Powers of Two: A conversation about creativity with Joshua Wolf Shenk


Last weekend at the Texas Book Festival I had the pleasure of interviewing Joshua Wolf Shenk, the author of one of my favorite books of the year, Powers of Two: Finding the Essence of Innovation in Creative Pairs. I had a hunch that we’d have a lot to talk about, so I recorded our discussion and edited it down (liberally) to the post below. Enjoy.

AK: Let’s start out with The Lone Genius Myth.

JWS: I argue in the book that the lone genius is a mythical creature. Which is not to say that we don’t require solitude and it’s not to say that we might not take sole ownership over our work as you and I both do — we don’t have anybody else’s name on the covers of our books. Yet, there are very often characters offstage who are not acknowledged.

It’s very often the case that two people who are each known to the public are co-creating each other, essentially, though their relationship might not be known. C.S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien are both known and loved and admired but very few people know of the work they did together. Tolkien said of Lewis that, “He was for long my only audience.” And that “without him, I should surely have not been able to bring Lord of the Rings to conclusion.”

AK: The antidote to the lone genius myth is the network theory, where someone like Steven Johnson in his book Where Good Ideas Come From talks about creativity as a whole network of people connected to each other. (Brian Eno calls it “scenius.”) What I like that you did, is, you said, hey, it’s very hard to tell a story of a network because it’s so non-linear, so let’s talk about the duo, because the duo, in a way, is a mini-network. Let’s talk about one of those creative duos. Can you tell them about Tiger Woods’ caddy, Steve Williams

JWS: The classic hidden partner phenomenon. We see over and over again these hidden partners: Ralph Abernathy [an associate of Martin Luther King, Jr.], Theo Van Gogh, or Wilhelm Fliess, who was Freud’s muse in creating psychoanalysis. But there are also job categories that are hidden to the general public. They’re not hidden to insiders, in fact, insiders are preoccupied, obsessed with the roles of these people. With book authors, we’re obsessed with editors and agents and publicists, and all of these specialized positions.

I was talking to a friend about the problem of the art dealer as a hidden job category. Art dealers ought not to be known to the public. And my friend said, “Do you know about the caddy?” And I really thought he was putting me on because I had recently seen Caddyshack. [Laughs] He said, “No, actually, because golfers have to go out alone and be out there all day, they can’t go into the dugout or talk to a coach or a manager, so the caddy becomes the strategist, the counselor.

If you look at the relationship between Steve Williams and Tiger Woods, it verges close to classic collaboration: they’re reading the course together, Williams is counseling him, strategizing with him, sometimes taunting him to get his blood up. And sometimes deliberately misleading him about yardage! Because he thought Tiger was overshooting, he’d give him an incorrect number. And he said he did that for five years. [Laughs.]

We can see that as a fascinating phenomenon, but we can also look at the story of the relationship: how they met, how they became entwined, and in this case, how they came to a fiery end. Now you have this competing claim of ownership. You have Steve Williams talking about the stuff “we” did, as in, he and Tiger, and it’s causing a slight scandal in the golf world because people think, “Is he overstepping his bounds?”

All of that tension and energy that we all know intuitively is the stuff of life, that’s where we live our lives, in those interpersonal encounters. In business literature, there’s zero talk about relationships. It’s all about networks and cultures and teams. But if you go to the bar after work, what you hear people talking about is who said this and who did what and how it makes you feel and how am I going to be able to work with that person. And it’s the same with creativity. Steve Jobs often did this: he’d thank all the people at Apple. Lyndon Johnson in his memoirs thanked the many people who helped him do it, but he did not draw attention to the particular ghostwriter and their relationship, which is where the thing really took shape. 

AK: While we’re talking about relationships, I wanted to bring up another hidden partner: Marcia Lucas, George Lucas’s first wife. I don’t think a lot of people know about her.

I’m preoccupied by this story. I came to it late in my research, and only mentioned her briefly in the book, but I’ve been telling her story in talks. They divorced around Return Of The Jedi, which is not incidentally when the work started to go south. [Laughs] She was with him when he made all of his great movies, and that’s not an incidental biographical fact. 

AK: I mean, Mark Hamill, the guy who played Luke Skywalker, he said she was the heart of those movies. 

JWS: When you look at the official narrative of Star Wars, it’s very peculiar, because it is a whole-cloth lone genius narrative of the master director, the auteur, to the extent that if anybody else is presented as involved it’s because they were causing trouble, or getting in the way of his vision. And yet, you hear Carrie Fisher say, “You know, George didn’t know how to talk to people.” And it’s never explored, never resolved how you’d have someone who is doing all of this alone and is unable to talk to his actors. In that way, and in many respects, his wife was rounding him out, was coaxing him, was virtually the only person who could say no to him.

If you look at the documentary on the making of the first prequel, you see why that movie sucked, because it’s a culture of Yes Men. George walks in to a room and he starts talking and all the heads start bobbing up and down.

It is a rare person who can say no to you, who can challenge you. It’s one of the things that makes these stories emotionally quite complex because a lot of times, there’s a kind of veracity, a kind of opposition, people bringing unwelcome truth to you and the intimacy emerging around that exchange, and not just the kind of pleasant, warm, encouragement that we often associate with creative relationships. Although, that’s there, too. Certainly, that is what Tolkien is saying of Lewis, he’s saying, “It’s only by his faith in me that I was able to believe in it myself.” 

AK: I just think Lucas is so fascinating, because he’s an example of what happens when somebody buys their own lone genius myth.

