inspire trust amongst those you have to lead. Yoshitsune was an independent man and a brilliant military strategist, but he still wanted to know: what do my soldiers think?
What will make you look weak is if you fret over the problem instead of taking action and drown in meeting after strategic meeting. Remember, you are the leader and it is your responsibility to get everyone out to sea as fast as you can.
3. Trade in your prized horse for a fallen brother.
When one of Yoshitsune’s sworn brothers fell in battle protecting him, our favorite samurai lord traded his prized horse-- a gift from the retired emperor-- to a monk who would pray continually for his brother's soul. His gift was valuable and deeply personal. In return he earned such profound loyalty from his immediate followers they eventually abandoned civilization and wandered the mountains of Japan with him. For years.
But don’t think you need to give everything you own to your underlings to gain their loyalty. These opportunities should be few and far between. But you need to go all-in when they arrive. Since you have been careful not to show favoritism, all your other underlings can assume a prized horse is in their future if they go to the mat for you.
4. 30 of your best will get more done than the other 3,000
Okay, we’ve all heard this before. The problem is we don’t understand how to apply it. When Yoshitsune and his brother, Yorinori, were ordered to take a fortress they put this principle to the test. Yorinori lead their whole army to assault the front while Yoshitsune took thirty of his best and scaled an unscalable cliff down into the fortress and set it on fire. This forced the enemy out the front gates and head-first into Yorinori’s cavalry.
But what would have happened if Yoshitsune had tried to assault the enemy’s front with his best 30? Slaughter. For some reason leaders try to make their 30 perform tasks best suited for 3,000. Yoshitsune was an excellent strategist because he often used a small force to do what small forces do best. If you have a lean but capable staff, consider how best to use your agile force to scale unscalable cliffs and burn down cities (metaphorically, please). Don’t waste your time emulating mammoth production companies or publishing houses. Be swift, be savage, and be precise.
There is a lot more to learn from Yoshitsune, so I encourage you to pick up Samurai Rising. You’ll also learn from his many, many mistakes from a brief but brilliant life.
One more trick: Yoshitsune always pushed forward. In any situation he kept moving, swiftly and efficiently. If you can do that, your (many) mistakes will disappear in your wake and be forgotten in light of your victories.
Why is it your creative relationships get no attention? My guess is you are too busy finding time to create, so cultivating artistic relationships and honing your partnership skills gets pushed aside. To get us started, then, let's address some common avoidance excuses to get you back on track to creating effectively with others :
"My partner gives vague critiques for my work."
This is a simple preparation issue. Creatives sometimes think efficiency is a counter to their process, but I'll bet your favorite books are precise, your favorite paintings are meticulous, and your favorite songs are thunderously clear. So don't treat critique sessions casually, like some watercooler recap of Game of Thrones. Show the process some respect. Come to a critique session with the same attitude you would to a Japanese tea ceremony: anticipating great pleasure, but with an posture of great respect. Start with the positives (these can be vague, like "you write great dialogue") then address the negatives (these are never vague). If you can't demonstrate a change you would like to see with a specific example, don't bother saying it. Your criticism may be valid, but it will also be useless.
"If an author needs a reader, it just means they haven't done enough rewrites."
This isn't true for literally thousands of reasons, but I'll give you one specific example where a reader's insight is irreplaceable. An author cannot read their own work in real time. Art is lived by the audience in a particular order the author can never experience (first word to last, usually). So a reading experienced in real time is valuable information an author can only get through someone else. Therefore getting trusted outside readers is a top priority. Critique partners should document their emotions in the moment. Write down "I laughed here," "I gasped here," or "I thought this guy died on the previous page but now he's back."
"My partner and I have no time to compare notes or read WIPs (works in progress)."
You have the time, you're just not "making" it. Stop thinking of your partnership as a casual favor exchange. You're not asking someone to help move your couch in exchange for pizza, here. You're writing is important. Treat it as such. Make short deadlines for yourselves (long deadlines only add stress) and one another accountable for them. On the other side of the coin, don't send your partner a lumpy, unpolished work. S/he isn't your personal spellcheck.
"My partner doesn't "get" my work."
Then, my friend, you need a new partner. Disentangling yourself from a creative relationship can be painful. But an influential voice who doesn't understand your vision will tear apart your work until its DOA. If you don't severe ties, you will eventually be putting your beloved WIP on the funeral pyre. But if you are just having trouble getting your partner to understand a particular work when there hasn't been a problem before, that's a different problem. Offer your reader a list of five works that align with your vision. For example, if Cody (my partner) tells me Die Hard inspired his WIP, I have a reference point through which I can orient my feedback.
Solving these problems gets me though 95% of my issues, but I'd love to hear about other partner issues and how you worked through them. Remember, your partners are an extension of your creative practice. Treat them generously and carefully, as you treat any true and beautiful thing.