Is Solo Creativity Really Dead?

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.”

Hmm.

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.

Anaheim's Disneyland is a magical world of lakes and swans. Burbank's Disney Studios is a complex of warehouses and asphalt. Thus, I'm giving you a photo of the moat surrounding Cinderella's castle.

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?

About Patrick Ross

I'm the author of Committed: A Memoir of the Artist's Road.

35 Responses to “Is Solo Creativity Really Dead?”

  1. Very creative piece, Patrick. But, we know you couldn’t have done it without the collaboration of your wife. No doubt she smiles, frowns or even laughs at your logic, all having the effect of changing a rant into an interesting blog. Even at home, we can’t be solitary creative geniuses!

    • Just by sitting there with a forced smile and letting me rant, she allows me to work out my own thoughts on the subject. So yes, that is one of many ways she is my life collaborator!

  2. I think you’ve nailed it as far as this being a case of presenting an extreme position for journalistic purposes. (“Journailstic purposes” sounds so evil, LOL.)

    The distinction I would make between creativity and innovation today versus in the past is that collaboration is so much more easily facilitated now because of technology. We also understand more about the benefits of collaboration so are more inclined to go that route. But that in no way devalues solitary work. It just provides more alternatives.

    • You make a good point on technology facilitating collaboration. Yes, Firefox is a great example–I’m typing this in a Firefox browser–but I’ve seen that in my own professional life. With clients now I fire off emails, attach Word documents with modifications and comments embedded, log in to other sites to review draft copy, etc. In the early 1990s as a freelancer, I would receive a fax of a manuscript, edit it by hand on the thermal paper (not easy), and then fax the marked up copy back to the publisher, at which point some poor intern would have to type in my edits. And we thought we were so advanced; in the 1980s that would have been done by mail!

      (That said, my current MFA advisor insists on me mailing my monthly packet and him marking it up and mailing it back. So technology enables new ways to interact but it doesn’t mean we’ll use them!)

  3. Great post! Glad I took the time to read it…maybe it was you that I read the other day …read something about the feeling of creating a sham when writers are toiling away…could be true of all solo creative work now that read this..and yeah, I make my husband suffer too…oh well, they’d also be lost without us. Have a great weekend, Kate

    http://attendanceplease.wordpress.com/2012/02/08/worried-wednesday-have-i-created-a-sham/

    • Thank you for the feedback, Kate! Ah yes, I like how in your post you conflate sham with shame. One disadvantage of solo work is only receiving feedback from our inner critic.

      • You’re welcome, and yes, exactly Patrick! I love the solitude, and as my confidence builds, so does my desire for feedback. Working on the courage to join in a local writers group…I’ll get there! Until then…it’s me and my voices, right? ; )

        • Let me say this: I know plenty of writers who have loved joining a writer’s group, often after much delay. I’ve never met one who overcame her fear, joined one, and then regretted it!

  4. Great post Patrick. My latest blog at http://www.terryprice.net dealt with the tension between creating solo and maintaining connections necessary for our socialization but also necessity for our society. Collaborations are wonderful things and the energy created by the give and take can be magic. But there are times when I feel the need to just go inward, where I can’t take anyone else with me. But I always need to resurface and when I do, it’s usually with a fresh perspective on life and on those who make up my life and my world. Well done, Patrick and I always enjoy your posts.

    • Thank you for that feedback, Terry! I will carry that magic energy today.

      It would seem part of the secret is to seize that energy collaboration brings–along with new ways of looking at things–and then take that with you as you pursue your own work, applying your own inspiration. And hopefully you’ve given the same gift to your collaborator as he/she returns to his/her own work. You’ve given me something to think about.

  5. As someone prone to arm-waving rants myself, I felt myself straightening in my chair as I read the article myself (hyper-linked from your blog). I have to say that he most infuriating thing in the article is the diminutive word “tweaker” (citing Malcolm Gladwell as the source) used to describe those who would orchestrate the “collaborative effort” into something useful. My business background has been very informative in that I have seen many very good ideas rendered completely and utterly pointless by too much rudderless collaboration. An innovative project is lost if you do not have a single person, standing at the helm, holding the big picture, who is willing to LONE WOLF it in discarding the “brilliant ideas” that would turn a Pride and Prejudice into an episode of Three’s Company. There is ALWAYS a lone wolf in every collaborative group who must sort the wheat from the chaff in order to bring something of value. Yes, absolutely, things improve with some sort of collaboration…but I would argue that, unless you have a lone wolf holding the vision, there is no innovation.

