In Praise of Dynamic Duos

By Temma EhrenfeldDecember 22, 2014

Powers of Two: Finding the Essence of Innovation in Creative Pairs by Joshua Wolf Shenk

The feeling of rivalry lies at the very basis of our being, all social improvement being largely due to it […] The spectacle of effort is what awakens and sustains our own effort.

— William James in an 1892 lecture.

COLLABORATIONS may go swimmingly for years before the hostility begins. I once loved an alcoholic slipping into depression. I asked him to be the hero in my next novel, hoping to solve three problems at once: help him feel important, give me a complex hero, and save our Sunday mornings, when he was generally hung over.

It worked. For two years, on Sundays, we conducted our interviews and discussed plot points. He would read my draft chapters aloud, also on Sundays. We wrote together, too. I was happy. So was he; I even thought he was drinking less.

But one day he turned to me and hissed, “I hate that book.” That book? It was our book. Now I was crushed.

Such crushing mood swings are fairly standard, I gathered from Powers of Two: Finding the Essence of Innovation in Creative Pairs, Joshua Wolf Shenk’s survey of collaborations. To me, Shenk’s main message is the one you see in marriage counseling books: it’s all about how you fight. Some teams make the competition and power struggles useful. Rare pairs pull it off for a long time. The stakes are high: good, sometimes great, work can come from moody, fractious collaborations. Creative work is in any case rough, and two are better than one.

Shenk, the author of Lincoln’s Melancholy, has written an elegant old-fashioned essay. He confides his own loneliness, indulges in a final bout of stream-of-consciousness, and thinks aloud throughout like an analytical friend. He includes a bit of science, plenty of quotes from the right people, and telling details.

His simplest proof is that duos have beat out solo acts. The shining example is, of course, Francis Crick and James Watson, who met for lunch most days in Cambridge, England, and discovered the structure of DNA. The pair was unsparingly critical and rivalrous. “If either of us suggested a new idea the other, while taking it seriously, would attempt to demolish it in a candid but nonhostile manner. This turned out to be quite crucial,” Crick wrote (as Shenk cites him). Is it really possible to “demolish” in a “nonhostile manner”?

Sixty miles south in London, at King’s College, Rosalind Franklin and Maurice Wilkins were reluctantly sharing a lab. Franklin was a young star who at first Wilkins assumed would be his assistant. Her own assistant took Photo 51, an X-ray image of one form of DNA that revealed a helix.

The turning point for Watson came in January 1953, when he visited Wilkins’s office and Wilkins showed him the photo. He went home to figure out how the four bases of DNA align within the helix. In February, he crabbed to Crick about how hard it was to make the helix work with a sugar phosphate backbone on the inside. Crick said, “Build it [the phosphates] on the outside.” Watson batted back, “It’d be too easy.” Crick responded, “Then why don’t you do it?” The next morning, Watson had conceived the elegant double-helix structure of DNA.

Franklin did have a rival — lots of them — and arguably was ahead of the pack. Rivalry alone isn’t enough. She lost, Shenk argues, because she and her lab mate avoided each other. (The fact that she was female surely didn’t help her get credit, I would add.)

The myth of the lone genius is a variation of the great-man theory of history, both born of the Enlightenment rebellion against Christianity. Shenk doesn’t say so, but it may also be one way we now soothe our longing for divinity and magic. Certain people are bathed in a special light — outside of time — like kings or saints or wizards. The focus on talent seems to be especially strong in music, though even Mozart had extraordinary help. From the age of three, little Wolfgang’s talent was nurtured by his father’s intense instruction and constant practice, notes David Shenk, author of The Genius in All of Us, who happens to be Joshua’s father. (The other big lie, which this book doesn’t address, is that mental illness helps.)

Triumphs we credit to a lone genius often relied on an all-but-invisible partner, Shenk observes. We dismiss the importance of people like Steve Williams, who caddied for Tiger Woods from 1999 to 2011, during Woods’s peak. Williams not only taunted the golfer to get him riled up but also gave him false information about yardages to compensate for his distance-control problem.

As we see in Powers of Two, when each member of a pair energizes the other, the work may soar. Eroticism can fire production. So can an emotional desire to merge. It’s well known that art-dealer Theo Van Gogh funded his brother Vincent; less known that Theo was a kind of muse. Vincent alternatively pined for and fought with Theo like a lover. When he famously cut off a portion of his left ear, Theo had become engaged two days before. Vincent again fell apart around the time of Theo’s wedding and at the birth of Theo’s child. But in the moments between these breakdowns, he made his best art. Shenk writes:

When he made The Starry Night, Vincent van Gogh was […] unspeakably lonely, and what he did from this loneliness was paint and write and send his paintings and letters north to his brother […] After reading the letters (and responding to many), Theo tucked them in his bureau; the canvases he stowed under the bed, under the sofa, under the cupboards. He arranged and rearranged them on his walls […] it was […] as though Theo lived inside his brother’s mind.

