An idea, like a ghost, according to the common notion of ghosts, must be spoken to a little before it will explain itself.
Over the last few weeks, it’s been hard to avoid Joshua Wolf Shenk, an essayist and author whose new book, Powers of Two: Seeking the Essence of Innovation in Creative Pairs, has received prominent play in such outlets as The Atlantic and the New York Times. At first glance, Shenk’s argument is compelling, even seductive. Meaningful creative work, he says, isn’t the creation of solitary geniuses, but of interpersonal exchanges, either through explicit collaboration or more subtle dialogues often centering on pairs. Pointing to John Lennon and Paul McCartney, he reminds us that even if many of their greatest songs were written largely by one or the other, all were born out of a cycle of mutual competition and reaction: “Penny Lane” is part of a conversation with “Strawberry Fields Forever,” to the point where it’s hard to imagine either one without its counterpart on the flip side. As different as Paul and John may have been, neither was ever as good without the other, and their collaboration was greater than the sum of its parts. “The lone genius,” Shenk concludes in the Times, “is a myth that has outlived its usefulness.”
Well, maybe. Like many authors with a thesis—and a book—to sell, Shenk occasionally overstates his own argument, sometimes in ways that quietly undermine his most valuable points. He notes, correctly, that Shakespeare’s plays emerged from an atmosphere of collaboration: “Surviving records show three or four or even five playwrights receiving pay for a single production, according to the Columbia professor James Shaprio.” This is true enough, but it ignores the inconvenient fact that Shakespeare’s work still feels qualitatively different, to most thoughtful readers, from other works produced by an identical process. If collaboration was the most powerful factor involved, we’d find masterpieces on the level of Hamlet from the likes of John Ford, Thomas Middleton, and John Webster, all of whom worked in the exact same way. Instead, they gave us a body of plays that are remembered today, to the extent that they’re read at all, because of their proximity to Shakespeare. And when it comes to the origins of that Shakespearian difference, we’re left, frustratingly, with that “mythical” lone genius. (It’s unclear, incidentally, who is supposed to be promulgating that particular myth these days; if anything, modern critical theory and literary analysis is fixated to a fault on social and historical contexts.)
Shenk muddies his case further by failing to distinguish—at least in the excerpts and articles I’ve read—between real creative pairs, like Lennon and McCartney, and instances in which an essentially solitary artist or thinker benefited from a confidant or trusted critic. He approvingly cites the example of Michele Besso, whom Einstein called “the best sounding board in Europe,” and laments the fact that “most Vera Nabokovs never get acknowledged.” But nobody seriously doubts that even the most idiosyncratic geniuses need to work their ideas out with others, or that many great works of art have been rooted in a productive friendship or marriage. We often don’t know what we think about something until we hear what we have to say about it, and it’s a blessing to find someone who pushes us to be more thoughtful or original than we’d be on our own. Yet this all comes down to saying that geniuses, like everybody else, are happier among friends than alone, and that truly original thinkers will seek out companions who bring out their best. It’s possible, as Shenk says, this fact deserves more emphasis. But in the end, it just boils down to the same mystery as before.
To be clear, I like a lot of what Shenk is saying. Creativity is about combinations, or the movement between extremes, and we often find fruitful pairings of ideas when we talk things out with those we trust. But while it might be tempting to champion the social spaces where such fertilization can take place, like “the crowd-sourced Wikipedia or the writer’s room at The Daily Show,” it’s only part of the story, and not even the most interesting part. No truly great novel has ever emerged from collaboration: it’s a process that makes considerable demands on an individual’s ability to tolerate solitude, introspection, and meticulous work in private. We’ve all known great talkers and dreamers who wove spellbinding patterns of ideas in conversation but seemed incapable of setting them down in a more permanent form, something that demands, alas, that we spend a lot of time alone. Collaboration has its place, and it certainly fascinates me, but it’s a mistake to call it “a more truthful model” than solitary genius, or to imply that we’ve all been willfully ignoring the context in which great work arises. It’s another promising approach to the central unknown of the creative life, but it only reminds us that creativity—together or alone—will do whatever it takes to live another day.
Beginners sometime ask me how a novel is written, the answer to which is: Any way at all. One knows only when it is finished, and then if one is at all serious, he will never do it the same way again.
