Who says big ideas are rare?
Nathan Myhrvold met Jack Horner on the set of the “Jurassic Park” sequel in 1996. Horner is an eminent paleontologist, website like this and was a consultant on the movie. Myhrvold was there because he really likes dinosaurs. Between takes, cure the two men got to talking, viagra 40mg and Horner asked Myhrvold if he was interested in funding dinosaur expeditions.
Myhrvold is of Nordic extraction, and he looks every bit the bearded, fair-haired Viking—not so much the tall, ferocious kind who raped and pillaged as the impish, roly-poly kind who stayed home by the fjords trying to turn lead into gold. He is gregarious, enthusiastic, and nerdy on an epic scale. He graduated from high school at fourteen. He started Microsoft’s research division, leaving, in 1999, with hundreds of millions. He is obsessed with aperiodic tile patterns. (Imagine a floor tiled in a pattern that never repeats.) When Myhrvold built his own house, on the shores of Lake Washington, outside Seattle—a vast, silvery hypermodernist structure described by his wife as the place in the sci-fi movie where the aliens live—he embedded some sixty aperiodic patterns in the walls, floors, and ceilings. His front garden is planted entirely with vegetation from the Mesozoic era. (“If the ‘Jurassic Park’ thing happens,” he says, “this is where the dinosaurs will come to eat.”) One of the scholarly achievements he is proudest of is a paper he co-wrote proving that it was theoretically possible for sauropods—his favorite kind of dinosaur—to have snapped their tails back and forth faster than the speed of sound. How could he say no to the great Jack Horner?
“What you do on a dinosaur expedition is you hike and look at the ground,” Myhrvold explains. “You find bones sticking out of the dirt and, once you see something, you dig.” In Montana, which is prime dinosaur country, people had been hiking around and looking for bones for at least a hundred years. But Horner wanted to keep trying. So he and Myhrvold put together a number of teams, totalling as many as fifty people. They crossed the Fort Peck reservoir in boats, and began to explore the Montana badlands in earnest. They went out for weeks at a time, several times a year. They flew equipment in on helicopters. They mapped the full dinosaur ecology—bringing in specialists from other disciplines. And they found dinosaur bones by the truckload.
Once, a team member came across a bone sticking out from the bottom of a recently eroded cliff. It took Horner’s field crew three summers to dig it out, and when they broke the bone open a black, gooey substance trickled out—a discovery that led Myhrvold and his friend Lowell Wood on a twenty-minute digression at dinner one night about how, given enough goo and a sufficient number of chicken embryos, they could “make another one.”
There was also Myhrvold’s own find: a line of vertebrae, as big as apples, just lying on the ground in front of him. “It was seven years ago. It was a bunch of bones from a fairly rare dinosaur called a thescelosaurus. I said, ‘Oh, my God!’ I was walking with Jack and my son. Then Jack said, ‘Look, there’s a bone in the side of the hill.’ And we look at it, and it’s a piece of a jawbone with a tooth the size of a banana. It was a T. rex skull. There was nothing else it could possibly be.”
People weren’t finding dinosaur bones, and they assumed that it was because they were rare. But—and almost everything that Myhrvold has been up to during the past half decade follows from this fact—it was our fault. We didn’t look hard enough.
Myhrvold gave the skeleton to the Smithsonian. It’s called the N. rex. “Our expeditions have found more T. rex than anyone else in the world,” Myhrvold said. “From 1909 to 1999, the world found eighteen T. rex specimens. From 1999 until now, we’ve found nine more.” Myhrvold has the kind of laugh that scatters pigeons. “We have dominant T. rex market share.”
In 1874, Alexander Graham Bell spent the summer with his parents in Brantford, Ontario. He was twenty-seven years old, and employed as a speech therapist in Boston. But his real interest was solving the puzzle of what he then called the “harmonic telegraph.” In Boston, he had tinkered obsessively with tuning forks and electromagnetic coils, often staying up all night when he was in the grip of an idea. When he went to Brantford, he brought with him an actual human ear, taken from a cadaver and preserved, to which he attached a pen, so that he could record the vibration of the ear’s bones when he spoke into it.
One day, Bell went for a walk on a bluff overlooking the Grand River, near his parents’ house. In a recent biography of Bell, “Reluctant Genius,” Charlotte Gray writes:
A large tree had blown down here, creating a natural and completely private belvedere, which [he] had dubbed his “dreaming place.” Slouched on a wicker chair, his hands in his pockets, he stared unseeing at the swiftly flowing river below him. Far from the bustle of Boston and the pressure of competition from other eager inventors, he mulled over everything he had discovered about sound.
In that moment, Bell knew the answer to the puzzle of the harmonic telegraph. Electric currents could convey sound along a wire if they undulated in accordance with the sound waves. Back in Boston, he hired a research assistant, Thomas Watson. He turned his attic into a laboratory, and redoubled his efforts. Then, on March 10, 1876, he set up one end of his crude prototype in his bedroom, and had Watson take the other end to the room next door. Bell, always prone to clumsiness, spilled acid on his clothes. “Mr. Watson, come here,” he cried out. Watson came —but only because he had heard Bell on the receiver, plain as day. The telephone was born.
In 1999, when Nathan Myhrvold left Microsoft and struck out on his own, he set himself an unusual goal. He wanted to see whether the kind of insight that leads to invention could be engineered. He formed a company called Intellectual Ventures. He raised hundreds of millions of dollars. He hired the smartest people he knew. It was not a venture-capital firm. Venture capitalists fund insights—that is, they let the magical process that generates new ideas take its course, and then they jump in. Myhrvold wanted to make insights—to come up with ideas, patent them, and then license them to interested companies. He thought that if he brought lots of very clever people together he could reconstruct that moment by the Grand River.
