Joshua Wolf Shenk
When the quickening comes. When the air between us feels less like a gap than a passage. When we don’t know what to say because there is so much to say. Or, conversely, when we know just what to say because somehow, weirdly, all the billions of impulses around thought and language suddenly coalesce and find a direction home.
Sometimes you meet someone who could change your life. Sometimes you feel that possibility. The sense that, in the presence of this celestial body, you fall into a new orbit; that the ground beneath you is more like a trampoline; that you may be able — with this new person — to create things more beautiful and useful, more fantastic and more real, than you ever could before.
How does this happen? What conditions of circumstance and temperament foster creative connection? In other words: Where and how does it begin? And which combinations of people make it most likely?
–Excerpt from Powers of Two: Seeking the Essence of Innovation in Creative Pairs (Eamon Dolan Books/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)
MELANIE FIGUEROA: Let’s start with the basics. In Powers of Two, you’re discussing the very essence of creativity in pairs. After all of the research and writing that went into this book, how would you define creativity? What about duos, specifically, led you to this subject?
JOSHUA SHENK: I define creativity broadly, as the bringing of new, beautiful, and useful things into the world. And what I found in my research is that, to a staggering degree, this often emerges from some kind of creative intimacy, sparks between people.
I started all this because I wanted to know about “chemistry” or “electricity”—the feeling that most of us have been lucky enough to feel: being buoyed up or energized by the presence of another person. I wanted to know what that thing is, at its essence. I thought I could get at it if I looked at exceptionally creative pairs like Lennon/McCartney and Watson and Crick.
But I soon began to see that the story of pairs goes way beyond traditional collaborators. Many stories of intimate creative exchanges get hidden from the public in one way or another, often because one member of the partnership is lionized as a lone genius, often because it’s the job of one member to stay off-stage, so to speak. Who knows the names Marcia Lucas, or Michele Besso, or Ralph Abernathy? Very few people, but each played a fascinating role in the life and work of George Lucas, Albert Einstein, and Martin Luther King, Jr.
And then there are cases where two people are each known—like Henry Matisse and Pablo Picasso, or C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien—but where the intimacy is a story largely untold.
MF: You also discuss something called optimal distance. Creative duos do, indeed, need time alone. How does this isolation affect the pair as a whole? In what ways does work done alone differ from work done in pairs, if any?
JS: I think we need to distinguish between isolation and solitude. Isolation is when we’re shut up, often against our will. Solitude is when we carve out space for ourselves to open up into our interior, to dream, to ruminate in an unfettered way. And solitude is a critical factor in the creative life. People often look at my book as an argument of connection AGAINST solitude, but I’m actually digging into the relationship between these two critical experiences. We can’t be creative without sufficient connection. And we can’t connect without coming from an authentic place within ourselves. Then, once we’ve connected, we need to move back into that interior space at various times. Everyone needs this to some degree, and when you find just the right balance you have what I call optimal distance.
For example, John Lennon and Paul McCartney began to lead very separate lives in the mid-1960s. John got into acid and had what he reckoned to be “a thousand trips.” He moved to an estate in a wealthy London suburb called Weybridge. Paul lived in central London, about an hour’s drive away from John’s house. Paul spent more time at the studio, catching John Cage performances, hanging out at the avant-garde Indica Gallery that he helped fund, and screening his little abstract films for Michelangelo Antonioni. John spent an increasing amount of time at home, in the sitting room off his kitchen, taking acid, watching TV. But they met regularly in the afternoon for writing sessions, where they’d spend the day trading licks and lyrics and goofing around. Then they’d go to the studio where they’d record all night.
MF: Is the myth of the “lone genius” merely overemphasized in our culture, or does it exist at all?
JS: I think the lone genius is a mythical creature. I don’t mean that there aren’t very special people, who do magnificent things, and who deserve the lion’s share of the credit for what they do. But creativity is activated, in one way or another, by connection.
MF: When Scott Timberg interviewed you for the Los Angeles Times, you told him “At its heart, these are really dark stories–two people who are bound together and can’t get out. It’s unspeakably joyful…and unspeakably sad. I think we can tell stories in which we recognize both.” Can you speak more about the darker aspects of being a member of a creative duo? Do you find that, in creative partnerships, a member loses part of themselves?
JS: It’s not so much that we lose a piece of ourselves. It’s that we yield a part of who we are to another person. We lose control. To be intimate with another person, we have to make ourselves vulnerable. To be helped by people we open ourselves up to be hurt by them. This is just basic human stuff. And when you get into creativity, you’re dealing with the arousal of all kinds of emotion—passion, jealousy, competition.
MF: In Powers of Two, you seem to dig at a deeper meaning in the power of creative relationships. You write that “We don’t know precisely how our minds link up with others’, but it’s becoming increasingly clear that these linkages account for much of what’s considered ‘the mind’ in the first place. Call it what you like–maybe intersubjectivity, maybe cognitive interdependence–but on some level, thinking (and, therefore, being) is social.” Creativity can tell you more about the self. Can you elaborate on that?
