The Joys and Pain of Collaboration

I owe you an apology. For the past few months, I’ve been talking about a book I was working on with a friend from France. I told you we were hopeful for a September release, and now that isn’t going to happen. It is now quite unlikely at this point that you will ever get to see the manuscript I was working on with her. For reasons I still don’t understand, her family has pulled out of the collaboration and cut off communication with me.

I told you a few weeks ago that I was on a familiar road collaborating on a new book, though I hoped this one had a better outcome. Well, it didn’t. Unfortunately, that uncharted road quickly became a road with which I’m all too familiar. It’s hard to talk about these things and protect people I love, but I’m already getting a lot of questions I want to try and answer.

One week after I finished working on the manuscript, the author wrote me to say how incredibly grateful she was, especially thanking me for the last line, which I gave her from another novel I was writing. It fit so perfect in her story. She compared me to a diamond maker who brought the brilliance of a story she created. After I sent the approved manuscript to the editor, however, I got a disturbing email. It contained suspicions about my ulterior motives. Her tone had shifted dramatically as she told me in subsequent emails that she wanted control of everything in France and would not follow through on any of her assurances over the past eight months.

Collaboration is always a risk, and all the more so here because of the geographical distance and the language barriers. When I was hesitant, she repeatedly assured me that God was in this and that she would honor our work together. I thought the beauty in her story was worth the risk. I have a seven-year friendship with her and her family, a deep love for them, and eight incredible months working on this book with her. I am confused but not devastated.

Of the dozens of collaborations I’ve worked on, only two have gone off-track and ended valued friendships. Interestingly enough, however, they have all followed the same pattern. Other voices get involved who wanted to profit from the collaboration. They start by making accusations about my motives, then assert whatever control they can to take over the project. Finally, no matter how much they have said in the past, they now have a fresh word from God telling them not to continue. Of course, there is no way to discuss anything after that, which is why people pull that trump card. The reason it rings so hollow with me is that people who hear from God are more grace-filled and apologetic, especially when it’s a complete change of their prior assurances. Finally, they cut off any further communication and raise the drawbridge on the friendship by telling me not to contact them directly.

So, I’m there again and I don’t have the foggiest idea why. This is an abrupt end to what had been a delightful season in my life. I only wanted to help a friend get her wonderful story more widely read in the world, and gave her the best I had to help make that happen. However, she has now decided to revert to her original story and discard all I had done to help re-write it and get it published here in the States. It makes me sad to know there’s a beautiful manuscript in the world that you may never see. I still feel God was in this process, and that somehow fear and darkness have cut in to send it sideways.

People are already asking me why I do this when it can turn so hurtful in the end? I’m crazy, I guess. I believe in the power of collaboration. Everything is better when multiple people bring their various insights to give a more rounded picture of God. Scripture teaches that God gives gifts so that through the whole of the body, “the manifold wisdom of God should be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms.” I think the enemy freaks out where brothers and sisters collaborate in love and sacrifice. I don’t think God intended for any of us to go it alone. I know what The Shack would have been like if Brad and I hadn’t put sixteen months into the re-telling of that story, and I know you would never have heard of it if we hadn’t.

My friends are also asking why I don’t get people under contract at the start, to guarantee they will follow through, before spending so much of my time and money on a project. The answer is simple. I don’t know how to collaborate without shared tenderness, honesty, and faithfulness. I thought we had that here until we didn’t. I have no idea at the beginning how any collaboration will turn out and what will be fair for everyone. I just figure if people keep walking together in agreement, we will get to see what Father has in mind. The results can be fantastic.

The other reason I don’t make contracts at the start is that they don’t work either. I have signed agreements with people and companies who violate them every day. The only way to enforce a contract is to be willing to sue dishonest people. I’m not that guy. I learned a long time ago if someone doesn’t respect their word, they won’t honor their signature either unless threatened to do so.

Will I stop collaborating? No. I’m pretty sure it’s in Father’s heart. I try to be careful to do it where it is a blessing, not when people end up despising me. I don’t enjoy being used, or having my word tied to someone else’s capriciousness. What I don’t know is how people will change in the process, especially when I’ve finished what I said I would do.

For now, I’ve switched tracks. Before this newest book came into my life, I was already working with those two delightful people pictured above on a book tentatively titled The Language of Healing: Creating Safe Environments to Talk about Race, Politics, Sexuality, and Religion. With me in that photo is Arnita Taylor, a mom to two sons, a former staff pastor, a leadership coach, and an encourager I met last year in Dallas, Texas. The other guy is Bob Prater, a father of three, also a former pastor, long-time friend, podcaster, and an encourager to marginalized people in Bakersfield, California. I can tell you my life has been deeply and permanently changed for the better by these people and the process of collaborating with them.

We’ve been working on this book for almost 18 months. We had all the pieces in place, but it wasn’t reading as smoothly as any of us hoped. Both of them were able to come to my home this past weekend, and in long, exhausting, laughter-filled days, we went through every word of the manuscript and made it read so much better. We are all thrilled with how it has turned out and hope to release it early in November this year.

Here are three paragraphs from the Introduction to whet your appetite:

This is a book for those who are tired of being spun by politicians and media and having their personal relationships destroyed by differences over religion, race, sexuality and politics. It’s for those who want to find ways to communicate and cooperate beyond our most deeply-rooted differences, realizing that in the shared spaces of our society we have more to gain through mutual understanding than the politics of polarization.

The hope is that everyone who reads this will gain a little more awareness about themselves. You don’t have to agree with everything here, but if you can at least acknowledge the validity of varying perspectives and communicate about them more generously, you can help repair the rip in our societal fabric. Just maybe something you read will encourage you to more harmony and peace with your family, colleagues, and friends. Even better, you may learn something here that will give you the insight to solve a problem or repair a broken relationship.

We all win if you take one of the chapter topics to explore more deeply. We all win if your level of understanding increases even slightly. We all win if you take this book into a book club and have your own conversation about differences in our culture. We all win when these chapters are used as discussion starters in college classrooms or used in high school civics. We all win if you learn to listen better to people who see the world differently than you do.

No, we haven’t signed any contracts yet. Given our time this weekend and the depth of love we have for each other, I’d be surprised if this one goes sideways. I know, I’ve been surprised before!

So, we’ll see what happens. I guess you’re in this with me, too.

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