One rainy day last November, Myhrvold held an “invention session,” as he calls such meetings, on the technology of self-assembly. What if it was possible to break a complex piece of machinery into a thousand pieces and then, at some predetermined moment, have the machine put itself back together again? That had to be useful. But for what?
The meeting, like many of Myhrvold’s sessions, was held in a conference room in the Intellectual Ventures laboratory, a big warehouse in an industrial park across Lake Washington from Seattle: plasma TV screens on the walls, a long table furnished with bottles of Diet Pepsi and big bowls of cashews.
Chairing the meeting was Casey Tegreene, an electrical engineer with a law degree, who is the chief patent counsel for I.V. He stood at one end of the table. Myhrvold was at the opposite end. Next to him was Edward Jung, whom Myhrvold met at Microsoft. Jung is lean and sleek, with closely cropped fine black hair. Once, he spent twenty-two days walking across Texas with nothing but a bedroll, a flashlight, and a rifle, from Big Bend, in the west, to Houston, where he was going to deliver a paper at a biology conference. On the other side of the table from Jung was Lowell Wood, an imposing man with graying red hair and an enormous head. Three or four pens were crammed into his shirt pocket. The screen saver on his laptop was a picture of Stonehenge.
“You know how musicians will say, ‘My teacher was So-and-So, and his teacher was So-and-So,’ right back to Beethoven?” Myhrvold says. “So Lowell was the great protégé of Edward Teller. He was at Lawrence Livermore. He was the technical director of Star Wars.” Myhrvold and Wood have known each other since Myhrvold was a teen-ager and Wood interviewed him for a graduate fellowship called the Hertz. “If you want to know what Nathan was like at that age,” Wood said, “look at that ball of fire now and scale that up by eight or ten decibels.” Wood bent the rules for Myhrvold; the Hertz was supposed to be for research in real-world problems. Myhrvold’s field at that point, quantum cosmology, involved the application of quantum mechanics to the period just after the big bang, which means, as Myhrvold likes to say, that he had no interest in the universe a microsecond after its creation.
The chairman of the chemistry department at Stanford, Richard Zare, had flown in for the day, as had Eric Leuthardt, a young neurosurgeon from Washington University, in St. Louis, who is a regular at I.V. sessions. At the back was a sombre, bearded man named Rod Hyde, who had been Wood’s protégé at Lawrence Livermore.
Tegreene began. “There really aren’t any rules,” he told everyone. “We may start out talking about refined plastics and end up talking about shoes, and that’s O.K.”
He started in on the “prep.” In the previous weeks, he and his staff had reviewed the relevant scientific literature and recent patent filings in order to come up with a short briefing on what was and wasn’t known about self-assembly. A short BBC documentary was shown, on the early work of the scientist Lionel Penrose. Richard Zare passed around a set of what looked like ceramic dice. Leuthardt drew elaborate diagrams of the spine on the blackboard. Self-assembly was very useful in eye-of-the-needle problems—in cases where you had to get something very large through a very small hole—and Leuthardt wondered if it might be helpful in minimally invasive surgery.
The conversation went in fits and starts. “I’m asking a simple question and getting a long-winded answer,” Jung said at one point, quietly. Wood played the role of devil’s advocate. During a break, Myhrvold announced that he had just bought a CAT scanner, on an Internet auction site.
“I put in a minimum bid of twenty-nine hundred dollars,” he said. There was much murmuring and nodding around the room. Myhrvold’s friends, like Myhrvold, seemed to be of the opinion that there is no downside to having a CAT scanner, especially if you can get it for twenty-nine hundred dollars.
Before long, self-assembly was put aside and the talk swung to how to improve X-rays, and then to the puzzling phenomenon of soldiers in Iraq who survive a bomb blast only to die a few days later of a stroke. Wood thought it was a shock wave, penetrating the soldiers’ helmets and surging through their brains, tearing blood vessels away from tissue. “Lowell is the living example of something better than the Internet,” Jung said after the meeting was over. “On the Internet, you can search for whatever you want, but you have to know the right terms. With Lowell, you just give him a concept, and this stuff pops out.”
Leuthardt, the neurosurgeon, thought that Wood’s argument was unconvincing. The two went back and forth, arguing about how you could make a helmet that would better protect soldiers.
“We should be careful how much mental energy we spend on this,” Leuthardt said, after a few minutes.
Wood started talking about the particular properties of bullets with tungsten cores.
“Shouldn’t someone tell the Pentagon?” a voice said, only half jokingly, from the back of the room.
How useful is it to have a group of really smart people brainstorm for a day? When Myhrvold started out, his expectations were modest. Although he wanted insights like Alexander Graham Bell’s, Bell was clearly one in a million, a genius who went on to have ideas in an extraordinary number of areas—sound recording, flight, lasers, tetrahedral construction, and hydrofoil boats, to name a few. The telephone was his obsession. He approached it from a unique perspective, that of a speech therapist. He had put in years of preparation before that moment by the Grand River, and it was impossible to know what unconscious associations triggered his great insight. Invention has its own algorithm: genius, obsession, serendipity, and epiphany in some unknowable combination. How can you put that in a bottle?
But then, in August of 2003, I.V. held its first invention session, and it was a revelation. “Afterward, Nathan kept saying, ‘There are so many inventions,’ ” Wood recalled. “He thought if we came up with a half-dozen good ideas it would be great, and we came up with somewhere between fifty and a hundred. I said to him, ‘But you had eight people in that room who are seasoned inventors. Weren’t you expecting a multiplier effect?’ And he said, ‘Yeah, but it was more than multiplicity.’ Not even Nathan had any idea of what it was going to be like.”
