Too many years ago, Larry Cotton, then a fellow employee at a large company, and I became friends. He was a design engineer and I was a draftsman, so we were somewhat like-minded. We began writing magazine articles together on the side. For example, one of us spotted a news item that the U.S. Postal Service was considering selling ads on postage stamps, so we made up a series of wacky stamp ads, doing all the artwork ourselves, and sold it to Harper’s magazine. We designed and built some kids’ furniture for Popular Science, employing his children as photo models.
Our paths diverged when I left the company to start a business. I continued writing sideline magazine articles on all kinds of subjects from a World Land Speed Record attempt, to sailing on the Great Salt Lake, to environmental issues, to marlin fishing on the Gulf Stream, and he wrote a popular column for an electronics magazine.
When we both semi-retired a few years back, we got together again and we’ve been co-inventing things primarily for MAKE magazine since. Naomi suggested we come up with a scratching post, for example, that would deposit a treat every time a cat uses it, thus training the beast to claw the post rather than its owner’s shins. Intrigued by laminar flow water, which is turbulence-free and exhibits startling behavior, we drove 600 miles one way to Orlando to see how the Disney wizards had used laminar flow to build a fountain, and then we designed our own. We’ve invented and built a levitation device for a military sub-contractor, and recently made two complex pendulums for NC State U that will help teach chaos theory to students.
Because we’re really quite different people, ideologically, politically, and philosophically, we tend to argue a lot as we’re working.
But precisely because we’re different, we approach a challenge from different viewpoints, which often results in a compromise that works quite well and that neither one of us would have thought up alone.
There are examples of successful collaborations throughout business, medicine, law, and the arts. In music there are Rogers and Hammerstein, Waylon and Jessi, The Beatles. There are more examples in academia, where many textbooks are written by partners.
Fiction writers have teamed up to good effect. The prolific John Sanford, author of the popular Prey series, has concocted tales with the imaginative help of his good golfing buddy David Cronk. The even more prolific Stephen King and fellow noir scribe Peter Straub have written some pretty horrific stuff together.
The fiction author P.J. Parrish is actually Kristy and Kelly, sisters who have won a bucketful of awards and continue to make the NY Times list consistently. Asked why they’ve been so successful, their answer was, “. . . the double insight you get into your characters . . . to say nothing of the double dose of energy and imagination . . . we each have special qualities that seem to blend effectively.”
Just like Sherlock and Watson. Or Penn and Teller. Or Wilbur and Orville.
Or Larry and Phil.