In a Reddit AMA about his new book, novelist David Mitchell reflects on the role of daily routine and work ethic in writing, echoing Isabel Allende’s memorable words: “Show up, show up, show up, and after a while the muse shows up, too.”
Anthony Trollope put it in even more unambiguous terms a century and a half earlier in his advice on how to be a successful writer:
My belief of book writing is much the same as my belief as to shoemaking. The man who will work the hardest at it, and will work with the most honest purpose, will work the best.
I get sent a lot of books about “creativity” and “innovation,” and most of the time I throw them on the pile, but after Shenk’s Atlantic piece on Lennon and McCartney got passed around so much, I thought I’d give this one a spin (I also remembered that my friend Ryan Holiday recommended his book on Lincoln’s depression.) Glad I did, because so much of what Shenk has investigated here is stuff I looked into for Show Your Work!
Some excerpts, below.
How creativity really works doesn’t fit neatly into a traditional narrative
The lone-genius idea has become our dominant view of creativity not because of its inherent truth — in fact, it neglects and obscures the social qualities of innovation — but because it makes for a good story.
The network model has the opposite problem. It is basically true, but so complex that it can’t be easily made into narrative. Where the lone-genius model is galvanizing and simplistic, the network model is suitably nuanced but hard to apply to day-to-day life.
Shenk says the “creative pair,” on the other hand, gives us a clearer narrative as an anecdote to the lone-genius myth without getting scrambled by the messiness of networks.
The trouble with this knowledge is that people want the lone genius myth — something marketers certainly know:
Members of an audience want to identify with a single individual, a person with whom they can have an imagined relationship. It’s well known in publishing that coauthored books are generally a tougher sell than works by single authors because readers expect (often unconsciously) to be in direct communion with an author.
This is backed up by studies that have found “viewers value single creator art better than art created through a collaborative process”:
Our perception of art… is largely dictated by the amount of time and effort we think went into it. This notion was first put forth by Denis Dutton in his book The Art Instinct: Beauty, Pleasure, and Human Evolution, where he argued that we evaluate art not just by the final product, but also by the process that created it. We then use our evaluation of the process and final product to determine the quality of the piece we are admiring.
So, if people value our work based on what we tell them about our process, is our duty to be honest about how we work, or to give them a good story that makes them feel good about the work?
The lone genius idea is wrapped up in our Romantic notions of the individual and the self
…it’s a fantasty, a myth of achievement predicated on an even more fundamental myth of the enclosed, autonomous self for whom social experience is secondary.
The “lone genius” is usually backed up by a partner who remains in the shadows.
Take the couple I just wrote about: George Lucas and his first wife, Marcia. Or William Wordsworth and his sister, Dorothy. Or Tiger Woods — his caddy, Steve Williams wouldn’t just carry his bag, but he’d give him wrong yardage to compensate for his distance problems and he’d taunt him to “get his blood up,” and “deliberately misled him when he thought it would improve his play.”
There’s also a hilarious story about Picasso and his girlfriend, Francoise Gilot—every morning the chamber made would bring him coffee and toast and then he’d begin this ridiculous process:
Picasso “would groan and began his lamentations… He would complain of his sicknesses… He would declare his mercy, and how little anyone understood it. He would complain about a letter from [his ex-wife] Olga. Life was pointless. Why get up. Why paint. His soul itches. His life was unbearable.”
Then Gilot would basically have to convince him to get out of bed, and after AN HOUR, he’d finally get up.
As Shenk writes, “No one is freed of the burdens of everyday life. One may, however, outsource them.”
(Speaking later of John Lennon, Shenk has another good line: “No grownup lives like a kid unless someone around him takes the adult role.”)
“We need to be able to get wired up without overheating, and disconnect without going cold.”
Finding a balance between is tricky, and depends on the individual.
John Lennon, for instance, was so devoid of an internal relation that he had a hard time being by himself. “His reclusive lifestyle notwithstanding,” his friend Pete Shotton said, “John could never bear to be left completely alone — even when he was composing his songs. Much of my time at Kenwood was spent idly reading or watching TV while John, a few feed away, doodled at the piano or scribbled verses on a scrap of paper.” “If I am on my own for three days, doing nothing, “ [Lennon] told Hunter Davies in 1967, “I’m just not here…I have to see the others to see myself.”
The art of living, as [Esther] Perel wrote, is to “balance our fundamental urge for connection with the urge to experience our own agency.”
Side note: Simone de Beauvoir and Jean Paul Sartre used to work in the same cafe but at separate tables.