In an interview he gave a few years ago to The Paris Review, James Ellroy told a memorable story about the origins of his novel The Big Nowhere:
I was influenced by a bad William Friedkin movie from 1980, Cruising. It has a great premise. There are a string of homosexual murders in the West Village and Al Pacino is a young, presumably heterosexual cop, who goes undercover and is tempted by the homosexual world. What an idea! Hence, The Big Nowhere. A cop in LA in the fifties gets assigned to a homosexual murder case and becomes aroused by the men he’s investigating.
I love this story because it illustrates a point best expressed by a modified version of Ebert’s Law: “A story isn’t about what it’s about, but about how it’s about it.” A movie that bungles an intriguing premise can serve as a source of inspiration for a better storyteller, and if you’re able to exploit the underlying idea more compellingly, it isn’t plagiarism, but a kind of literary transmutation. Ideas, as I’ve said before, are cheap; execution is king.
As it happens, Ellroy’s example is just one of two I’ve recently encountered of authors quietly lifting an idea from another source. The other night, I watched the classic Star Trek: The Next Generation episode “Darmok” for the first time. While reading about it afterward, I came across a story about Doctor Who writer Russell T. Davies. When the episode first aired, he liked its logline—the brief summary included in the day’s television listings—so much that he deliberately didn’t watch the episode:
I love the idea so much, I’d rather think about it. Forever. The episode is called “Darmok,” and the synopsis simply says that Captain Picard is trapped on a planet with an alien who can only talk in metaphors. Wow. That sounds brilliant. How does that work? What happens? How does it end? I’ve got no idea—not seen it! But it keeps resonating with me…I’ve been thinking about that story and its potential for almost twenty years!
And while I haven’t seen the Doctor Who episode, “Midnight,” that “Darmok” inspired, I don’t have any doubt that the story is profoundly different from its inspiration. Even if we start in more or less the same place, we end up in an altogether different neighborhood.
I’ve started to take a particularly keen interest in examples like this because the novel I’m writing now originated in similar ways. Fifteen years ago, before Eyes Wide Shut came out, there were countless wild rumors about its plot and content, many of which—Tom Cruise wears a dress! Nicole Kidman shoots heroin!—were absurdly off the mark. (In fact, Eyes Wide Shut is an almost scene-for-scene adaptation of Arthur Schnitzler’s story Traumnovelle, which Kubrick had been hoping to film for decades, so anyone interested in the plot could have read it in the original novel long before the movie’s release.) Early on, however, there was a widely circulated plot summary that ended up in a lot of places, including Entertainment Weekly and the New York Times, saying that Cruise and Kidman played married psychiatrists who have affairs with their patients. Needless to say, this isn’t what the movie is about at all. But that inaccurate logline has stuck in my head for a long time, almost for as long as Davies thought about “Darmok,” and I’m currently writing my own version of it.
And if I’m not particularly concerned about revealing this detail here, it’s because I know that whatever story you—or anyone else—would write from this prompt would have little in common with the one I’m working on now. I’ve sometimes thought that if I were a writer looking for new ideas, I’d browse through the television listings to look for a logline that seemed interesting, and then deliberately not watch the movie. Here are a few culled at random from the thrillers section on Netflix: “Moving to a new town proves even more stressful for a teenager when she learns that the house next door was the site of a double murder.” “Convinced by a mysterious woman that a death row inmate is innocent, two brothers investigate and discover a case marred by betrayal and deceit.” “A detective plunges into a murky sea of corruption when he probes the connection between a rash of murders and a notorious New Orleans mobster.” These are intriguing ideas that could go in any number of directions, and the films themselves represent only one of a huge range of possibilities. If you’re curious, the movies in question are The House at the End of the Street, The Paperboy, and The Electric Mist—but if you haven’t seen them, why not make them your own?
Revision isn’t cleaning up after the party; revision is the party.
—Attributed to William Matthews
Interviewer: That’s one of the biggest surprises, that over the last twenty years you’ve developed the intuitive aspect of the work—they have become increasingly improvisational, and less programmatic.
Stella: Yes, in some ways they are. But it’s a bit tricky because if you look carefully, ninety-nine percent of the stuff is what I’ve always made, but I use it in a more improvisational manner. It’s all there—I hate to say this—it’s made to order. (Laughter) Then, I disorder it a little bit or, I should say, I reorder it. I wouldn’t be so presumptuous to claim that I had the ability to disorder it. I wish I did.