The Rumpus Book Club Chat With Joshua Shenk


The Rumpus Book Club chats with Joshua Wolf Shenk about his new book, Powers of Two: Finding the Essence of Innovation in Creative Pairs, creative intimacy, how John Lennon and Paul McCartney worked together, and the myth of the solo genius.

This is an edited transcript of the book club discussion. Every month The Rumpus Book Club hosts a discussion online with the book club members and the author, and we post an edited version online as an interview. To learn how you can become a member of the Rumpus Book Club, click here.

This Rumpus Book Club interview was edited by Brian Spears.


Brian S: Where did the idea for this book come from, the desire to examine pairs?

Joshua Wolf Shenk: I started with the question, “What is this thing we call ‘chemistry’ or ‘electricity’ in creative lives?” I felt hungry to know more about the experience that I would come to call creative intimacy, in part because I thought, if I understood it better, I might be able to be more creative myself.

Michelle: Were you surprised where you ended up?

Joshua Wolf Shenk: I was, because I started with a list of traditional collaborators—like Lennon/McCartney and Watson & Crick, and so on. But I quickly saw that creative intimacy shows up in so many other scenarios, between creators and muses, for example, or between writers and editors in cases where it’s clearly the writer’s vision and the editor is facilitating, or “supporting.” Thomas Wolfe and Maxwell Perkins and Vincent van Gogh and his brother Theo—they are as much exemplars of creative intimacy as John and Paul.

Brian S: I want to thank you, by the way, for really poking holes in the idea of the lone (often mad) genius. I’ve felt intuitively for a long time that that meme was bullshit, and I was glad to see you flesh it out.

Joshua Wolf Shenk: The mad genius and the lone genius grew up together as romantic myths. And, yes, taking one down means taking the other down too. So many cases where we see exalted creative people in a kind of isolation chamber—like van Gogh or even Emily Dickinson—we neglect the deep, active, ongoing engagement they had with critical others. When you pull on the thread of these relationships, you see that chemistry and connection is more than an incidental fascination, or some kind of rare peak experience. It’s fundamental to the creative process, from Steve Jobs to Sigmund Freud, from Pablo Picasso to Martin Luther King, Jr.

I should say that madness, or its milder variants, does coincide with creative work more than, say, dentistry. Nancy Andreasen’s work on bipolar and creativity is a reminder of this, and she just had a big piece in the same Atlantic that previewed my book. But we do go too far in the romance of mad thinking; strange thoughts alone never achieve anything except in relationship to a staggering sanity.

Brian S: Which pair surprised you the most?

Joshua Wolf Shenk: I was mesmerized by the van Gogh brothers—the sheer depth of their relationship. It’s like they were two Aspen trees, separate shoots above ground but with the same root system. They had distinct roles and temperaments. And they lived very separate lives. But they were so bound up together, and both thought that the work that bore Vincent’s name was co-created.

Brian S: I was most surprised to learn about Theo’s spiral after Vincent’s death. I didn’t know that before and it seemed so unlikely a conclusion.

Joshua Wolf Shenk: Yes, six months after Vincent died, Theo was dead, too—at age 33. It’s heartbreaking. And it really shows how much we are shaped—down to the core of the “self”—by relationships. We are who we are because others are the way they are.

In other cases, the surprise was to see the heart of an interaction, where before I only knew of a two-headed beast. Matt Stone and Trey Parker are an example. It’s astonishing to see the immense distinctions between them. But once we see their roles—Trey as “originator” and “writer”; Matt as “muse” and “producer”—we come to see how much the magic comes from the interaction.

Brian S: Were there any pairs you researched that you couldn’t fit into your theories?

Joshua Wolf Shenk: I’m definitely curious about outliers. I’m curious about Henry Darger, for example. But I will say that in every instance that I have gotten insights into an apparently isolated genius, it’s turned out that relationships are operating behind the scenes. There’s not much theory in the book, per se. It’s just observations from the stories, and the convergences.

Amanda: I really appreciated this book. I am an attorney and practice in partnership with one other attorney. Recently, he has decided to work part of the year from his vacation home and I have been wrangling with the impact it has had on my creativity and overall satisfaction. Not saying we’re a genius pair, but a lot of your ideas and thoughts really hit home to explain that.

Joshua Wolf Shenk: Has the distance helped or hindered? Or is the jury still out?

Amanda: Distance has definitely hindered it from my perspective. I need to have someone to bounce my ideas off of.

Joshua Wolf Shenk: This is interesting. Distance is a major theme of the book. Every pair needs to find the connection and closeness (physical, geographical, temporal) that heats them up and the solitude that gives them room to cool. Both these elements are critical. So Emily Dickinson and Thomas Wentworth Higginson are quite different from Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir who are quite different from Matt Stone and Trey Parker. But in every case, you do have an optimal creative distance.

Brian S: How long did you work on this book? And were you working on anything else at the time?

