A healthy, productive creative partnership is one of the most meaningful relationships you’ll develop over the course of your career, and it’s also one of the most commonly taken for granted. These waters get even more treacherous when you’re starting a creative partnership with a friend or romantic partner, because a creative partnership is a relationship like any other, and needs regular care and support to flourish.
I’ve had my fair share of positive and negative creative partnerships, and I’ve been both to blame for and the victim of a failed arrangement. As such, I thought I’d offer some lessons I’ve learned in succeeding and spectacularly failing at cultivating professional creative relationships.
Sometimes, you should just be friends.
The easiest thing in the world is to say to a friend … we should make a movie. Or start a podcast. Or buy a bar. The hard part is actually making it happen without losing your friendship and a finished product you can be proud of.
I’m going to level with you: sometimes the best thing you can do for a friendship you value is to just be friends. Not every relationship in your life needs to be monetized or productive. It doesn’t mean your friendship is any less valid, or that you don’t respect one another deeply. It just means that, hey, some talented and amiable pairs should be talented and amiable separately when it comes to their work.
The right reasons.
So you’ve decided to work with a friend, or have met someone you think is an ideal creative collaborator. Great! The next step is to align your WHYs. WHY do you, and this other person, want to make this project? For fun? For career development? To make money? To tell this story and get it in front of audiences?
It’s important to be on the same page; I cannot tell you how many of my collaborations have fallen apart simply because we had fully different reasons for collaborating. Usually, they wanted to have fun, and I wanted to use the project as a proof of concept for myself as a creative. Both valid goals, with very different expectations of how much work is required before, during, and after the creation of the thing itself. Differing expectations breeds resentment and frustration, neither of which are productive or conducive to a healthy partnership, so ensure you have this conversation early.
How much time per week do you and your potential partner have to dedicate to the creation and maintenance of this thing? This was a conversation my filmmaking podcast co-host Christina Raia and I had as soon as we’d broached the topic of launching said podcast, and it’s the reason why our podcast only puts out new episodes every other week. When we started the project, we were both working full time with a handful of extra side hustling and creative commitments, but agreed to share the responsibilities equally and stay in touch if we got overwhelmed.
Christina has since left her full-time position, and I have not, meaning she has a bit more time during the week at the moment to dedicate to the podcast and has taken over doing final editing polishes and schedule organization.
Not only are we in constant contact about our shared workload and our individual capacities, but we also agreed to a content schedule that requires both of our attention on a weekly basis, usually at least 2-5 hours each. If one of us was unable to maintain that schedule and the other couldn’t supplement, we’d need to reevaluate so neither side of the partnership feels overworked. I feel comfortable telling Christina when I need to delegate a task that usually falls to me, and vice versa, and if the same can’t be said for you and your creative partner, you need to reevaluate the relationship immediately, together.
I hate Instagram, typing on smartphones, and everything in-between. Christina finds Twitter toxic and time-sucking. As such, it made perfect sense to split our social media tasks for promoting our shared podcast with me retweeting threads from screenwriting Twitter and Christina sending herself memes for our Instagram Story. Would we both love to eventually leave social media in the hands of someone who doesn’t just tolerate it? Totally. But we recognize that until our Patreon really takes off, we’ll have to do it ourselves, and it’s a great thing we have complementary social media skills, each taking over where the other would prefer not to.
The reason most friend collaborations end in tears is because you’re often friends with people very similar to you, with frankly too much in common. Unless you want to be a writing team, two screenwriters are going to have a hard time collaborating. Unless you want only co-directing credits, two directors may not be the ideal pair.
On the flipside, when creatives look for or dream of a creative collaborator, they’re often hoping they’ll get to continue doing all the fun storytelling stuff and leave the boring work to their mythical business partner. They’ll just need to create, while their partner keeps an eye on the spreadsheets and expenses and writes the press releases. Not only is this an unrealistic expectation from someone who is probably also largely unpaid at your current career phase, but it’s also an unhealthy one. I’ve definitely been in partnerships where I’ve been the boring stuff person despite being, like, a full complex and creative person wanting to balance the boring with the beautiful for my own mental health and career development. It sucks!
Skill compatibility in a creative partnership isn’t just you being good at the things she’s bad at, and vice versa; it’s also a shared commitment to the reality of unpaid scut work to get a project you believe in off the ground, and a commitment to share that scut to the best of your abilities and available time.
What are you NOT willing to do, even if it would prevent a potential project from moving forward? For instance, having now produced and edited the weekly "Burn, Noticed" podcast for over two years, I can confidently say that I will not agree to a weekly podcast ever again if I’m also the sole editor. It’s just too much work for means that frankly aren’t worth it. I love "Burn, Noticed," but I don’t want to be a forgotten-TV-show-recap-podcaster, or a podcast editor. I want to be a television writer, and I need to set boundaries for my creative energies to ensure I’m prioritizing my limited free time strategically.
What are your boundaries, and the boundaries of your potential creative partner? Do they align or clash? I know we just talked about how you’re going to have to do some of the boring work when you’re first starting out, even when you’re sharing the burden, but it’s also completely valid to have hard lines for how much of that boring work you are willing to take on, and specific elements of it you won’t entertain.
It goes back to the right reasons and skill compatibility. Do you want to make a film to highlight your directing skills, but neither you nor your creative partner will edit the film? It may not be a good partnership, or it may require adding an additional collaborator to the core team. Sometimes the solution to an inequitable partnership is making it a threesome, but often it’s far more about enforcing and being consistent about boundaries and willing to walk away if they aren’t respected.
Use your words.
In the end, the common thread running through the rest of my advice is simple: communication. If you aren’t able to bring an issue to your creative partner without fear of being yelled at or gaslit, it’s time to split. If they’re constantly passive aggressive and impossible to get in touch with about progress and deliverables, that’s the signal for a professional conscious uncoupling. If you seem to speak different languages despite having the same native tongue, call it quits.
If you cannot effectively or efficiently communicate, every part of the creative process will take twice as long and be ten times as frustrating as it needs to.
Life is short, so free yourself and your incompatible partner from wasting away in an unhealthy collaboration.
*Feature photo by Mohamed Abdelsadig (Pexel)