The original expectation was that I.V. would file a hundred patents a year. Currently, it’s filing five hundred a year. It has a backlog of three thousand ideas. Wood said that he once attended a two-day invention session presided over by Jung, and after the first day the group went out to dinner. “So Edward took his people out, plus me,” Wood said. “And the eight of us sat down at a table and the attorney said, ‘Do you mind if I record the evening?’ And we all said no, of course not. We sat there. It was a long dinner. I thought we were lightly chewing the rag. But the next day the attorney comes up with eight single-spaced pages flagging thirty-six different inventions from dinner. Dinner.”
And the kinds of ideas the group came up with weren’t trivial. Intellectual Ventures just had a patent issued on automatic, battery-powered glasses, with a tiny video camera that reads the image off the retina and adjusts the fluid-filled lenses accordingly, up to ten times a second. It just licensed off a cluster of its patents, for eighty million dollars. It has invented new kinds of techniques for making microchips and improving jet engines; it has proposed a way to custom-tailor the mesh “sleeve” that neurosurgeons can use to repair aneurysms.
Bill Gates, whose company, Microsoft, is one of the major investors in Intellectual “Ventures, says, I can give you fifty examples of ideas they’ve had where, if you take just one of them, you’d have a startup company right there.” Gates has participated in a number of invention sessions, and, with other members of the Gates Foundation, meets every few months with Myhrvold to brainstorm about things like malaria or H.I.V. “Nathan sent over a hundred scientific papers beforehand,” Gates said of the last such meeting. “The amount of reading was huge. But it was fantastic. There’s this idea they have where you can track moving things by counting wing beats. So you could build a mosquito fence and clear an entire area. They had some ideas about super-thermoses, so you wouldn’t need refrigerators for certain things. They also came up with this idea to stop hurricanes. Basically, the waves in the ocean have energy, and you use that to lower the temperature differential. I’m not saying it necessarily is going to work. But it’s just an example of something where you go, Wow.”
One of the sessions that Gates participated in was on the possibility of resuscitating nuclear energy. “Teller had this idea way back when that you could make a very safe, passive nuclear reactor,” Myhrvold explained. “No moving parts. Proliferation-resistant. Dead simple. Every serious nuclear accident involves operator error, so you want to eliminate the operator altogether. Lowell and Rod and others wrote a paper on it once. So we did several sessions on it.”
The plant, as they conceived it, would produce something like one to three gigawatts of power, which is enough to serve a medium-sized city. The reactor core would be no more than several metres wide and about ten metres long. It would be enclosed in a sealed, armored box. The box would work for thirty years, without need for refuelling. Wood’s idea was that the box would run on thorium, which is a very common, mildly radioactive metal. (The world has roughly a hundred-thousand-year supply, he figures.) Myhrvold’s idea was that it should run on spent fuel from existing power plants. “Waste has negative cost,” Myhrvold said. “This is how we make this idea politically and regulatorily attractive. Lowell and I had a monthlong no-holds-barred nuclear-physics battle. He didn’t believe waste would work. It turns out it does.” Myhrvold grinned. “He concedes it now.”
It was a long-shot idea, easily fifteen years from reality, if it became a reality at all. It was just a tantalizing idea at this point, but who wasn’t interested in seeing where it would lead? “We have thirty guys working on it,” he went on. “I have more people doing cutting-edge nuclear work than General Electric. We’re looking for someone to partner with us, because this is a huge undertaking. We took out an ad in Nuclear News, which is the big trade journal. It looks like something from The Onion: ‘Intellectual Ventures interested in nuclear-core designer and fission specialist.’ And, no, the F.B.I. hasn’t come knocking.” He lowered his voice to a stage whisper. “Lowell is known to them.”
It was the dinosaur-bone story all over again. You sent a proper search team into territory where people had been looking for a hundred years, and, lo and behold, there’s a T. rex tooth the size of a banana. Ideas weren’t precious. They were everywhere, which suggested that maybe the extraordinary process that we thought was necessary for invention—genius, obsession, serendipity, epiphany—wasn’t necessary at all.
In June of 1876, a few months after he shouted out, “Mr. Watson, come here,” Alexander Graham Bell took his device to the World’s Fair in Philadelphia. There, before an audience that included the emperor of Brazil, he gave his most famous public performance. The emperor accompanied Bell’s assistant, Willie Hubbard, to an upper gallery, where the receiver had been placed, leaving Bell with his transmitter. Below them, and out of sight, Bell began to talk. “A storm of emotions crossed the Brazilian emperor’s face—uncertainty, amazement, elation,” Charlotte Gray writes. “Lifting his head from the receiver . . . he gave Willie a huge grin and said, ‘This thing speaks!’ ” Gray continues:
Soon a steady stream of portly, middle-aged men were clambering into the gallery, stripping off their jackets, and bending their ears to the receiver. “For an hour or more,” Willie remembered, “all took turns in talking and listening, testing the line in every possible way, evidently looking for some trickery, or thinking that the sound was carried through the air. . . . It seemed to be nearly all too wonderful for belief.”