Joshua Wolf Shenk: I had the idea in late 2008. I took it up in earnest in the spring of 2009. I sold the proposal in the fall of 2010. So about five years from start to finish. I wrote some essays in the meantime, taught, edited a book, curated a variety of programs. But this was my main project.

Brian S: The amount of notes in this book is impressive for something that’s not a traditional academic publication.

Joshua Wolf Shenk: I’m a geek for notes. If it were up to me, I’d have them in the text themselves, as you see in academic papers. Of course, my publisher wouldn’t have it, because it’s off-putting to the general reader but I’m hoping there will be a retro-chic for that sort of thing in serious popular writing, because the movement between text and materials is so interesting and important, more so today than ever since so many of us are mindful that everything is a remix. Any one story (or set of stories, like those in this book) ought to incite pleasure for more investigation; the notes are the treasure map.

Brian S: Were there any examples of members of pairs who split and then found another soul mate (for lack of a better word)?

Joshua Wolf Shenk: Sure. John Lennon’s work with Yoko Ono in the early days of their connection is sublime. I’m thinking of the balloon piece, for example, where they launched 365 white helium balloons over London with a card that said “You are here.” These were great pieces of performance art and really did reflect their joint sensibility. Many people also have serial partners or multiple partners at the same time. Mark Zuckerberg and Sheryl Sandberg are partners at Facebook, and Sandberg is partners with the writer Nell Scovell on Lean In.

But it’s also true that deep partnerships get under our skin. Once you really create with someone, I don’t think you’re never fully rid of them.

Brian S: Because you’re changed by that partnership, if nothing else. I saw near the end a brief mention of Mick Jagger and Keith Richards—would you say they look like a pair that should have made the split official? I’m thinking about the way that both Lennon and McCartney’s later solo work paled in comparison to their paired work, and the very similar decline in the quality of the Rolling Stones’s work in the last 35 years or so.

Joshua Wolf Shenk: Yes. People often ask, “How did Mick and Keith make it work while John and Paul split?” But both pairs stopped creating, really. Mick and Keith just stayed together as business partners and as a kind of tribute band to themselves.

But whether they “split” or not, whether they’re working together actively or not, they’re always embedded in each other’s lives. It’s not just that you’re changed by the partnership. It’s also that the work you’ve created is co-owned—maybe legally, certainly emotionally—by this other person, so you have this joint parentage which is even more intense than having a kid with someone.

Brian S: I think maybe McCartney still sees Lennon as a competitor, but it’s futile, because you can’t beat a ghost.

Joshua Wolf Shenk: Yep. He has the worst of both words, because he still has to beat John, but he doesn’t have John’s help doing it. At their height, each guy was trying to top the other, and each guy was helping the other do it. See “Strawberry Fields Forever”/”Penny Lane.”

Brian S: But hasn’t John’s influence on Paul waned?

Joshua Wolf Shenk: Yes, but I don’t know that his hold on Paul’s mind has gotten any more tenuous. I think Paul is consumed by the relationship—maybe in ways that he’s not even fully aware of.

Brian S: We talked a bit on the phone about Matthew Swanson and Robbi Behr, because they’re mutual friends. I’m a massive fan of Idiots Books and have been really pleased to see their success in recent years (including a TEDTalk on collaboration). What is it about their pairing that strikes you as potent?

Joshua Wolf Shenk: Robbi and Matthew are an example of two people who become one organism, and yet whose distinctiveness as individuals grows all the while. They’re poster-kids for making something in combinations that would never exist with two separate people.

Brian S: Their books are genius, and I like the stories they tell about how Matthew was rejected by 19 MFA programs (one of them twice) and how Robbi was making a living but not feeling satisfied, until they started working together. Matthew’s stories are interesting and quirky, but simply as text they wouldn’t work the way they do with Robbi’s images. And I like that they each offer critical input on each other’s work, even though they work in different genres.

Joshua Wolf Shenk: Yes. And they tumble over each other, like two minds in a clothes dryer. Did you see the flow chart they made for Slate?

But I bet many Rumpi are a little skeptical about this kind of story, and maybe we should talk about that a bit. Not skeptical that people like Robbi and Matthew exist, but that this story really applies to them. Writers and painters and stand-up comics and other creative types where solitude is so critical—these folks often think that the pair phenomenon is for others. But creative intimacy is so much more than “collaboration.” In writing especially, the problem of the hidden partner is rife. Most good editors don’t talk about what they do. It’s often indiscrete, or even disrespectful. I just heard the story of a magazine editor who lost his job because he’d lost the confidence of his writers by talking so promiscuously about how he rescued their work. Michael Pietsch, who edited David Foster Wallace, said that “The editor works in disappearing ink. If a writer takes a suggestion, it becomes part of her creation. If not, it never happened. The editor’s work is and always should be invisible.”