    • “There is ALWAYS a lone wolf in every collaborative group who must sort the wheat from the chaff in order to bring something of value.” I love that line, almost as I love the visual you painted in the opening, of a stiff-backed arm-waver.

      Yes, “tweaker” is annoying. Was Steve Jobs a tweaker? He gets knocked for not actually engineering the products he sold–he had teams doing that–but it was his creative vision that made them must-haves for so many. That hardly seems like tweaking.

      Oh, have I been in some rudderless collaborations. Few things make me want to wave my arms more…

  6. I’m part of a creative team pumping out television shows. The end product is a known entity before we start, at least in terms of tone, theme, pacing, time, etc. Maybe that’s a feature of creative teams these days–they’re given severe restrictions–or else the broadcaster won’t buy it. I enjoy the process nevertheless because it doesn’t preclude the need to hunker down… alone… and hammer out a script. Yet, writers working on different episodes are constantly sharing their problems. I find this work to be a welcome relief…sometimes… from the lonely longhaul journey of novel writing. Did that add anything to the discussion? I’m not sure.

    • Actually PJ, that was a great contribution, and sparked a question on my part. I get that there is a known set-up at the start, and that success comes from fitting new creative writing into that format that viewers have come to expect. But where did that set-up originate? I guess what I’m asking is, when a TV show is first conceived and pitched, is that usually from an individual (I’m thinking of a Chuck Lorre or Dick Wolf) or do we just know those names and it in fact came from some sort of studio brainstorming session?

  7. Even ‘back in the day’ writers used to hold salons, and often maintained heavy correspondence with other writers and artists. Just witness all the collections of letters by celebrated writers from the 1800’s and early 1900’s. Artists have always sought out each other. Who else can understand, like another artist? Not even spouses always ‘get’ us. And god knows our spouses probably get tired of listening to our frustrations, and the details of an morning of writing.

    I love my writer friends like family. But truly, all of my ‘creating’ takes place in solitude. I can’t even write if I’m in a room with others. I hear them breathing, coughing, papers rattling…I often can’t get to my subconcious with all that going on. Even the psychic energy emitted by another person in the room is distracting. Feedback after the fact is helpful. But the first act of creation takes place alone, for many of us, I think.

    Sometimes the world can be so distracting I have to hermit for awhile, just to get back to the mental space where I can write.
    Everyone is different, though. That’s just my experience with creativity.

    Excellent topic and thoughts today, Patrick.

    • Thank you, Cynthia, for a great comment. So much to acknowledge.

      Yes on the salons. I was engaged with @katearmsroberts on that topic on her blog recently. As I reflected, I marveled at how many great writers were in those arrangements. My daughter told me yesterday she has a “writer-crush” on Emerson; she discovered him by reading Thoreau, and now is calling herself a would-be Transcendentalist.

      I could write an entirely new blog on how my wife nods and smiles as I give her my daily updates on the twists and turns of my latest creative writing project, most of them will be irrelevant by the time the piece is done.

      As for solitude, I love writing in quiet, but years of news writing in a loud newsroom with typing and phone calls, or filing from a conference hall or hearing room, has taught me how to produce a cone of silence when needed. I still hate it, however, if I’m writing in a coffee shop and some inane pratter is going on next to me!

  8. At the end of this, I was reminded of a short story I read in college. It was non-fiction – a memory by the lab rat (PhD biochemist) who invented PCR. PCR revolutionized biology, forensics, genetics, medicine, you get the idea.

    What is it? It’s the method by which, given a teensy-tiny sample of DNA, a lab can create billions and billions of identical copies. One cheek swab and you can potentially run it through an infinite number of tests.

    The story goes as follows: driving out of town for the weekend,our biochemist was trying to solve another chemistry problem (biologists use lots of chemicals). Mentally trying out different scenarios, he came across one that seemed close, but after a few mental tweeks, became the basis for PCR.

    When I read the story, even knowing all the details of PCR and how it works, I didn’t see it when he discovered it. Had it been me, PCR would not have existed.

    Alone. In his car. He put the pieces together. Got a Nobel Prize for it too.

    On the other hand, one could take the approach that we don’t create anything, just discover what was already there… but that’s getting a bit philosophical for a Friday afternoon. 🙂

    • Fantastic story. I have heard of PCR–my middle initial is C, so I always perk up when I see my initials–but knew little about it, so I appreciated both your explanation and this history.