JS: Fascinating, right? Over time, you start to see pairs use the first person plural. Less “I,” more “we.” But the simple shifts can reflect the most changes, not just in how we talk but how we think. Close couples actually start to process knowledge in tandem. The psychologist Daniel Wegner calls this “transactive memory.” It’s when you remember stuff according to who knows it. This has come to light in recent years because some researchers think that the way we use Google is essentially an extension of this old process. In the book, I cite an experiment showing that couples of long standing do better retrieving past experiences together than separately. The journalist Clive Thompson calls this “cross-cuing”—“tossing clues back and forth until they triggered each other,” and he gives an example of a couple telling the story of their honeymoon forty years before.
F: and we went to two shows, can you remember what they were called?
M: We did. one was a musical, or were they both? I don’t … know … one . . .
F: John Hanson was in it.
M: Desert song.
F: Desert song, that’s it . . .
I love the way Thompson concludes: “They were,” he writes, “in a sense, Googling each other.”
MF: Do you find that women in creative pairs function differently than men?
JS: Perhaps they do—probably they do—but I spent my time looking for convergences. I wanted to find the themes that recur over and over across genres and eras and cultures. Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony light up all the themes of the book, in pretty much the same way as Ralph Abernathy and Martin Luther King, Jr. I would love to see someone take up gender as a focus in creative connection. I’d also love to see a great cross-cultural study—looking at the differences in creative intimacy between the east and west, for example.
In my book, there’s an extraordinary diversity of people, not just in creative fields, but in the kinds of relationships, and the kinds of people involved. But what’s striking is that if you look at all these stories, you begin to see certain themes arise over and over again, and we can follow these themes into a place of illumination of how to have more creative intimacy, and how to work with it better, in our own lives.
MF: The better-known writing duo you discuss in the book is probably C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien. How large of an impact would you say their relationship had on their work?
JS: I’ll let Tolkien himself answer this question: He said of Lewis, “He was for long my only audience. Only from him did I ever get the idea that my ‘stuff’ could be more than a private hobby. But for his interest and unceasing eagerness for more I should never have brought [The Lord of the Rings] to a conclusion.”
MF: You write “Many great pairs do not much like each other at first,” and you go on to provide Lewis and Tolkien as just one example of that. Do you find that tension is common in creative pairs?
JS: Yes. Within hours of meeting, Sergey Brin and Larry Page broke into a sharp argument—clashing, one journalist noted, like “two swords sharpening each other.” Penn Jillette said of his partner Teller that “We often hate each other, but it’s the kind of hatred that’s like flint and steel — the sparks that come out make it worth the while.” This isn’t uncommon. But love stories among people creating together are common, too.
MF: How do you find your other “half” (so to speak)? Especially in relationships with creatives like writers, whose process generally requires countless hours of isolation. Is it an “aha!” moment?
JS: Writers may need to go into their caves, but they will need to follow the rope out and find readers. Songwriters eventually have to find producers, or managers, or bandmates. The first place to start is with a recognition of how important these connections are. We’re not likely to find something we don’t know we need to look for. Once you have it in mind, I think it’s important to start small. Great and enduring creative relationships begin with the equivalent of flirting, of feeling that bit of energy and possibility. And when there’s something mutual there, have a first date—show someone a draft, or ask for some advice, or maybe even do something collaborative. And ask yourself: Does it make the work better?
Find a copy of Powers of Two: Seeking the Essence of Innovation in Creative Pairs on IndieBound
Joshua Wolf Shenk is a curator, essayist, and author, most recently, of Powers of Two: Seeking the Essence of Innovation in Creative Pairs (Eamon Dolan Books/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt). His work has appeared in Harper’s, Time, The Atlantic, Slate, The New Yorker, The New York Times, and the national bestseller Unholy Ghost: Writers on Depression. His first book, Lincoln’s Melancholy, was named one of the best books of 2005 by The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Atlanta-Journal Constitution, and won awards from The Abraham Lincoln Institute, the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill, and the National Mental Health Association.
Josh is a curator, storyteller, and advisor to The Moth; he currently serves on the general council. He is a past director of the Rose O’Neill Literary House at Washington College. Shenk consults to the Erikson Institute for Education and Research at the Austen Riggs Center, where he directs the Erikson Prize for Mental Health Media, and Arts in Mind, a conversation series co-hosted by the New School.
Josh has taught creative writing at The New School, New York University, Washington College, and the Bread Loaf Writer’s Conference. Other honors include residencies at Yaddo, MacDowell, the Blue Mountain Center, and the Norman Mailer Center; a Rosalynn Carter fellowship in mental health journalism at the Carter Center; a Japan Society Media Fellowship; and the Frank Whiting scholarship at the Bread Loaf Writer’s Conference. Josh was a 2005-06 fellow in non-fiction literature at the New York Foundation for the Arts.
Melanie Figueroa is the editor of The Rookie Report for Late Night Library. She is studying book publishing at PSU and blogs at The Poetics Project. Favorite books include The Bell Jar and Lucky.