Bell was not the only one to give a presentation on the telephone at the Philadelphia Exhibition, however. Someone else spoke first. His name was Elisha Gray. Gray never had an epiphany overlooking the Grand River. Few have claimed that Gray was a genius. He does not seem to have been obsessive, or to have routinely stayed up all night while in the grip of an idea—although we don’t really know, because, unlike Bell, he has never been the subject of a full-length biography. Gray was simply a very adept inventor. He was the author of a number of discoveries relating to the telegraph industry, including a self-adjusting relay that solved the problem of circuits sticking open or shut, and a telegraph printer—a precursor of what was later called the Teletype machine. He worked closely with Western Union. He had a very capable partner named Enos Barton, with whom he formed a company that later became the Western Electric Company and its offshoot Graybar (of Graybar Building fame). And Gray was working on the telephone at the same time that Bell was. In fact, the two filed notice with the Patent Office in Washington, D.C., on the same day—February 14, 1876. Bell went on to make telephones with the company that later became A. T. & T. Gray went on to make telephones in partnership with Western Union and Thomas Edison, and—until Gray’s team was forced to settle a lawsuit with Bell’s company—the general consensus was that Gray and Edison’s telephone was better than Bell’s telephone.
In order to get one of the greatest inventions of the modern age, in other words, we thought we needed the solitary genius. But if Alexander Graham Bell had fallen into the Grand River and drowned that day back in Brantford, the world would still have had the telephone, the only difference being that the telephone company would have been nicknamed Ma Gray, not Ma Bell.
This phenomenon of simultaneous discovery—what science historians call “multiples”—turns out to be extremely common. One of the first comprehensive lists of multiples was put together by William Ogburn and Dorothy Thomas, in 1922, and they found a hundred and forty-eight major scientific discoveries that fit the multiple pattern. Newton and Leibniz both discovered calculus. Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace both discovered evolution. Three mathematicians “invented” decimal fractions. Oxygen was discovered by Joseph Priestley, in Wiltshire, in 1774, and by Carl Wilhelm Scheele, in Uppsala, a year earlier. Color photography was invented at the same time by Charles Cros and by Louis Ducos du Hauron, in France. Logarithms were invented by John Napier and Henry Briggs in Britain, and by Joost Bürgi in Switzerland.
“There were four independent discoveries of sunspots, all in 1611; namely, by Galileo in Italy, Scheiner in Germany, Fabricius in Holland and Harriott in England,” Ogburn and Thomas note, and they continue:
The law of the conservation of energy, so significant in science and philosophy, was formulated four times independently in 1847, by Joule, Thomson, Colding and Helmholz. They had been anticipated by Robert Mayer in 1842. There seem to have been at least six different inventors of the thermometer and no less than nine claimants of the invention of the telescope. Typewriting machines were invented simultaneously in England and in America by several individuals in these countries. The steamboat is claimed as the “exclusive” discovery of Fulton, Jouffroy, Rumsey, Stevens and Symmington.
For Ogburn and Thomas, the sheer number of multiples could mean only one thing: scientific discoveries must, in some sense, be inevitable. They must be in the air, products of the intellectual climate of a specific time and place. It should not surprise us, then, that calculus was invented by two people at the same moment in history. Pascal and Descartes had already laid the foundations. The Englishman John Wallis had pushed the state of knowledge still further. Newton’s teacher was Isaac Barrow, who had studied in Italy, and knew the critical work of Torricelli and Cavalieri. Leibniz knew Pascal’s and Descartes’s work from his time in Paris. He was close to a German named Henry Oldenburg, who, now living in London, had taken it upon himself to catalogue the latest findings of the English mathematicians. Leibniz and Newton may never have actually sat down together and shared their work in detail. But they occupied a common intellectual milieu. “All the basic work was done—someone just needed to take the next step and put it together,” Jason Bardi writes in “The Calculus Wars,” a history of the idea’s development. “If Newton and Leibniz had not discovered it, someone else would have.” Calculus was in the air.
Of course, that is not the way Newton saw it. He had done his calculus work in the mid-sixteen-sixties, but never published it. And after Leibniz came out with his calculus, in the sixteen-eighties, people in Newton’s circle accused Leibniz of stealing his work, setting off one of the great scientific scandals of the seventeenth century. That is the inevitable human response. We’re reluctant to believe that great discoveries are in the air. We want to believe that great discoveries are in our heads—and to each party in the multiple the presence of the other party is invariably cause for suspicion.
Thus the biographer Robert Bruce, in “Bell: Alexander Graham Bell and the Conquest of Solitude,” casts a skeptical eye on Elisha Gray. Was it entirely coincidence, he asks, that the two filed on exactly the same day? “If Gray had prevailed in the end,” he goes on,
Bell and his partners, along with fanciers of the underdog, would have suspected chicanery. After all, Gray did not put his concept on paper nor even mention it to anyone until he had spent nearly a month in Washington making frequent visits to the Patent Office, and until Bell’s notarized specifications had for several days been the admiration of at least some of “the people in the Patent Office.” . . . It is easier to believe that a conception already forming in Gray’s mind was precipitated by rumors of what Bell was about to patent, than to believe that chance alone brought Gray to inspiration and action at that precise moment.
In “The Telephone Gambit,” Seth Shulman makes the opposite case. Just before Bell had his famous conversation with Watson, Shulman points out, he visited the Patent Office in Washington. And the transmitter design that Bell immediately sketched in his notebook upon his return to Boston was identical to the sketch of the transmitter that Gray had submitted to the Patent Office. This could not be coincidence, Shulman concludes, and thereupon constructs an ingenious (and, it should be said, highly entertaining) revisionist account of Bell’s invention, complete with allegations of corruption and romantic turmoil. Bell’s telephone, he writes, is “one of the most consequential thefts in history.”