      What I do know is that a lot of study on creativity has found that breakthroughs come when we’re doing something rote that allows our mind to wander. Driving is often cited. The shower as well. And of course Archimedes shouting “Eureka!” in his bathtub.🙂

  9. I’m quite certain I wouldn’t have applied for my MFA had I not shared 1)that I was in fact applying 2)my writing samples with my lovely writer’s group (ehem). What I was working on solo was exciting and difficult and I loved sitting alone and pushing the pen as the words found their way on the paper. However, I wanted so badly to share the story with peers. Peers I trust, peers that are walking the same path as myself, peers that I know will tell me the truth, peers that, when I am sitting alone again and writing, have helped me sharpen the story.

    • You’re kind, Callie, to give credit to your writer’s group–your peers–for prodding you to the path of applying for an MFA (ehem). But give credit to yourself for being brave enough to join, and share with, a writer’s group. See Katherine O. Cooper’s comment above.

  10. I think the article’s author misses the difference between collaboration and co-creating. I love the point, above, that technology has greatly enhanced creatives’ ability to work together and provide feedback to one another–but I don’t think improvements in collaboration eliminate the need for solo creativity. No matter how wonderful the feedback I receive from my writer’s group, for instance, I create in solitude. Without that initial act of creation, there wouldn’t be anything to comment upon!

  11. As you’ll see below, I have some strong feelings on this subject. Patrick, I hope you don’t mind me using this forum for a minor rant…

    I think that Gabler misses the point, and many futurists also miss this point, that it isn’t our abstract conception of who we are and how we work that needs to change, it’s our interpretation of what those conceptions mean in our current environment.

    The American ethos is built on fantasies (rhetorically speaking) of self-reliance and individualism. Throughout our history, through conquering our frontiers, we have discovered ourselves and forged a rhetoric for our existence that includes luminaries like R.W. Emerson and H.D. Thoreau and Abraham Lincoln, or Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Stanton and Eleanor Roosevelt. Self-made men and women who worked very hard, often alone, to get their shot. It isn’t wrong to say our contemporary society is increasingly defined by the network and collaborative venture; however, it is wrong to vilipend individualism in exchange. This ethos is wholly our own and it isn’t going anywhere.

    Encouraging solo creatives is likely more essential now than it ever has been. What we must do to allow our ethos to thrive while we succeed in the Network Age is re-conceive of the contributions we can make individually to society. Gabler mentions Steve Jobs in his first paragraph and then knocks him down as anachronistic in the second. Jobs is arguably the most successful innovator so far in the technological age. I surmise that much of his best work was done alone, but he wasn’t alone in building the multibillion dollar enterprise that has almost singlehandedly redefined how we function. He had collaborators, and many of them were likely solo creatives themselves, who brought their pieces together to create something much more powerful than any one of them could have created alone.

    Writers work in much the same way. They may create their individual works alone, or with the assistance of small networks of friends and family members, but when their work is published, it falls into the hands of others, they meet other readers and writers (their contemporaries), and ultimately, the amalgamation of works over an entire generation creates a literary canon. It would be hyperbolic to say (though we often say it anyway) that one writer defined the literary canon of their era. Writers, painters, musicians–all have their own networks, each artist (or craftsman, as I think of a writer) somehow influencing others in the group.

    Society is a social construction that is refined daily through our interactions and innovations, and those refinements are occurring at a faster clip than ever before. Let’s not allow the innovations of the present, and their pace, irreparably distort our true identities.

    • No need to apologize, Corey, this is no more a rant than mine, and it’s highly informed and thoughtful. And provocative, in a good way.

      I think my favorite point of yours is this:

      “It isn’t wrong to say our contemporary society is increasingly defined by the network and collaborative venture; however, it is wrong to vilipend individualism in exchange.”

      You make a great point about what individualism means to our culture, beyond the role individuals have played in our evolution in technology and art. It is in fact not an either/or. I would agree that futurists often miss the subtlety of interpreting meaning relative to culture.

      In my think-tank days I was dubbed a futurist by some, although perhaps a bit of a dystopian one at times, which contrasted with the unbounded optimism we often find in that social subset. I resisted the label, however, and you’re helping me see why. It’s absurd to say what might promote a possible future or retard its arrival if we don’t know the cultural context that future will exist in, and that becomes more challenging when we don’t fully appreciate our current context.

      As to your other point below, I fully concur with the Emerson/Thoreau example. I would throw into the mix the collection of 20th Century Oxford writers who made up the Inklings, led by C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien. They would meet regularly at the Eagle and Child Pub in Oxford, tell jokes a bit dirtier than one might expect for men of faith, and commiserate the way great writers have done throughout the ages. They freely admitted their work was influenced by other group members, yet they composed their prose alone.

      • Thanks Patrick. I appreciate that.