And some writers don’t even have an editor yet, or an agent, but many of the same functions of muse, critic, sounding board—these get played by members of writing workshops, spouses, special readers. (John McPhee calls them his “listeners.”)

Amanda: I really enjoyed the part about Magic Johnson and Larry Bird too—the idea of genius partnerships that can exist without a friendship or collaboration—competition only. It’s almost more pure. And what about Ann Patchett and Lucy Grealy? Great example of writers who fueled each other without necessarily collaborating.

Joshua Wolf Shenk: It’s pretty common that we see creative intimacy between two people with distinct public reputations, who never “co-author.” C.S. Lewis & J.R.R. Tolkien never had their names together on a story of note, but the influence on each other was inexorable and long-lasting. Tolkien said that Lewis was “for long my only audience” and “only from him did I ever get the idea that my ‘stuff’ could be more than a private hobby.” I also love the story of Ford Maddox Ford and Joseph Conrad. In this case, they did actually co-write some things, but the bigger impact was in the way they made the unreliable narrator together.

Brian S: If you haven’t burned out on pairs at this point, poetry has seen a mini-boom in collaborative work of late. Elisa Gabbert and Kathleen Rooney do some great work together, as have Maureen Seaton and Neil de la Flor, just off the top of my head. Maureen collaborates a lot, as a matter of fact.

Joshua Wolf Shenk: These are examples of people co-writing? I mean, are they creating poems “by Elisa Gabbert and Kathleen Rooney”?

Brian S: Yep. Publishing books of poems as co-authors. We’ve published them on The Rumpus.

Joshua Wolf Shenk: That’s really interesting but I’d introduce a note of caution that the bigger story with poets will always be how other people are up in their heads—teachers, editors, fellow writers, other muses. People always ask me: “So why did you write a book on collaboration alone?” I guess I understand where the question comes from, but it’s also so naive. As if the role of “writer” is the only one that matters as a text develops.

Brian S: I thought you basically referred to your editor as your creative other half in the postscript.

Joshua Wolf Shenk: Yes, Eamon Dolan is the co-creator of the book. We each had our roles, and it’s reflected in the formal credits. The book is “By Joshua Wolf Shenk.” But, because he runs an eponymous imprint it’s “an Eamon Dolan Book.”

Brian S: Like producer and director on a film?

Joshua Wolf Shenk: At times he’s very much producer. At other times he’s editor in the formal sense. At other times he’s critic—the guy whose skepticisms I have to beat back in order for something to stand. For example, Eamon was tough on the Lennon and McCartney material. He would red-line everything that didn’t immediately demonstrate its relevance to the themes. There were several stories I felt hell-bent on keeping, but I had to go back deeper and deeper to discover just why they mattered so much.

Brian S: I think non-writers often imagine that the author presents something whole to a publisher and that the editor basically looks for typos. They have no idea of the kind of relationship writers and editors can have.

Joshua Wolf Shenk: Yes, you’re right. Outside of any field, people are oblivious to the relationships within the field. No one but golf-insiders has any idea of the role a caddy plays. No one outside the art world—even people who spend a lot of time at museums and galleries—has any sense of what an art dealer really does, let alone an appreciation of, say, Theo Van Gogh. Beyond particular hidden partners, whole job categories are supposed to be hidden—the radio producer, the band manager. It’s remarkable, for example, how little anyone knows of what directors do at The Moth.

Brian S: Did you consider delving into Raymond Carver and Gordon Lish at any point?

Joshua Wolf Shenk: Yes, I did spend some time with Carver and Lish. It was one of many stories that affected my thinking but didn’t show up in the text. It’s like the structure of an iceberg, where you only see about 10 percent of the material on the surface.

Brian S: It’s probably just as well that publishing doesn’t often do the equivalent of a director’s cut with books.

Joshua Wolf Shenk: Agreed. Apparently Carver’s widow, Tess Gallagher, pushed for that material in the New Yorker some years ago—the story that became “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love” before Lish’s edits—thinking it would elevate Carver’s reputation, but I thought the real story there was the joint genius of he and Lish together. Though I also understand what a pain in the ass Lish was—and how Carver would have come to resent him.

Brian S: Have you started on a new project yet?

Joshua Wolf Shenk: I have. I’m going to write a sprawling essay-memoir on the relationship of the material and the spiritual—on how our sense of intangible, emotional value gets entwined with concrete, material things, and how all this comes together in our relationship with money.

Brian S: Who are you reading these days? What should we be on the lookout for?

Joshua Wolf Shenk: I love Amy Fusselman’s work and I just finished her forthcoming book Savage Park. I’m preoccupied with voice-y essayists. Jonathan Lethem introduced a great volume of Mailer’s essays. I’m preoccupied with contemporary fiction that is truer than many essays, like Sheila Heti’s How Should a Person Be and Ben Lerner’s novels. I loved 10:04.

Brian S: Thanks so much for joining us today and for writing such an interesting book.

Joshua Wolf Shenk: Thank you.

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