But surely Gray and Bell occupied their scientific moment in the same way that Leibniz and Newton did. They arrived at electric speech by more or less the same pathway. They were trying to find a way to send more than one message at a time along a telegraph wire—which was then one of the central technological problems of the day. They had read the same essential sources—particularly the work of Philipp Reis, the German physicist who had come startlingly close to building a working telephone back in the early eighteen-sixties. The arguments of Bruce and Shulman suppose that great ideas are precious. It is too much for them to imagine that a discovery as remarkable as the telephone could arise in two places at once. But five people came up with the steamboat, and nine people came up with the telescope, and, if Gray had fallen into the Grand River along with Bell, some Joe Smith somewhere would likely have come up with the telephone instead and Ma Smith would have run the show. Good ideas are out there for anyone with the wit and the will to find them, which is how a group of people can sit down to dinner, put their minds to it, and end up with eight single-spaced pages of ideas.
Last March, Myhrvold decided to do an invention session with Eric Leuthardt and several other physicians in St. Louis. Rod Hyde came, along with a scientist from M.I.T. named Ed Boyden. Wood was there as well.
“Lowell came in looking like the Cheshire Cat,” Myhrvold recalled. “He said, ‘I have a question for everyone. You have a tumor, and the tumor becomes metastatic, and it sheds metastatic cancer cells. How long do those circulate in the bloodstream before they land?’ And we all said, ‘We don’t know. Ten times?’ ‘No,’ he said. ‘As many as a million times.’ Isn’t that amazing? If you had no time, you’d be screwed. But it turns out that these cells are in your blood for as long as a year before they land somewhere. What that says is that you’ve got a chance to intercept them.”
How did Wood come to this conclusion? He had run across a stray fact in a recent issue of The New England Journal of Medicine. “It was an article that talked about, at one point, the number of cancer cells per millilitre of blood,” he said. “And I looked at that figure and said, ‘Something’s wrong here. That can’t possibly be true.’ The number was incredibly high. Too high. It has to be one cell in a hundred litres, not what they were saying—one cell in a millilitre. Yet they spoke of it so confidently. I clicked through to the references. It was a commonplace. There really were that many cancer cells.”
Wood did some arithmetic. He knew that human beings have only about five litres of blood. He knew that the heart pumps close to a hundred millilitres of blood per beat, which means that all of our blood circulates through our bloodstream in a matter of minutes. The New England Journal article was about metastatic breast cancer, and it seemed to Wood that when women die of metastatic breast cancer they don’t die with thousands of tumors. The vast majority of circulating cancer cells don’t do anything.
“It turns out that some small per cent of tumor cells are actually the deadly ” “; he went on. ” Tumor stem cells are what really initiate metastases. And isn’t it astonishing that they have to turn over at least ten thousand times before they can find a happy home? You naïvely think it’s once or twice or three times. Maybe five times at most. It isn’t. In other words, metastatic cancer—the brand of cancer that kills us—is an amazingly hard thing to initiate. Which strongly suggests that if you tip things just a little bit you essentially turn off the process.”
That was the idea that Wood presented to the room in St. Louis. From there, the discussion raced ahead. Myhrvold and his inventors had already done a lot of thinking about using tiny optical filters capable of identifying and zapping microscopic particles. They also knew that finding cancer cells in blood is not hard. They’re often the wrong size or the wrong shape. So what if you slid a tiny filter into a blood vessel of a cancer patient? “You don’t have to intercept very much of the blood for it to work,” Wood went on. “Maybe one ten-thousandth of it. The filter could be put in a little tiny vein in the back of the hand, because that’s all you need. Or maybe I intercept all of the blood, but then it doesn’t have to be a particularly efficient filter.”
Wood was a physicist, not a doctor, but that wasn’t necessarily a liability, at this stage. “”People in biology and medicine don’t do arithmetic,” he said. He wasn’t being critical of biologists and physicians: this was, after all, a man who read medical journals for fun. He meant that the traditions of medicine encouraged qualitative observation and interpretation. But what physicists do—out of sheer force of habit and training—is measure things and compare measurements, and do the math to put measurements in context. At that moment, while reading The New England Journal, Wood had the advantages of someone looking at a familiar fact with a fresh perspective.
That was also why Myhrvold had wanted to take his crew to St. Louis to meet with the surgeons. He likes to say that the only time a physicist and a brain surgeon meet is when the physicist is about to be cut open—and to his mind that made no sense. Surgeons had all kinds of problems that they didn’t realize had solutions, and physicists had all kinds of solutions to things that they didn’t realize were problems. At one point, Myhrvold asked the surgeons what, in a perfect world, would make their lives easier, and they said that they wanted an X-ray that went only skin deep. They wanted to know, before they made their first incision, what was just below the surface. When the Intellectual Ventures crew heard that, their response was amazement. “That’s your dream? A subcutaneous X-ray? We can do that.”
Insight could be orchestrated: that was the lesson. If someone who knew how to make a filter had a conversation with someone who knew a lot about cancer and with someone who read the medical literature like a physicist, then maybe you could come up with a cancer treatment. It helped as well that Casey Tegreene had a law degree, Lowell Wood had spent his career dreaming up weapons for the government, Nathan Myhrvold was a ball of fire, Edward Jung had walked across Texas. They had different backgrounds and temperaments and perspectives, and if you gave them something to think about that they did not ordinarily think about—like hurricanes, or jet engines, or metastatic cancer—you were guaranteed a fresh set of eyes.
There were drawbacks to this approach, of course. The outsider, not knowing what the insider knew, would make a lot of mistakes and chase down a lot of rabbit holes. Myhrvold admits that many of the ideas that come out of the invention sessions come to naught. After a session, the Ph.D.s on the I.V. staff examine each proposal closely and decide which ones are worth pursuing. They talk to outside experts; they reread the literature. Myhrvold isn’t even willing to guess what his company’s most promising inventions are. “That’s a fool’s game,” he says. If ideas are cheap, there is no point in making predictions, or worrying about failures, or obsessing, like Newton and Leibniz, or Bell and Gray, over who was first. After I.V. came up with its cancer-filter idea, it discovered that there was a company, based in Rochester, that was already developing a cancer filter. Filters were a multiple. But so what? If I.V.’s design wasn’t the best, Myhrvold had two thousand nine hundred and ninety-nine other ideas to pursue.
