Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Creative and Intellectual Productivity

This week, The MacArthur Foundation announced the MacArthur Fellows for 2010.  These lucky men and women will each receive $500,000. over the next five years, with no strings attached and no need to report to the Foundation about how they ultimately spend it.  Known as the "Genius Awards," these grants reward productive and creative individuals with the money (which in turn gives them the time) to do what they want.

I love this idea.  Every year, I eagerly await the news of the new Fellows and, for some strange, vicarious reason I have yet to comprehend, I'm always extremely excited for them.  I actually spend a few minutes trying to imagine what each of them will do over the next few years.  I even email all of my friends to let them know that the award winners have been announced.  (Over the years, my friends have learned to use the delete button regularly, and they either completely ignore or, if trapped, quietly humor my idiosyncrasies.  It's just one of the drawbacks of having a friend who's a bookworm and a complete nerd.)

I'm reading Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment right now, and this announcement started me thinking.  On the one hand, I think giving people lots and lots of money for creative and intellectual projects is wonderful, but on the other hand, here I am, reading an amazing novel by an amazing novelist, and he wrote it totally under the gun. 

Because he had backed himself into a serious financial corner, Dostoevsky was compelled to borrow money from his publisher in exchange for a promise to produce a new novel.  If he didn't produce one by November 1, 1866, the publisher would be granted the rights to publish all of Dostoevsky's works for the next nine years, without compensating the writer at all.  Basically, in July of 1865, Dostoevsky gambled all future profits from his writing on the certainty that he could produce an entire novel in a little over a year.

It was an insane bargain.

He had no idea at the time that he would write anything like Crime and Punishment.  But as the months wore on, Dostoevsky became consumed with writing what would become one of the greatest novels in world literature.  He postponed writing the novel he had promised his publisher in order to focus on publishing Crime and Punishment in serialized installments.  In October 1866, he finally admitted to a friend that he was, in fact, screwed: he was not going to be able to meet his end of the bargain.

Realizing his predicament, the friend suggested that Dostoevsky hire a secretary and dictate the novel instead of writing it out himself.  He did and, in an odd twist of fate, he not only ended up keeping his end of the bargain, but also meeting the woman who would eventually become his second wife.  Oh, and he finished writing Crime and Punishment too.

Literature abounds with stories like these: William Faulkner claimed to have written As I Lay Dying in the space of six weeks, working as a nightwatchman.  He said that he set out to write a novel by which he could stand or fall as a writer, whether he ever wrote anything else afterward.  And I must say, it is an awfully good novel...

Interestingly, Robert Boice, Professor Emeritus of Psychology at SUNY-Stony Brook has written extensively on the phenomenon of productive writers in academia, and he takes issue with the idea that people are most productive as writers and thinkers when they are granted extended amounts of time in which to write.  In fact, Boice argues, the most productive writers and thinkers are often the ones who are busiest with other things: they manage to fit their writing into an already overbooked schedule and somehow, some way, they actually make far more progress on their work than those who are given world enough and time.

Some good news for all the rest of us out there who don't stand a snowball's chance of ever getting a Genius Award.

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Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote, "Life is short, but there is always time for courtesy."