Even Emily Dickinson needed to connect.
She just had to do it through words.
”Her letters are beyond brilliant,” Christopher Benfey, a Dickinson authority who teaches at Mount Holyoke College, told me, “and you can’t really understand her as a poet and a writer without seeing that she approached this form, alongside her poetry, with equal energy and commitment.”
Dickinson wrote poems for specific people in her life and mailed them — she even sent “more than two hundred letters and two hundred and fifty poems” to her sister-in-law Susan, “even though they lived next door to each other.”
A good rivalry, if used constructively, can push the opposite parties further than they could go on their own.
Witness Lennon and McCartney’s competitiveness (Lennon said his new album would “probably scare [Paul] into doing something decent and then he’ll scare me into doing something decent, and I’ll scare him, like that.”) or Larry Bird and Magic Johnson.
“The feeling of rivalry,” [William James] said, ”lies at the very basis of our being, all social improvement being largely due to it… The deepest spring of action in us is the sight of action in another. The spectacle of effort is what awakens and sustains our own effort.”
On a side note to all this, I have a bad habit when reading books of wondering to myself what other structures the book could’ve taken, and whether I would have done it differently. I do wonder how this would’ve read if the “grand theory” of collaboration were stripped out and each creative pair were given their own chapter, with the stories simply juxtaposed against each other. This idea is actually alluded to in Shenk’s (rather strange, actually) epilogue:
About a year ago a friend of mine, an accomplished editor and Pulitzer Prize-winning writer, told me that the plan for the book — to consider scores of stories alongside one another — was nuts.
Shenk himself seems to have realized it is the stories of these pairings that really fly:
I’ve pushed for organization via the traditional mode of narrative; [my editor] has pushed for a more audacious organization by idea.
And that he’s well aware (as we all are) that this book is going on a certain spot in the bookstore shelves:
My job is to push against the conventions of “big idea” books. Eamon’s job is to hold the project to the primary necessities of the form.
Regardless, I found this a fascinating read. It comes out next week.
Filed under: my reading year 2014
Beyond Energy, Matter, Time and Space
“Humans might think we can figure out the ultimate mysteries, but there is no reason to believe that we have all the pieces necessary for a theory of everything.”
Albert Einstein was a genius, but he wasn’t the only one – why has his name come to mean something superhuman?
Before he died, Albert Einstein requested that his whole body be cremated as soon as possible after death, and his ashes scattered in an undisclosed location. He didn’t want his mortal remains to be turned into a shrine, but his request was only partially heeded. Einstein’s closest friend, the economist Otto Nathan, took possession of his ashes, but not before Thomas Harvey, the pathologist who performed the autopsy, removed his brain. Family and friends were aghast, but Harvey convinced Einstein’s son Hans Albert to give his reluctant permission after the fact. The eccentric doctor kept the brain in a glass jar of formalin inside a cider box under a cooler, until 1998, when he returned it to Princeton Hospital, and from time to time, he would send little chunks of it to interested scientists. Most of us will never be victims of brain-theft and ash hoarding, but Einstein’s status as the archetypical genius of modern times singled him out for special treatment. An ordinary person can live and die privately, but a genius – and his grey matter – belongs to the world. Even in his lifetime, which coincided with the first great flowering of mass media, Einstein was a celebrity, as famous for his wit and white shock of hair as he was for his science. Indeed, his life seems to have been timed perfectly to take advantage of the proliferations of newspapers and radio shows, whose reports often framed Einstein’s theories as being incomprehensible to anyone but the genius himself.
There’s no doubt that Einstein’s contributions to science were revolutionary. Before he came along, cosmology was a part of philosophy but, thanks to him, it’s become a branch of science, tasked with no less than a mathematical history and evolution of the Universe. Einstein’s work also led to the discovery of exotic physical phenomena such as black holes, gravitational waves, quantum entanglement, the Big Bang, and the Higgs boson. But despite this formidable scientific legacy, Einstein’s fame owes something more to our culture’s obsession with celebrity. In many ways, Einstein was well-suited for celebrity. Apart from his distinctive coif, he had a way with words and, as a result, he is frequently quoted, occasionally with bon mots he didn’t actually say. More than anything, Einstein possessed the distinctive mystique of genius, a sense that he was larger than life, or different from the rest of us in some fundamental way, which is why so many people were desperate to get hold of his brain. (via Why is Einstein the poster boy for genius? – Matthew Francis – Aeon)