In his living room, Myhrvold has a life-size T. rex skeleton, surrounded by all manner of other dinosaur artifacts. One of those is a cast of a nest of oviraptor eggs, each the size of an eggplant. You’d think a bird that big would have one egg, or maybe two. That’s the general rule: the larger the animal, the lower the fecundity. But it didn’t. For Myhrvold, it was one of the many ways in which dinosaurs could teach us about ourselves. “You know how many eggs were in that nest?” Myhrvold asked. “Thirty-two.”
In the nineteen-sixties, the sociologist Robert K. Merton wrote a famous essay on scientific discovery in which he raised the question of what the existence of multiples tells us about genius. No one is a partner to more multiples, he pointed out, than a genius, and he came to the conclusion that our romantic notion of the genius must be wrong. A scientific genius is not a person who does what no one else can do; he or she is someone who does what it takes many others to do. The genius is not a unique source of insight; he is merely an efficient source of insight. “Consider the case of Kelvin, by way of illustration,” Merton writes, summarizing work he had done with his Columbia colleague Elinor Barber:
After examining some 400 of his 661 scientific communications and addresses . . . Dr. Elinor Barber and I find him testifying to at least 32 multiple discoveries in which he eventually found that his independent discoveries had also been made by others. These 32 multiples involved an aggregate of 30 other scientists, some, like Stokes, Green, Helmholtz, Cavendish, Clausius, Poincaré, Rayleigh, themselves men of undeniable genius, others, like Hankel, Pfaff, Homer Lane, Varley and Lamé, being men of talent, no doubt, but still not of the highest order. . . . For the hypothesis that each of these discoveries was destined to find expression, even if the genius of Kelvin had not obtained, there is the best of traditional proof: each was in fact made by others. Yet Kelvin’s stature as a genius remains undiminished. For it required a considerable number of others to duplicate these 32 discoveries which Kelvin himself made.
This is, surely, what an invention session is: it is Hankel, Pfaff, Homer Lane, Varley, and Lamé in a room together, and if you have them on your staff you can get a big chunk of ‘s discoveries, without ever needing to have Kelvin—which is fortunate, because, although there are plenty of Homer Lanes, Varleys, and Pfaffs in the world, there are very few Kelvins.
Merton’s observation about scientific geniuses is clearly not true of artistic geniuses, however. You can’t pool the talents of a dozen Salieris and get Mozart’s Requiem. You can’t put together a committee of really talented art students and get Matisse’s “La Danse.” A work of artistic genius is singular, and all the arguments over calculus, the accusations back and forth between the Bell and the Gray camps, and our persistent inability to come to terms with the existence of multiples are the result of our misplaced desire to impose the paradigm of artistic invention on a world where it doesn’t belong. Shakespeare owned Hamlet because he created him, as none other before or since could. Alexander Graham Bell owned the telephone only because his patent application landed on the examiner’s desk a few hours before Gray’s. The first kind of creation was sui generis; the second could be re-created in a warehouse outside Seattle.
This is a confusing distinction, because we use the same words to describe both kinds of inventors, and the brilliant scientist is every bit as dazzling in person as the brilliant playwright. The unavoidable first response to Myhrvold and his crew is to think of them as a kind of dream team, but, of course, the fact that they invent as prodigiously and effortlessly as they do is evidence that they are not a dream team at all. You could put together an Intellectual Ventures in Los Angeles, if you wanted to, and Chicago, and New York and Baltimore, and anywhere you could find enough imagination, a fresh set of eyes, and a room full of Varleys and Pfaffs.
The statistician Stephen Stigler once wrote an elegant essay about the futility of the practice of eponymy in science—that is, the practice of naming a scientific discovery after its inventor. That’s another idea inappropriately borrowed from the cultural realm. As Stigler pointed out, “It can be found that Laplace employed Fourier Transforms in print before Fourier published on the topic, that Lagrange presented Laplace Transforms before Laplace began his scientific career, that Poisson published the Cauchy distribution in 1824, twenty-nine years before Cauchy touched on it in an incidental manner, and that Bienaymé stated and proved the Chebychev Inequality a decade before and in greater generality than Chebychev’s first work on the topic.” For that matter, the Pythagorean theorem was known before Pythagoras; Gaussian distributions were not discovered by Gauss. The examples were so legion that Stigler declared the existence of Stigler’s Law: “No scientific discovery is named after its original discoverer.” There are just too many people with an equal shot at those ideas floating out there in the ether. We think we’re pinning medals on heroes. In fact, we’re pinning tails on donkeys.
Stigler’s Law was true, Stigler gleefully pointed out, even of Stigler’s Law itself. The idea that credit does not align with discovery, he reveals at the very end of his essay, was in fact first put forth by Merton. “We may expect,” Stigler concluded, “that in years to come, Robert K. Merton, and his colleagues and students, will provide us with answers to these and other questions regarding eponymy, completing what, but for the Law, would be called the Merton Theory of the reward system of science.”
In April, Lowell Wood was on the East Coast for a meeting of the Hertz Foundation fellows in Woods Hole. Afterward, he came to New York to make a pilgrimage to the American Museum of Natural History. He had just half a day, so he began right away in the Dinosaur Halls. He spent what he later described as a “ridiculously prolonged” period of time at the first station in the Ornithischian Hall—the ankylosaurus shrine. He knew it by heart. His next stop was the dimetrodon, the progenitor of Mammalia. This was a family tradition. When Wood first took his daughter to the museum, she dubbed the fossil “Great Grand-Uncle Dimetrodon,” and they always paid their respects to it. Next, he visited a glyptodont; this creature was the only truly armored mammal, a fact of great significance to a former weaponeer.
