How some well-known thinkers shape and share their ideas on the origins and evolution of the creative act. Featuring Roger Martin, Richard Florida and Jennifer Riel, as well as journalists David Frum and Adam Radwanski.
Shiftdisturbers Podcast Episode #10: The Creative Process
Transcript of the podcast:
“Writing is really hard and really awful.”
“I’m about the worst interviewer in the world.”
“And the only reason to write is to influence.”
Ian Gormely: Welcome to Shiftdisturbers, the MPI podcast where we highlight the people, research, and ideas that change the way we think about the world. I’m your host Ian Gormely, writer and content producer here at the Martin Prosperity Institute at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management.
On today’s episode we’re going to indulge in a bit of naval gazing. We’re going to take a look at the different processes that thinkers like Roger Martin and Richard Florida and others associated with the Institute use to come up with, articulate, and disseminate their thoughts and ideas. While these are unique ways of approaching thinking and research specific to the people that we spoke with, we hope that it gives you some insight into our work, as well as giving you a better idea of how you think and communicate with the people around you.
To this point, I wanted to share a short personal anecdote. My wife is a newspaper reporter and the only fight we had during the planning of our wedding was when we sat down to write our vows together. Not because we disagreed with the sentiments we were each trying to express. No, the disagreement came out of our different writing styles. See, I’m a big fan of throwing up everything on to the page or screen and then going back and editing it afterwards. Whereas my wife cannot move from a sentence until every word is in its right place. All of which is to say, the way one organizes and articulates ones ideas is a highly personal process. No one is doing it wrong. You have to do what works for you.
We begin with how our own Institute Director Roger Martin comes up with the ideas that become areas of research and writing for himself and his infrastructure team here at MPI. It turns out that some of the best ideas come from simply observing.
Roger Martin: Basically, I watch the world and from that I derive ideas. And typically those ideas are a different way to look at a phenomenon than people are looking at it now. Somebody once described me as a phenomenologist. I didn’t know these things existed. But a phenomenologist just watches phenomena, and on the basis of that comes to kind of conclusions or understandings or insights. And all of my stuff just comes from watching the world. And I experience something when I’m out consulting to a company, or I experience something in class, or I read something, or I have an interaction with an executive. And I just write on the basis of that.
IG: Richard Florida, Director of Cities here at MPI, takes a similar observational approach. Once he’s got the germ of a thought he tends to take in the world around him in order to flush out its structure and argumentation.
Richard Florida: So I tend to look for things who are new issues, problems that are not very defined and where it’s hard to formulate crisp hypotheses. And I’m different than most other researchers in that I’m very inductive. And then, I just start collecting data, reading, working with my team, going out in the field and observing, collecting quantitative data, doing analysis. And at some period of induction and conversation an idea might strike me that’s worthy of an article, an essay, a blog post, or in some very infrequent cases, a book.
I find that my ideas for books come through conversations with my colleagues but also conversations with sophisticated editors. I think I have a good sense of academic problems. They have a good sense of what the market you know…with the rise of the creative class I was working on a book to try to understand the knowledge economy, the new economy, the technology economy. And my editor said looking at my data, “You’ve defined a new class. Why don’t you call it a class?” And I blurted out, “The Creative Class.” That wasn’t the original title of the book. It wasn’t the orienting theme. It came out of doing the book.
Similarly with The New Urban Crisis, I was working on a book called Re-urbanization. I had met with a variety of editors in New York and one very smart editor say, what you’re talking about is the underside, the dark side of urbanization, re-urbanization. The book you should write is The New Urban Crisis. Those kinds of projects come out of conversations with really smart editors who know the marketplace for ideas better than I do.
David Frum: I work in a way that a lot of people would regard as a waste of time. But it’s not a waste of my time because if it did it another way nothing would happen.
IG: That’s David Frum speaking. Frum, a Senior Editor at the Atlantic and a former speech writer for George W. Bush has written a number of pointed articles denouncing Donald Trump. Speaking with us during a recent visit to MPI, he explains that unlike Richard or Roger he takes a much more pointed and hands on approach to his search for new ideas. It’s an approach born out of a need to play up his strengths to make up for his apparent weakness.
DF: I am about the worst interviewer in the world. And when I started in journalism I would play back my tapes and I’d go, “I got nothing.” “I got nothing.” “I don’t have a good quote.” Just when the story was getting interesting I changed the subject and ruined the line of questioning. I mean, I was just awful at it.
What I discovered was I was a very good researcher. So my beginning is I try to work with things that are already in the public record. So I begin as a researcher. So I work from data. I worked in libraries in the older days, and now I work online. And I would try to check it. I would try to make sure my information is bullet proof. There’s a lot more that that matters that people aren’t paying attention to.
My first in my series of Trump articles was an article in 2014 on foreign affairs. And this was an article that appeared before Donald Trump was on the scene but it sort of explained…and as I say, I didn’t predict him but explained where he had come from…and it was largely based on a data series that had been done on the changing attitudes of the Baby Boomers over time. That people have been studying them at five year intervals. And you can do a cohort analysis of the changing values of the Baby Boom generation. It’s really interesting. People don’t do it because it’s a lot of numbers. I like to work with things like that. So I start with that kind of internet research, archival research, library research, and I gather it.
