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No creative artist is an island

Magazine Issue
September/October 2014
Bookmarks Sept-Oct 2014

Powers of Two: Finding the Essence of Innovation in Creative Pairs
by Joshua Wolf Shenk
Houghton Mifflin. 368 pages.
ISBN: 9780544031593

Conventional wisdom favors what might be called the Lone Ranger theory of genius: a model of creativity that values individuals working in solitude, with no credit given to collaborators or helpers. This theory’s main flaw is obvious: without his ready-to-the-rescue partner, Tonto, watching over him behind the scenes, the Lone Ranger would never have made it through a single episode.

Images of this fictional duo kept coming to mind as I read Joshua Wolf Shenk’s provocative and engaging study of creative partnerships, Powers of Two: Finding the Essence of Innovation in Creative Pairs. Although Shenk never specifically mentions the Lone Ranger–Tonto team, it exemplifies the kind of intuitive interplay present in many of the real-life examples Shenk does discuss.

Perhaps paradoxically, Shenk’s decision to investigate the psychological factors that enable two distinctly different people to click as a successful, creative team derived from his own sense of loneliness as a writer. But was he himself just a team of one? By the end of his book, he comes to the conclusion that for all the time he spent alone writing in a room, he’d come to depend on his editor for guidance and inspiration. For Shenk, no creative artist is an island. Rather, creative duos coinhabit their own islands, each partner with a different and often shifting role or function, whether as foil, support, muse, reality tester, or an elusive combination of all these. It’s not for nothing that such partnerships are often likened to marriage. Dyads—no matter what form they take—are rooted in human bonding. “The pair is the primary creative unit,” Shenk states. “Pairs naturally arouse engagement, even intensity.” And beyond shared sensibilities, it’s the push-pull between the two that produces creative sparks.

Among romantic couples, it’s called chemistry. Among the creative pairs Shenk describes, the passionate bonds they share aren’t necessarily erotic (though sometimes that’s there, too), but the product they create—their baby, so to speak—is their work, born out of their collaboration and often their conflict.

Shenk identifies six stages through which creative couples progress. First, initial meetings often occur courtesy of mutual acquaintances, or by chance at venues (such as a popular café, a social event, or a school setting) that, not-by-chance, naturally act as magnets for like-minded souls. Yet it’s the combination of what’s shared and what’s incongruous that makes the matches. One example is the duo of Graham Nash and David Crosby, who found in their mutual love of the harmonic singing of the Everly Brothers both a model and a bridge for their distinct musical sensibilities.

Next comes confluence, the stage in which partners, over time, develop the mutual trust and confidence that allows them to take risks together, playing off each other’s talents while also blending them together. In this way, they develop a joint identity, a kind of shared mind, which allows them to finish each other’s sentences—or improve a musical phrase or come up with a better lyric, as often happened with John Lennon and Paul McCartney. “New compounds are formed; maybe even a new organism is born,” Shenk writes. Such was also the case when choreographer George Balanchine created a dazzling array of ballets for his star dancer Suzanne Farrell. She called herself and Balanchine “accomplices”—a partnership that allowed room for no one else. Psychologists might describe their relationship as enmeshment, but the ballets they collaborated on remain gems in the repertoire of the New York City Ballet.

The third stage might be called consolidation. As two individuals develop into a singular team, Shenk says, they typically begin to fall into distinct patterns of interaction, with each partner playing or embodying a different role in their collaborative dance. Shenk identifies several archetypes. One is “the star and the director,” in which the better-known partner (artist Vincent Van Gogh, for example) may seem in the public mind to be a Lone Ranger-type genius. But read the voluminous correspondence between Vincent and his younger brother, the art dealer Theo Van Gogh, and it becomes clear that Vincent depended on his brother for an ongoing exchange of artistic ideas and emotional nurturance, not to mention much-needed financial support.

Shenk likens another archetype to “the liquid and the container,” but readers may find it more recognizable as the play between jokester and straight man. An example is Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner. The guy who gets the laughs—Brooks playing the 2,000-year-old caveman—may seem like the one who leads the team, but it’s Reiner as the deadpan interviewer priming his subject with questions who sets the joke up and keeps the gag going. In other words, each one needs the other.