He then wandered into the Vertebrate Origins gallery and, for the hundredth time, wondered about the strange openings that Archosauria had in front of their eyes and behind their nostrils. They had to be for breathing, didn’t they? He tried to come up with an alternate hypothesis, and couldn’t—but then he couldn’t come up with a way to confirm his own hunch, either. It was a puzzle. Perhaps someday he would figure it out. Perhaps someone else would. Or perhaps someone would find another skeleton that shed light on the mystery. Nathan Myhrvold and Jack Horner had branched out from Montana, and at the end of the summer were going to Mongolia, to hunt in the Gobi desert. There were a lot more bones where these came from.
Why do we equate genius with precocity?
Ben Fountain was an associate in the real-estate practice at the Dallas offices of Akin, troche Gump, cheapest Strauss, order Hauer & Feld, just a few years out of law school, when he decided he wanted to write fiction. The only thing Fountain had ever published was a law-review article. His literary training consisted of a handful of creative-writing classes in college. He had tried to write when he came home at night from work, but usually he was too tired to do much. He decided to quit his job.
“I was tremendously apprehensive,” Fountain recalls. “I felt like I’d stepped off a cliff and I didn’t know if the parachute was going to open. Nobody wants to waste their life, and I was doing well at the practice of law. I could have had a good career. And my parents were very proud of me—my dad was so proud of me. . . . It was crazy.”
He began his new life on a February morning—a Monday. He sat down at his kitchen table at 7:30 A.M. He made a plan. Every day, he would write until lunchtime. Then he would lie down on the floor for twenty minutes to rest his mind. Then he would return to work for a few more hours. He was a lawyer. He had discipline. “I figured out very early on that if I didn’t get my writing done I felt terrible. So I always got my writing done. I treated it like a job. I did not procrastinate.” His first story was about a stockbroker who uses inside information and crosses a moral line. It was sixty pages long and took him three months to write. When he finished that story, he went back to work and wrote another—and then another.
In his first year, Fountain sold two stories. He gained confidence. He wrote a novel. He decided it wasn’t very good, and he ended up putting it in a drawer. Then came what he describes as his dark period, when he adjusted his expectations and started again. He got a short story published in Harper’s. A New York literary agent saw it and signed him up. He put together a collection of short stories titled “Brief Encounters with Che Guevara,” and Ecco, a HarperCollins imprint, published it. The reviews were sensational. The Times Book Review called it “heartbreaking.” It won the Hemingway Foundation/PEN award. It was named a No. 1 Book Sense Pick. It made major regional best-seller lists, was named one of the best books of the year by the San Francisco Chronicle, the Chicago Tribune, and Kirkus Reviews, and drew comparisons to Graham Greene, Evelyn Waugh, Robert Stone, and John le Carré.
Ben Fountain’s rise sounds like a familiar story: the young man from the provinces suddenly takes the literary world by storm. But Ben Fountain’s success was far from sudden. He quit his job at Akin, Gump in 1988. For every story he published in those early years, he had at least thirty rejections. The novel that he put away in a drawer took him four years. The dark period lasted for the entire second half of the nineteen-nineties. His breakthrough with “Brief ” came in 2006, eighteen years after he first sat down to write at his kitchen table. The “young” writer from the provinces took the literary world by storm at the age of forty-eight.
Genius, in the popular conception, is inextricably tied up with precocity—doing something truly creative, we’re inclined to think, requires the freshness and exuberance and energy of youth. Orson Welles made his masterpiece, “Citizen Kane,” at twenty-five. Herman Melville wrote a book a year through his late twenties, culminating, at age thirty-two, with “Moby-Dick.” Mozart wrote his breakthrough Piano Concerto No. 9 in E-Flat-Major at the age of twenty-one. In some creative forms, like lyric poetry, the importance of precocity has hardened into an iron law. How old was T. S. Eliot when he wrote “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” (“I grow old . . . I grow old”)? Twenty-three. “Poets peak young,” the creativity researcher James Kaufman maintains. Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, the author of “Flow,” agrees: “The most creative lyric verse is believed to be that written by the young.” According to the Harvard psychologist Howard Gardner, a leading authority on creativity, “Lyric poetry is a domain where talent is discovered early, burns brightly, and then peters out at an early age.”
A few years ago, an economist at the University of Chicago named David Galenson decided to find out whether this assumption about creativity was true. He looked through forty-seven major poetry anthologies published since 1980 and counted the poems that appear most frequently. Some people, of course, would quarrel with the notion that literary merit can be quantified. But Galenson simply wanted to poll a broad cross-section of literary scholars about which poems they felt were the most important in the American canon. The top eleven are, in order, T. S. Eliot’s “Prufrock,” Robert Lowell’s “Skunk Hour,” Robert Frost’s “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” William Carlos Williams’s “Red Wheelbarrow,” Elizabeth Bishop’s “The Fish,” Ezra Pound’s “The River Merchant’s Wife,” Sylvia Plath’s “Daddy,” Pound’s “In a Station of the Metro,” Frost’s “Mending Wall,” Wallace Stevens’s “The Snow Man,” and Williams’s “The Dance.” Those eleven were composed at the ages of twenty-three, forty-one, forty-eight, forty, twenty-nine, thirty, thirty, twenty-eight, thirty-eight, forty-two, and fifty-nine, respectively. There is no evidence, Galenson concluded, for the notion that lyric poetry is a young person’s game. Some poets do their best work at the beginning of their careers. Others do their best work decades later. Forty-two per cent of Frost’s anthologized poems were written after the age of fifty. For Williams, it’s forty-four per cent. For Stevens, it’s forty-nine per cent.