IG: On the flip side is Globe & Mail column Adam Radwanski, who during a similar visit to the Institute recommends getting in front of real people as much as possible, as he did while covering the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
Adam Radwanski: I’m a better interviewer in person than I am on the phone. I find people are better to talk to. I try to have a fair number of conversations where I sort of say, look, we can do part of this on background if you want. Or you can…I want you to talk freely to me. And it’s easier to get people to react that way in person, I find than it is on the phone.
The big challenge for a Canadian reporter going down to cover American politics is that the access is just not going to be there the way it would have been. Older journalists here would say, “Oh, it’s going to be great because you’re going to go down and you’re going to be able to get all these high profile Democrats and Republicans to talk to you.” A Senator here, an organizer there, because what do they care? Why wouldn’t they talk to a Canadian? Americans are surprising accessible on these things.
The problem is they were thinking back to a time, basically pre-internet, when sure, why wouldn’t they talk to me because who’s ever going to read what’s written in the Globe & Mail about it. Generally, politicians like talking to the media. Now there’s no upside for them in talking to us really. But the downside is if they say anything controversial it’s going to be picked up by Politico or whatever within five minutes. So, it’s a little harder to just go down and try to randomly reach out to the most high profile people. So, I try to work connections here as much as I can.
When I was in Ohio, I focused on John Kasich became it was his big stand, his State you now. So I went to his event, but I would more try to talk to people on the way. I might drop into local campaign offices. I find that can be a good way to get a handle on what people are hearing, or to get a bit of colour, and so on. I tend to put in a few calls before I go somewhere to talk to people who are plugged in. Personally, I’m not world’s greatest sort of man on the street interviewer. I’m better, I think at finding people who are going to be kind of in the know and then preparing and talking to them.
IG: Once your idea is in place comes the real work Articulating that thought to someone else, ideally someone who has little or no experience in the field that you’re working in. That can be a tough slog even for the smartest people. When I was in journalism school one of our professors used to say, ‘Kill your babies” by which he meant, don’t get hung up on lines and paragraphs just because you like the way they flow. If they don’t add to your point get rid of them. It’s a process that David Frum appears to have taken to the extreme.
DF: When I’m writing anything substantial I write and I rewrite and I rewrite again. I never revise. What I do is I write it once and then I throw it away and then do it again. And then I throw that away and I do it again. Only at the very, very end do I ever work off an old draft. It’s very frustrating for my editors because I will show them something…especially those who don’t know me well…I’ll show them something meaning just, I want your comments. And then they’ll start tinkering with it and put in a hour or two, and then I’ll throw it away. Okay, I see what you’re trying to tell me I did wrong here or how I can make it better. Now let me do it all over again.
IG: In fact, pretty much everyone we spoke with for this Pod, whether they took a very methodical approach to writing or whether they were, like me, simply spilling what’s in their brain on to the page to be tidied up later, emphasize not getting hung up on the pros. Here’s Roger’s approach.
RM: My process generally is to grow books. When I write a book it starts out as a point form 2,500 word _____ [00:10:20] pf the argumentation of the entire book; I do not believe in writing prose early. It’s a waste of time. So you are at a 2,500 world thing and I work and work and work and work until I can feel like this is a logical flow of the book; here’s sort of the arguments I want to make. And it’ll have lines in it like, case study from Uber in it at that point. When I feel comfortable with that I convert it into about a 12,500 word _____ [00:10:52] of the book in prose where again there may be a…here’s where I’ll tell the Uber story that illustrates this, but you’ve got the _____[00:11:02] of the entire argumentation of the book written out in prose. And I work on that for a while.
And then, I grow it into a 50,000 word manuscript by fleshing out all the things that I’ve already put in the place they need to be put in. Maybe it’s just the way my mind works. I’m not sure I’d recommend it for everybody. But writing good prose is no small feat, and writing prose that you can say, “Man that was a good paragraph.” That’s a lot of work to get a really good one. And I hated wasting 20, 40 paragraphs because by the time I got to the end I realized that I didn’t have my arguments straight and scrap it. And I just came to figure out pretty early on in my writing is that if you don’t have your core argumentation in good shape you’re going to create all sorts of sins. It’ll be a mess and they’ll be massive amounts of rework that I hate. I mean I don’t mind editing to make better. That’s all fine. But throwing out vast tracks of stuff, I’d rather avoid it.
IG: Interestingly, Richard takes a completely different tact.
RF: Writing is very…it’s terrible. It’s really hard and really awful. And for me I need like, I can’t write in small blocks of time. I have to devote…I can’t have much interruptions in a week. I think I write maybe like a sculpture sculpts. I write a bunch of stuff and try to get a first draft which his always horrific and awful and terrible and embarrassing. So I try to throw everything down that describes an issue on paper. And then, the process of making a book is like shaping the sculpture, you know. So there’s a big blob of clay or a big blob of words, and then over each draft that blob of clay or blob of words becomes sharper. But writing is pretty mechanical. It’s pretty workman-like. It’s, you know you’re working out ideas. You’re not coming up with big ah-ha’s. You are working out refining, sharpening.