JWS: And it’s so poignant that Marcia Lucas has essentially been disappeared. Written out of the narrative. If you think of a marriage, and the marriage is being shot by a documentary crew, and then they get divorced in an ugly way, and the spouse who has the footage gets to hire the editor to make the cut, that is more or less what happens in a lot of these relationships. And it can be crazy-making to then go back and reconstruct it. But if we don’t do that, we’re missing the story of how the work was made. And we can’t understand the work that we love so much. And we’re really hobbled when we want to make work ourselves. 

I mean, I suffered inordinately from the lone genius myself as a young man. Not appreciating the role of fellow writers and editors and critics. Not understanding the role that jealousy could play, thinking of it as some deficit in my imagination that I felt jealous of other people. Not understanding that jealousy is one of the primary fuels of creative work, and has been all through time! It’s only having spent five years on this book that I feel I understand the foundation of creativity as a relentlessly relational experience. 

AK: I have found friendly rivalries to be the thing that pushes me forward in my work. Whenever I see one of my friends do something interesting, I go, “Fuck! That’s so good! I’m gonna do something now!” But I think to some other people, especially when you’re starting out, this can be really disheartening. You see people making stuff, and you start feeling inadequate. I wonder if, in studying all of this, you have advice for people who do feel that way? How can they turn that pressure into something good instead of bad?

JWS: At the start, climb into the ring and engage with it. Know that this is a presence in many, if not all, creative lives. We owe the works of Picasso to this quality. Picasso and Matisse were in this relentless exchange, like a boxing match, or a chess match, except those are imperfect metaphors because they suggest an ending. An in fact, what they were engaging in was an “Infinite Game,” a metaphor I drew from philosopher James Carse. An infinite game is an exchange with someone in which the rules are constantly being adjusted, and the intention is for no one to lose, and for the game to go on. For it never to end. There’s such a thing as adversarial collaboration, like between Magic Johnson and Larry Bird. You see this often in people who are ostensibly  collaborators, like Lennon and McCartney. 

I do think, for me, it can be alienating to experience some unreachable excellence in the absence of any kind of personal connection. Just at this festival, I met someone whose work inspires me and vexes me and for whom I have jealousy. Feeling a sense of recognition, feeling that I know this person, allows me to feel that I’m now in dialogue. It humanizes something that otherwise can be alienating. And whether it’s through social media or Twitter or through a direct exchange, I think it can be very helpful. And it can be like a conversation. “Oh you did this, now I’m gonna do this. Let me show you.” There can be a great deal of pleasure, even as the competition remains. 

AK: There’s all this talk about authenticity online. But to me, social media is often just a dressing up of experience. When I see some other artists online, it’s like, “Look at my sun-filled studio in Brooklyn and my view of the bridge and my MacBook glistening in the afternoon sunlight! I’m special!” The thing I know as a former marketer is that this lone genius myth, it actually, from a sales perspective, it works really well. Having the knowledge of how well the lone genius myth works, but knowing that you want to change the conversation and the culture, how do you balance that with knowing what sells? I could see a young artist doing all this stuff we’re talking about behind the scenes, but then going ahead and presenting themselves as the lone genius.

JWS: Co-authored books don’t sell as well as single author books. It’s because people when they read a book have the feeling of being in conversation. The author’s whispering in your ear. It’s an intimate exchange. It’s also the case that people who are hidden in their role in the creative process to the general public are often doing that in a canny way.

There was just this documentary about this guy named Shep Gordon, Supermensch. He literally wrote the Alice Cooper story, like a comic book. He created this character that Alice Cooper played. And when it came time to make the documentary, the director, Mike Myers, said, “Hey man, could you show me your archive?” “I don’t have an archive.” “Well you know, I need some photographs of you and these guys.” “There are no photographs.” “What do you mean?” “I made sure never to be photographed!”

And this was really underscored for me recently because I heard the story of a pretty prominent editor. I knew that he had lost his job, and I never knew why. Well, it was because he was going around telling people about how crappy the drafts were that he was getting. He was telling people about the work that he did. Maybe not even misrepresenting it, or talking bad about his authors, because it is true that editors often rewrite a piece and make a piece and they own it creatively more than an author, but it is verboten to discuss it for lots of reasons. For political reasons, for reasons of the author’s ego…and so, good editors just don’t do that. Robert Gottlieb, who was one of the great editors of our time, he said very directly that the editor’s role should never be discussed in public. He had to be dragged and hassled to do a Paris Review interview. Even then, he would only do it by letting his authors speak for him.

So the public representation is always going to be skewed. But you can talk endlessly about it in private. With your colleagues, that’s all they want to do!

When I raise my hand at a reading, I always ask about process, I ask about these mundane things. The big philosophical stuff, I feel like I can turn to criticism, and I can get that from a lot of places, but when I get a chance to actually talk to somebody, I want to get behind the scenes of these mechanics. 

AK: That’s something that I was attempting with Show Your Work! — explaining that you can actually use that behind-the-scenes stuff for marketing purposes. Because people are interested in looking behind the curtain, and if you can present it in a compelling way, it does add power to what you do. 

JWS: And I did that in this book. I end the book talking about my editor. 

AK: Your epilogue is really personal compared to the rest of the book. 

JWS: I wanted to write my relationship with my editor into the book. I didn’t because he didn’t want me to. But I did write the epilogue about it, because we were lighting up all the themes — electricity, negotiating a joint identity, particular roles that also overlap in complicated ways, tension, and challenge. And at the worst of it, like outright crisis of conflict, there was a time that I thought I might be unable to finish a book about creative pairs because I was unable to maintain my own creative pair! [Laughs.]

AK: You wrote in the epilogue that the reason this book captivated you was because you are a fairly solitary person. One of the things that I noticed about writing self-help is that you find yourself in the position where you need some self-help after writing the self-help book!

JWS: Well, it is self-help: we’re writing to help ourselves. 

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