This may not seem like a collaboration, but it is a kind of symbiosis. Marina Abramović and Ulay made symbiosis — and separation — the subject of their performance art. On the day they met, they discovered that they had the same birthday. As lovers and artists, they explored the pain of their separateness.

In Relation in Space, in 1976 at the Venice Biennale, they started at opposite sides of a gallery, naked, ran toward each other, smacked their bodies together, and then went to opposite sides and began again. In Breathing In/Breathing Out, they plugged their noses with cigarette filters, pressed their lips against each other’s, and took in each other’s exhaled breaths […] [until] they came to the verge of passing out.

The pair finally broke off atop the Great Wall of China, and met again years later in the Museum of Modern Art. For three months, Abramović sat eight hours a day, six days a week, while museumgoers took turns sitting across from her and staring. “At one point, Marina opened her eyes […] and she saw Ulay. Her eyes grew wet. She reached out and took his hands. The audience broke into applause.” The public was entranced. More telling, the two didn’t make more art.

Shenk has received the most press for his version of John Lennon and Paul McCartney’s much-discussed partnership and split, so I’ll cover it lightly. Paul’s my favorite Beatle, and I’ve endured much ridicule from John-lovers who considered John a dark revolutionary and Paul a smiley-face pop. So it pleased me that in Powers of Two Paul seems by far the more mature. Shenk even says that John Lennon appeared to be headed to a life as a small-time crook before he was galvanized by the younger, accomplished and agreeable Paul McCartney.

Although they agreed to share credit for all of their songs, the conventional wisdom is that they wrote separately. Shenk describes much joint writing, and their even more productive rivalry. Quoting Paul: “He’d write ‘Strawberry Fields’ and I’d go away and write ‘Penny Lane’ … to compete […] and we’d get better and better all the time.” John’s song was set on the grounds of the Strawberry Field orphanage he visited as a child; Penny Lane was the junction between the 46 and 99 buses where Paul and John often met in Liverpool. The two vied over whose song would get the “A” side of a single. With these two songs, the competition reached a satisfying resolution — and everyone agreed on releasing a “double A” single. Ah, if we could only live in Lake Wobegon, where every above-average child gets her side of a double-A single.

Powers of Two doesn’t say much about collaborations across mediums. My friend Stephen Dydo composes music often influenced by the ancient Chinese zither, or guqin, and collaborates with Susan Haire, who makes sculptures with found objects. When they go on retreats, they work separately side by side during the day and at night talk over wine about source materials and debate how art can “save the world.” “We both feel a lot younger,” he says, with a smile. “And our projects are getting better all the time.”

But the fighting is intense. Dydo and Haire create installations. “There’s always a battle between the music and the art and it’s fruitful. It forces me to focus on what I care about and say, ‘I’m sorry but I can’t let you do this.’ She’ll say, ‘You what? You want me to destroy my art so you can have your loudspeakers over there?’ Then the fur flies. Then we compromise. It starts out calm, gets angry with door-slamming, and ends calm,” he explains. Their work has continued for eight years with Dydo and Haire creating sculptures that have filled cathedrals, and Dydo installing his loudspeakers in evermore novel ways and composing music with as many as 15 sound pieces.

If you’re game to try, some advice can be gleaned from Shenk’s survey. Have a regular meeting time and place. Cherish a shared ritual, and be specific: teatime with a brand of tea. Find chunks of time to isolate yourselves from the rest of the world. It’s a good sign if you develop a private language and start finishing each other’s sentences. Don’t be polite. When your fights go bad, keep plugging at your project until you cannot bear it.

You bear it for the sake of good work, but you may not know how good it will be in the midst of the ugliness. As Shenk says — with touching innocence — the goal of a marriage is happiness (and children, economic security, and so on, one must add; it’s a wonder we ever succeed). The outcome of collaboration is the work.

Two years after Abramović and Ulay had their public reconciliation, Shenk discovered that the pair was communicating only through lawyers, over rights to their archives. He asked her if the fighting was new or had they been in “a constant battle.” “Constant battle,” she said. “Constant. Constant. But you know, the thing with the couple is disaster generally.”


Temma Ehrenfeld’s journalism has appeared in The New York Times, Newsweek, Reuters, Fortune,, and The Weekly Standard, and her literary work in The Hudson Review, Michigan Quarterly Review, Chicago Quarterly Review, and Prism International.

LARB Contributor

Temma Ehrenfeld is an independent journalist reporting on psychology and health. Her work has appeared in The Wall Street JournalThe New York TimesNewsweekReuters, and Psychology Today.


LARB Staff Recommendations

Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?

LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Please consider supporting our work and helping to keep LARB free.