IG: To give you an idea of just how much revision can go on using a method like this, there are 10 chapters in Richard’s latest book, the New Urban Crisis. Richard figures there are a total of about five different drafts in the whole book and about five to 10 separate drafts for each of those 10 chapters. That’s a lot of editing. But it’s what works for Richard.
So I think we’ve done a good job of establishing just how person-specific these idea generating and writing processes can be. But what happens when you collaborate with someone else, and what if that someone else’s style clashes with your own.
Jennifer Riel is the Managing Director of Strategy and Innovation here at MPI. She and Roger have worked on a number of projects together including the upcoming book Creating Great Choices. As she explains writing and collaboration requires both partners recognizing the process of the other, and making accommodations for it without throwing your own process out the window.
Jennifer Riel: What I tend to do is have a really, really rough conception of the arch of the book. And then, I will immediately think about for that particular idea, the theory that we’ve developed over a number of years, what would be a story? Who would I want to talk to? What can I imagine being the way into that topic for someone who doesn’t know anything about it? I tend to use the story as the jumping off point for me and fill in the theory and the rest of the chapter from there, and then my writing processes quickly get the first draft, get it out there. Don’t worry too much about making it beautiful prose but really get the thoughts out there.
And then, the real writing process is the rewriting process where you take a step back and say, how much of this was for me. I needed to get it out and to conceptualize what was in my head, but it’s not actually going to be useful to anyone else. So that’s got to go. And then, what’s missing. So for a reader coming in, what would be the additional information they need.
And so we’ve actually written books both ways. And it’s totally pragmatic, actually. Whoever is writing the first draft of something gets their methodology, right. We’ll say for this particular thing we’re writing, who’s taking the first pass, and therefore I might make my really, really loose outline slightly more detailed to make him comfortable. And he might make his sort of flow slightly less comprehensive to help me find the balance. So I think over the years we’ve tried to toggle back and forth between the two. But it’s whoever is going the first draft gets to make the call.
IG: For fiction writers how you tell a story the words and phrasing that you use, is as important as the story itself. Similarly, the writer’s style and voice are often important pieces of that pie. That’s not necessarily the case when it comes to non-fiction, especially the kind of idea-driven tones written by the people we’ve spoken with. In most cases, the whole point is to get ideas into the public consciousness and hopefully have them picked up on by various power brokers and business and government.
RM: And the only reason to write is influence, right? You want to write to influence somebody. It’s like if you’re writing in…at least in non-fiction. So my method for doing that tends to be to try it out, try the argument out with people, and then use their reactions to it to help me figure out how do I have to tell…do I have to give them an example here to make this point or can they not really take on that point. At that point, I have to do these other three things before that and then it will do. And that’s my sort of process for helping people…helping me make my stuff more helpful than not to people.
IG: While Richard agrees he doesn’t find that his writing properly reflects his ever evolving thinking. For him it’s not the best vehicle to achieve such goals. Rather, he sees writing as the beginning of a much longer, more nuanced conversation.
RF: You know I think the other thing is that I don’t think books or writing accurately represents ones thinking. And I think they represent an element, a codified element of ones thinking. But my thinking is so much, at least I like to think my thinking is so much better and more nuanced and refined and multisided, where my books come out. So less smart or less nuanced than I’d want them to be. They are a way of communicating an idea which for me I can communicate better verbally and in a conversation.
So I think that writing serves a purpose because it’s a very productive and efficient way to disseminate an idea, and to build constituency or to build a conversation around an idea. But they don’t do it effective….for me writing is not an effective way. I would rather have a conversation or write a series of emails or be able to go back and rewrite the book in real time and constantly add to it, than this idea that I finish something and it’s done. It never seems done to me and it never seems right, and the good idea seems to come out of the conversation and debate and dialogue over my ideas. So I find writing to be very curious.
IG: That does it for another episode of Shiftdisturbers. Hopefully, you were able to see some of your own thinking and communication styles in some of our guest’s processes. A big thanks to Roger Martin, Richard Florida, David Frum, Adam Radwanski and Jennifer Riel.
Richard’s new book The New Urban Crisis is out now in the States, with a special Canadian edition dropping on May 8th.
You can read David Frum’s work in The Atlantic and catch Adam Radwanski’s writing in the Globe and Mail. Finally, be on the lookout for Roger and Jennifer’s new book in the fall.
Thank you for listening to Shiftdisturbers. This episode was written and produced by myself, Ian Gormely. If you want to know more about the goings on around the Martin Prosperity Institute, head over the martinprosperity.org or follow us on Twitter at MartinProsperiT. Note the lack of a ‘y’ at the end there.
And to make sure you never miss an episode of Shiftdisturbers click the subscribe button. And if you like what you hear, please take a minute to leave us a review. Once again, I’m Ian Gormely and thanks for listening.
This podcast was produced by the Martin Prosperity Institute at the Rotman School in 2018.