Shenk suggests “the dreamer and the doer” as the name for another paradigm. An example of this one is the theoretically minded Marie Curie and her more practically minded experimenter husband, Pierre Curie. Also, Shenk posits pairs that are “generators and resonators,” in which one partner is the big-picture idea person, while the other helps expand and fill out the idea, like Apple founder Steve Jobs and his cofounder Steve Wozniak. Then there’s the “creative foils” archetype, which embodies the creative competition that fuels individuals to outdo one another. Such was the mutual one-upmanship that defined the careers of basketball stars and rivals Earvin “Magic” Johnson and Larry Bird. Each one openly admitted that without the other he wouldn’t have been as driven to excel, to keep on pushing for the next record, and the next. It was this “infinite game,” as Shenk calls it, that kept them striving, season after season. In this context, it’s not so surprising that they retired in the same season. “Knowing that he’s not there,” Bird said of Johnson, “it wouldn’t feel right.”

These archetypes provide intriguing frameworks, but, as with any kind of typology, they have their limitations. To begin with, some might disagree that dueling competitors like Johnson and Bird—or the lifelong rivalrous siblings and advice columnists known to the world as Dear Abby and Ann Landers—should even be considered creative pairs. Other categories overlap: are Balanchine and Farrell “generator and resonator” or “dreamer and doer”? More than that, as Shenk himself takes pains to show, successful partners often take turns with one another, exchanging roles throughout their partnership. A case in point is the musical duo of John Lennon and Paul McCartney: they could act as foils to one another (any time John composed a hit song, Paul would follow with one of his own, and vice versa), but they regularly resonated and generated and took turns dreaming and doing. It was precisely this kind of flexibility that kept new ideas flowing freely back and forth, with each one countering and amplifying the other.

Shenk goes on to describe three more stages in the life of a creative partnership. And here, too, they can be likened to the phases and challenges faced by romantic couples, because in both cases, their ability to manage conflict and change over time will determine if and how long the partnership will endure. These include how to manage distance and closeness because, Shenk writes, couples must carve out “sufficient space in which to cultivate distinct ideas and experiences” and maintain, as sex therapists might say about marriage, “an ongoing frisson.” They must also navigate the terrain of competition and cooperation, and they have to seek out new ways to balance their individual needs with their group identity, especially when outside factors—such as a new romance (Yoko Ono, for instance)—intrude.

It’s in the long and winding saga of Lennon and McCartney that Shenk finds the richest, most intricate patterns of bickering, bonding, power grabs, boundary testing, authority shifting, and breaking up, with examples of their interactions appearing in almost every chapter, each time to demonstrate a different point about a phase, archetype, or way of coming together as well as disbanding. But you won’t get the whole story of Lennon and McCartney—or almost any of the other creative pairs Shenk discusses—unless you read the entire book. That’s because Shenk reveals these stories only bit by bit, chapter by chapter, to demonstrate a particular point, leaving the reader hanging to find out what went right or wrong with a couple as time went on. This structure helps Shenk emphasize particular themes, but it makes it difficult to keep track of the full trajectory of a given pair without forcing Shenk to recap and repeat, or compelling the reader to turn back to previous chapters to remember where the story left off.

The book’s weakest section is its ending, an epilogue in which Shenk reveals too much about his struggles as a writer and his difficulties in finding a way to say goodbye to his project. But even that’s fitting in the sense that the pairs he describes had trouble saying farewell to each other, too, even if they’d formally broken up and separated. Here again, Shenk points to Lennon and McCartney, the echoes of whose intense musical partnership can still be heard in both McCartney’s solo music and in the yearning beneath the words whenever he talks about John. “There’s no final way out of the kind of creative partnership that we’ve been studying,” Shenk states. These are “never endings,” he says. “You leave the guy who makes you miserable—but no one ever again makes you so great.” I’m not entirely convinced of that. Second acts, both in life and in creativity, are daunting to contemplate, but also possible. But perhaps that’s the subject for another book.


Diane Cole

Diane Cole is the author of the memoir After Great Pain: A New Life Emerges and writes for The Wall Street Journal and many other publications.