The Odd Couple: Co-Authoring a Book with a Friend

Is it crazy for two close friends to think they can write a book together—and maintain their friendship? Two writers discuss the pitfalls of co-authoring a book with someone you know well.
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Is it crazy for two close friends to think they can write a book together—and maintain their friendship? These two writers discuss the pitfalls of co-authoring a book with someone you know well.

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by Sandra Butler and Nan Fink Gefen

Five years ago, at our usual Monday breakfast in a café, we asked ourselves this question. We’d been toying with the idea of co-authoring a book about the experience of mothering middle-aged daughters and imagined it would be a challenging and provocative way to spend the next few years. We would develop our ideas and questions, interview a range of women, and write a book that would open a long, overdue conversation among older mothers about these relationships. While we were used to being together often, we understood this would mean that we would have much more contact, and we’d need to create a balance of work and non-book time so that we’d continue to share other parts of our lives. There would be differences of opinion that would have to be navigated, and we hoped we’d do this skillfully, but the question that was paramount for both of us was: Could we make it through the predictable ups and downs during this period and keep our friendship in one piece?

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We anticipated that the uncomplicated part of this project would be reading and thinking together about the issues of mothering middle-aged daughters. Sandy is excellent at soaking up information, asking questions, and creating a general shape, while Nan sees what is missing and adds both complexity and the necessary contradictions. We relished the prospect of putting our minds together and creating an imaginative framework—but were concerned about the writing.

Both of us had heard about co-authors who couldn’t blend their voices, or stopped speaking after a nasty fight, or couldn’t finish because they didn’t agree on their approach. Co-writing is known to be a difficult proposition. We realized that we might be stepping into dangerous territory but told ourselves that such a daunting project was not crazy—perhaps a little foolish and certainly ambitious, but we could pull it off. Twenty-eight years of friendship surely provided a long apprenticeship.

We both have middle-aged daughters, and although our connection to them is strong, we were sensitive to the underlying tensions that still exist and the words that remain unsaid. Aware of the mistakes we’d made in our own mothering, we wanted to listen to how other mothers were engaging their aging, assessing the quality and histories of their mothering, and creating the shape of their current relationship with their daughters.

Once we decided to go forward, even with our trepidation, we immersed ourselves in reading everything we could find, interviewing dozens of mothers and exploring all the questions that opened up our thinking and imagination. We were having a rich and stimulating intellectual adventure together, and our meetings were filled with exuberant discussion about ideas, patterns, cultural differences, and personal shocks of recognition.

But things got harder when we started to write. Nan, a slow, careful writer, had much less time to spend on the book as she is embedded in a large family and involved in a series of other time-consuming and important projects. Sandy had fewer demands on her, and she’s the speed queen of writers. What could possibly go wrong?

Most of our friends see us as the odd couple. Nan is elegant and graceful while Sandy is excessive, effusive, and still remembering not to interrupt when people are talking. These qualities were reflected in our early writing as well. Sandy sent Nan long drafts of text, and she’d have to wait days or even frustrating weeks for a response. Nan was overwhelmed by the quantity of material she received and the avalanche of adjectives. She whittled them down, added her ideas, made a shapelier draft, and returned it to Sandy—who felt that the juice was gone from her exuberant excess.

The process of going through dozens of rewrites required every ounce of goodwill each of us could summon. We never actually quarreled, although there were certainly times when our voices were a bit clipped. What we loved in our friendship—the many differences in our ways of thinking—turned out to be quite another matter when it came to the written word.

We didn’t talk much about being irritated, even though Nan often felt pressured and guilty that she wasn’t producing work quickly enough, and Sandy had to sit on her impatience. Back and forth we went, draft after draft, each of us balancing our desire to have our favorite turns of phrase included with the understanding that we needed to hold the vision of our reader over any personal preference of style. When we suggested changes to each other, we chose our words respectfully and carefully. Sometimes one of us yielded, sometimes the other, but both of us stretched beyond our comfort zones. The commitment we had to the project and the centrality of our deep bond kept us moving forward. And not surprisingly, our styles, our voices, and our thinking found its own blend, creating the unique voice that is us in the book.

We vowed when we began this project that our friendship would take precedence over everything else. We made it through these five years because we were committed to that agreement. Even in our most difficult moments, there was no question that our relationship came first, the book second. We learned how to move towards and stand back from each other as co-authors, and as a result, our thinking, our writing abilities, and our friendship expanded. In the end, that was the deepest success of all.

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As mothers and daughters age, their relationship shifts and changes in complex and often demanding ways. In It Never Ends, women speak openly about the satisfactions and sorrows of mothering middle-aged daughters and discuss the issues that continue to surface, the ongoing effects of the past on the present, and the varied and often invisible ways they continue mothering. Mothers acknowledge an inevitable recalibrating of authority, autonomy, and independence now that they no longer are as central in the lives of their daughters as they once were.


Nan Gefen, Ph.D, is a writer and psychotherapist, the cofounder of Tikkun magazine, and the founder of Persimmon Tree: An Online Magazine of the Arts by Women Over Sixty

Sandra Butler, M.A. is the author of Conspiracy of Silence: The Trauma of Incest and the coauthor of Cancer in Two Voices. She co-produced the documentary Ruthie and Connie.

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