Consider yourself lucky you’re not my wife. Every morning she is forced to endure a rant from me about something I’ve read in that day’s Washington Post. Sundays provide multiple opportunities for fist-shaking, but one editorial this past Sunday hit a nerve: the topic was creativity.
The headline said it all: “The end of lone-wolf capitalism.” For years now digital utopians have first insisted that we all believe in a myth that creativity and innovation comes from solitary thinkers; then they knock down their straw man by pointing to the power of collaboration. Citing the Firefox browser (volunteers maintain and upgrade it) and Facebook (the content comes from us, not Mark Zuckerberg), Neal Gabler wrote this: “In our global, networked economy, the lone wolf is rapidly becoming an anachronism, one that threatens to impede innovation rather than fostering it.”
Perhaps I’m sensitive to the suggestion that creativity practiced in solitude is somehow an impediment to our economy and society. Perhaps it’s because much of my creative energy emerges in solo activity, in particular writing. Creative writing. Journalism. And yes, editorial writing for myself and clients.
My wife endured my Sunday morning rant with a forced smile. But I received more welcome feedback that evening from, of all places, a television commercial. The SuperBowl is the one time each year I don’t use my TiVo to skip through the commercials. Imagine my surprise when I saw this ad for Best Buy, that features Philippe Kahn, cameraphone creator; Ray Kurzweil, text-to-speech inventor; Daniel Henderson, video sharing innovator ; Chris Barton and Avery Wang, founders of Shazam; Jim McKelvey, Square Mobile Pay creator; Kevin Systrom, Instagram creator; Neil Papworth, text message innovator; and Paul and David Bettner, designers of Words with Friends.
I had the honor in 2008 of receiving a VIP tour of the Disney Animation Studios in Burbank. Disney had recently acquired Pixar, but had put Pixar’s team in charge of Disney’s animation studio. It made sense. Pixar had been producing one quality movie after another–Finding Nemo, The Incredibles–while Disney was inflicting us with Home on the Range and Chicken Little. My guide showed me how Pixar’s John Lasseter literally was rebuilding the studio by changing the interior architecture. A large, central space had been carved out in the middle of the sprawling building to create a lounge. Animators were encouraged to mingle in the lounge, to bounce ideas off of each other, to share their art and their story ideas, and seek feedback.
That made perfect sense to me. When I covered DC for an online publication based in San Francisco, I worked out of my apartment, the news outlet’s only reporter in Washington. Most of my journalism career I spent in newsrooms. When you can ask a question of the reporter next to you or walk down the hall to consult with an editor, your journalism improves. I know, because I’ve been in both environments.
The same concept applies to creative writing. Whether you have your drafts workshopped at an MFA residency, with a local writer’s group, or even with a spouse, the feedback helps you grow as a writer and improves your final work.
But that draft of creative writing is still produced alone, from ideas formed in your head. That story that you write in the newsroom is typed by your fingers, with words formed in your head. There are actually digital utopians out there who believe a news story can be crowdsourced, that a novel can be crowdsourced. Will they need constant updates to provide value, like my Firefox browser does?
When my Disney guide and I left the animation building, we continued walking on the studio grounds. We passed a smaller, low-slung brick building with aging windows. The guide told me that the building was where Walt Disney and his animators had been housed. Each window represented a separate room, he told me. An animator would have a specific task–perhaps illustrating Bambi venturing into the meadow for the first time–and all of those individual projects would be combined to produce the final film.
Creatives working alone and yet also collaborating. That seems a good model; after all, Bambi is still delighting audiences 70 years after its 1942 release.
The editorial writer who inspired my Sunday morning rant, Neal Gabler, is the author of Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination. I have not read the book; I likely will at some point, which will be no surprise to my loyal readers who know my obsession with biographies. I find it intriguing that Gabler, who maintains individual innovators are not only the product of myth but that perpetuation of the myth impedes innovation, would contribute to that myth by writing a biography about a single innovator.
Perhaps the book takes a more nuanced–and accurate–view of its subject, making clear that Disney was a man of great vision and creativity, and that he also knew how to motivate and mobilize a crowd of creatives to produce great art. That was what I learned about him on my Disney Studios tour. And think of those innovators featured in the SuperBowl ad. They conceived of their innovations, but presumably then worked with other creatives to bring their ideas to market.
As a veteran of editorial writing, I know the writer’s job is to posit one extreme and then knock it down with an opposite extreme. But I have little patience for extremist thinking. Let us celebrate the creative spirit and solo effort of individual artists and innovators, while also welcoming the benefits that can come when they share their ideas and collaborate with other creatives.
Thank you for tolerating my rant. Be glad you’re not married to me, thus sparing you daily torture.
What are your thoughts? Is the idea of solo creativity a myth? How does one combine solo creativity with collaboration?