        I enjoy the contrast you made between dystopian futurism and the unbounded optimism you find with many futurists. We often associate the future with hope, and it is important that we temper that hope with our history, which ultimately informs our present, whether we acknowledge it or not. Hope is a fantastic tool to help us imagine what our future holds, but when it devolves into unbridled optimism, we often lose ourselves in the process.

        I really liked your comment: “It’s absurd to say what might promote a possible future or retard its arrival if we don’t know the cultural context that future will exist in, and that becomes more challenging when we don’t fully appreciate our current context.”

        I’m extending our discussion further away from creativity as it applies to the artist, but your comment made me think of Arie de Geus, the former head of Shell’s Strategic Planning Group. He’s a futurist who understands the balance between unbridled optimism and an informed perspective on the past and present. In discussing business success over the long-haul (companies in business for longer than 75 years), he wrote, “Outcomes like these don’t happen automatically. On the contrary, they depend on the ability of a company’s senior managers to absorb what is going on in the business environment and to act on that information with appropriate business moves. In other words, they depend on learning.”

        Understanding what has made our culture what it is today, as well as what it would take to change that culture and what such a change would mean for its evolution (or devolution), is essential to understanding the context in which the future will unfold. We don’t always have control over our environment, but we certainly have control over how we conceive of it and how we respond to it.

  12. In my haste to post, I neglected to say I agree with Cheryl regarding the difference between collaboration and co-creating, and similarly, I echo Cynthia’s points regarding writers seeking each other out. Thank you for influencing my thoughts on the subject.

    In response to Cynthia’s thoughts, Emerson and Thoreau are two writers I admire very much, and I think they would very much agree that there is a combination of seeking out other artists (collaboration) and focused solitude that feeds creativity.

  13. On the contrary, I quite enjoyed your rant!🙂

    I don’t think solo creativity is in any way dead, but I do think it’s becoming more difficult to get the solitary time. We’re constantly told we need to connect, to blog, to tweet, to be on Facebook, build a platform. A great deal of creative resources go into these activities. I’m still trying to figure out how to balance all of that interaction and collaboration with private, creative time.

    Great post, as always.

    • Julie, that is an excellent point, how social media and platform-building can eat into that solitary time we use to create. And I’m guilty of contributing to that–with blog posts that distract attention, and now teaching a local course on blogging and platform building. I do find that writing a blog post can lower my tank of creative juices. We’ll both work on finding that balance together, and thanks for the praise for the post!🙂

  14. Reblogged this on Work-Life Strategies & Solutions and commented:
    Everywhere I look, various experts are heralding the benefits of group work over solo, independent work. Insisting on working alone is selfish they say. Collaboration fosters more creativity than solo work they say. It’s one thing to be describing the work style that brings out the best for the bulk of the “bell curve,” however if there’s one valuable lesson to learn from decades of studying psychology it’s that, when it comes to people, it’s impossible to generalize about a great, many things. Still worse is to subject the people who don’t fit to the “tyranny of the majority.”

    So here I am working alone, independently on my blog and other creative writing, art, and musical side projects. I’m blissfully happy. Life seems great. Everything seems alright with the world. And yes, any creative inspiration that has struck me may owe its existence to the synergy of ideas I’ve gained in past encounters with people, films I’ve watched, and books I’ve read. However, I am producing my work now alone, on my own and it feels great. So the last thing I wish to witness is a mass movement that pushes one style of working (group work) over another (solo work).

    Those of you who know what it’s like to be a “misfit” in one way or another, I think, can appreciate how statements about working “this way” or “that way” is better for everyone are ill-thought out. To maximize productivity and creativity across a whole society, it would be ideal to maximize freedom for everyone to work in the way that suits each person best. If you are most productive and creative while working in a more collaborative manner… great! If someone else is most productive and creative while working alone… great! Different strokes for different folks. The Industrial Age is characterized by standardized, one-size-fits-all work policies. Here’s hoping that the push towards group work with the simultaneous denouncement of solo work goes the way of the Industrial Age as well.

    To my relief, I’m not alone in my leaning towards working alone. In this post, Patrick Ross makes a powerful argument about not making this an either-or situation. While celebrating the ways in which today’s digital tools foster collaboration, it’s not necessary or even desirable to denounce solo, independent work. As it turns out, many writers and artists would agree.

    • Hello, fellow creative! Glad we could “collaborate” with similar messaging (your analysis is well-written and insightful) while continuing our solo creative efforts. Thanks for the re-blog and the thoughtful contribution to this discussion.

      • You’re welcome! You’ve provided such an incisive analysis, and one that is sadly misrepresented. I agree about the contributing problem of writers being rewarded for swinging from one extreme to another.

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