Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

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If you’re a certain kind of writer, whenever you pick up a new book, instead of glancing at the beginning or opening it to a random page, you turn immediately to the acknowledgments. Once you’ve spent any amount of time trying to get published, that short section of fine print starts to read like a gossip column, a wedding announcement, and a high school yearbook all rolled into one. For most writers, it’s also the closest they’ll ever get to an Oscar speech, and many of them treat it that way, with loving tributes and inside jokes attached to every name. It’s a chance to thank their editors and agents—while the unagented reader suppresses a twinge of envy—and to express gratitude to various advisers, colonies, and fellowships. (The most impressive example I’ve seen has to be in The Lisle Letters by Muriel St. Clare Byrne, which pays tribute to the generosity of “Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II.”) But if there’s one thing I’ve learned from the acknowledgments that I’ve been reading recently, it’s that I deserve an assistant. It seems as if half the nonfiction books I see these days thank a whole squadron of researchers, inevitably described as “indefatigable,” who live in libraries, work through archives and microfilm reels, and pass along the results to their grateful employers. If the author is particularly famous, like Bob Woodward or Kurt Eichenwald, the acknowledgment can sound like a letter of recommendation: “I was startled by his quick mind and incomparable work ethic.” Sometimes the assistants are described in such glowing terms that you start to wonder why you aren’t reading their books instead. And when I’m trying to decipher yet another illegible scan of a carbon copy of a letter written fifty years ago on a manual typewriter, I occasionally wish that I could outsource it to an intern.

But there are also good reasons for doing everything yourself, at least at the early stages of a project. In his book The Integrity of the Body, the immunologist Sir Frank Macfarlane Burnet says that there’s one piece of advice that he always gives to “ambitious young research workers”: “Do as large a proportion as possible of your experiments with your own hands.” In Discovering, Robert Scott Root-Bernstein expands on this point:

When you climb those neighboring hills make sure you do your own observing. Many scientists assign all experimental work to lab techs and postdocs. But…only the prepared mind will note and attach significance to an anomaly. Each individual possesses a specific blend of personality, codified science, science in the making, and cultural biases that will match particular observations. If you don’t do your own observing, the discovery won’t be made. Never delegate research.

Obviously, there are situations in which you can’t avoid delegating the work to some degree. But I think Root-Bernstein gets at something essential when he frames it in terms of recognizing anomalies. If you don’t sift through the raw material yourself, it’s difficult to know what is unusual or important, and even if you have a bright assistant who will flag any striking items for your attention, it’s hard to put them in perspective. As I’ve noted elsewhere, drudgery can be an indispensable precursor to insight. You’re more likely to come up with worthwhile connections if you’re the one mining the ore.

This is why the great biographers and historians often seem like monsters of energy. I never get tired of quoting the advice that Alan Hathaway gave to the young Robert Caro at Newsday: “Turn every goddamn page.” Caro took this to heart, noting proudly of one of the archives he consulted: “The number [of pages] may be in the area of forty thousand. I don’t know how many of these pages I’ve read, but I’ve read a lot of them.” And it applies to more than just what you read, as we learn from a famous story about Caro and his editor Robert Gottlieb:

Gott­lieb likes to point to a passage fairly early in The Power Broker describing Moses’ parents one morning in their lodge at Camp Madison, a fresh-air charity they established for poor city kids, picking up the Times and reading that their son had been fined $22,000 for improprieties in a land takeover. “Oh, he never earned a dollar in his life, and now we’ll have to pay this,” Bella Moses says.

“How do you know that?” Gottlieb asked Caro. Caro explained that he tried to talk to all of the social workers who had worked at Camp Madison, and in the process he found one who had delivered the Moseses’ paper. “It was as if I had asked him, ‘How do you know it’s raining out?’”

This is the kind of thing that you’d normally ask your assistant to do, if it occurred to you at all, and it’s noteworthy that Caro has kept at it long after he could have hired an army of researchers. Instead, he relies entirely on his wife Ina, whom he calls “the only person besides myself who has done research on the four volumes of The Years of Lyndon Johnson or on the biography of Robert Moses that preceded them, the only person I would ever trust to do so.” And perhaps a trusted spouse is the best assistant you could ever have.

Of course, there are times when an assistant is necessary, especially if, unlike Caro, you’re hoping to finish your project in fewer than forty years. But it’s often the assistant who benefits. As one of them recalled:

I was working for [Professor] Bernhard J. Stern…and since he was writing a book on social resistance to technological change, he had me reading a great many books that might conceivably be of use to him. My orders were to take note of any passages that dealt with the subject and to copy them down.

It was a liberal education for me and I was particularly struck by a whole series of articles by astronomer Simon Newcomb, which I read at Stern’s direction. Newcomb advanced arguments that demonstrated the impossibility of heavier-than-air flying machines, and maintained that one could not be built that would carry a man. While these articles were appearing, the Wright brothers flew their plane. Newcomb countered with an article that said, essentially, “Very well, one man, but not two.”

Every significant social advance roused opposition on the part of many, it seemed. Well, then, shouldn’t space flight, which involved technological advances, arouse opposition too?

The assistant in question was Isaac Asimov, who used this idea as the basis for his short story “Trends,” which became his first sale to John W. Campbell. It launched his career, and the rest is history. And that’s part of the reason why, when I think of my own book, I say to myself: “Very well, one man, but not two.”

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