Monday, December 13, 2010

Malcolm Gladwell -- I've a Bone to Pick.

There's the myth of the writer in solitude, as if solitude were not just ideal but necessary for creation. This myth allows writers to reject criticism, even when it's sung in chorus. This myth makes young writers suspicious of criticism, in fact, and it explains why editors are often not seen as people dedicated to raising up the quality of literature but as those who want to strip it of its creator's originality and genius.

My work is better when I talk to certain people about it. I choose those folks carefully. One of them I married.

My work is better when it's been roundly criticized -- I won't even go for the euphemism of critiqued -- and it's better when it's been dissected under the gaze of a great editor.

I just went googling Genius and 20 Knuckleheads because I once read an essay about new research -- maybe on hiring, not a genius, but instead 20 people of average intelligence who can collaborate, that it would yield the same result. Maybe I applied the term knucklehead myself...

because instead I came to: Gladwell on Genius -- great talk -- and here he talks about 10,000 hours, once again. Anders Ericsson's research on expertise, which is where I first heard of 3-4 hours per day for 10 years. (Of course, the speech is undermined by Gladwell's hair, which seems to say: Genius is really contingent on wild hair alone.)

I think he makes one mistake, however, or he stops short. He says that the thing that what "distinguishes Wiles [the man who solved Fermat's theorum] is not that he's a genius ... but he's a smart man with a fundamentally different gift; that is the willingness to set everything aside and focus on one problem."

This is the hole in Gladwell's take on genius. He debunks insight from solitude and instead opts for the importance of collaboration. He debunks talent and replaces it with hours. Yes, I'm sure as hell thankful for all of that. (It gives me something to say to aspiring novelists when they ask me how to do it -- Simple: 3-4 hours per day for 10 years.) But he creates another abstraction that "genius" relies on, and that is this thing he mistakenly and casually calls "willingness".

Willingness is something you have when you grudgingly take on someone's dish washing duty even though it's not your night but they've had a bad day.

Willingness doesn't even come close to describing this other distinguishing factor: what makes one person turn everything off and focus on that problem for years and years and why does another person not.

Willingness is not the answer. Willingness doesn't come close to grappling with this new problem.

Willingness? Seriously?

He later calls it "stubbornness" and "persistence" -- again, no.

If he'd called it by what it's more commonly called -- "passion" -- well then we'd all point a finger and say -- ha HA! So what makes one person passionate and another not. But by skimming with willingness, we shrug and move on.

I think the answer is deep, it's buried. It varies from person to person, but I think that it's something built on multiple factors. For example, the answer to why you're willing to write for 10,000 hours can't be jealousy. You'll grow out of it. It can't be for love alone. You'll fall in love and no longer need it. It can't be to get back at your father -- though that's warmer.

It's a house best built on many pillars -- so it can withstand the daily tides of other, of living live, of not writing. And in that house there's a monstrous engine.

He's debunked one issue but only exposes another abstract personality trait.

As he goes along, though, I do find my knuckleheads -- he calls them "13 smart guys" ... And I like that very much.