The same was true of film, Galenson points out in his study “Old Masters and Young Geniuses: The Two Life Cycles of Artistic Creativity.” Yes, there was Orson Welles, peaking as a director at twenty-five. But then there was Alfred Hitchcock, who made “Dial M for Murder,” “Rear Window,” “To Catch a Thief,” “The Trouble with Harry,” “Vertigo,” “North by Northwest,” and “Psycho”—one of the greatest runs by a director in history—between his fifty-fourth and sixty-first birthdays. Mark Twain published “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” at forty-nine. Daniel Defoe wrote “Robinson Crusoe” at fifty-eight.
The examples that Galenson could not get out of his head, however, were Picasso and Cézanne. He was an art lover, and he knew their stories well. Picasso was the incandescent prodigy. His career as a serious artist began with a masterpiece, “Evocation: The Burial of Casagemas,” produced at age twenty. In short order, he painted many of the greatest works of his career—including “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon,” at the age of twenty-six. Picasso fit our usual ideas about genius perfectly.
Cézanne didn’t. If you go to the Cézanne room at the Musée d’Orsay, in Paris—the finest collection of Cézannes in the world—the array of masterpieces you’ll find along the back wall were all painted at the end of his career. Galenson did a simple economic analysis, tabulating the prices paid at auction for paintings by Picasso and Cézanne with the ages at which they created those works. A painting done by Picasso in his mid-twenties was worth, he found, an average of four times as much as a painting done in his sixties. For Cézanne, the opposite was true. The paintings he created in his mid-sixties were valued fifteen times as highly as the paintings he created as a young man. The freshness, exuberance, and energy of youth did little for Cézanne. He was a late bloomer—and for some reason in our accounting of genius and creativity we have forgotten to make sense of the Cézannes of the world.
The first day that Ben Fountain sat down to write at his kitchen table went well. He knew how the story about the stockbroker was supposed to start. But the second day, he says, he “completely freaked out.” He didn’t know how to describe things. He felt as if he were back in first grade. He didn’t have a fully formed vision, waiting to be emptied onto the page. “I had to create a mental image of a building, a room, a façade, haircut, clothes—just really basic things,” he says. “I realized I didn’t have the facility to put those into words. I started going out and buying visual dictionaries, architectural dictionaries, and going to school on those.”
He began to collect articles about things he was interested in, and before long he realized that he had developed a fascination with Haiti. “The Haiti file just kept getting bigger and bigger,” Fountain says. “And I thought, O.K., here’s my novel. For a month or two I said I really don’t need to go there, I can imagine everything. But after a couple of months I thought, Yeah, you’ve got to go there, and so I went, in April or May of ’91.”
He spoke little French, let alone Haitian Creole. He had never been abroad. Nor did he know anyone in Haiti. “I got to the hotel, walked up the stairs, and there was this guy standing at the top of the stairs,” Fountain recalls. “He said, ‘My name is Pierre. You need a guide.’ I said, ‘You’re sure as hell right, I do.’ He was a very genuine person, and he realized pretty quickly I didn’t want to go see the girls, I didn’t want drugs, I didn’t want any of that other stuff,” Fountain went on. “And then it was, boom, ‘I can take you there. I can take you to this person.’ ”
Fountain was riveted by Haiti. “It’s like a laboratory, almost,” he says. “Everything that’s gone on in the last five hundred years—colonialism, race, power, politics, ecological disasters—it’s all there in very concentrated form. And also I just felt, viscerally, pretty comfortable there.” He made more trips to Haiti, sometimes for a week, sometimes for two weeks. He made friends. He invited them to visit him in Dallas. (“You haven’t lived until you’ve had Haitians stay in your house,” Fountain says.) “I mean, I was involved. I couldn’t just walk away. There’s this very nonrational, nonlinear part of the whole process. I had a pretty specific time era that I was writing about, and certain things that I needed to know. But there were other things I didn’t really need to know. I met a fellow who was with Save the Children, and he was on the Central Plateau, which takes about twelve hours to get to on a bus, and I had no reason to go there. But I went up there. Suffered on that bus, and ate dust. It was a hard trip, but it was a glorious trip. It had nothing to do with the book, but it wasn’t wasted knowledge.”
In “Brief Encounters with Che Guevara,” four of the stories are about Haiti, and they are the strongest in the collection. They feel like Haiti; they feel as if they’ve been written from the inside looking out, not the outside looking in. “After the novel was done, I don’t know, I just felt like there was more for me, and I could keep going, keep going deeper there,” Fountain recalls. “Always there’s something—always something—here for me. How many times have I been? At least thirty times.”
Prodigies like Picasso, Galenson argues, rarely engage in that kind of open-ended exploration. They tend to be “conceptual,” Galenson says, in the sense that they start with a clear idea of where they want to go, and then they execute it. “I can hardly understand the importance given to the word ‘research,’ ” Picasso once said in an interview with the artist Marius de Zayas. “In my opinion, to search means nothing in painting. To find is the thing.” He continued, “The several manners I have used in my art must not be considered as an evolution or as steps toward an unknown ideal of painting. . . . I have never made trials or experiments.”
But late bloomers, Galenson says, tend to work the other way around. Their approach is experimental. “Their goals are imprecise, so their procedure is tentative and incremental,” Galenson writes in “Old Masters and Young Geniuses,” and he goes on:
The imprecision of their goals means that these artists rarely feel they have succeeded, and their careers are consequently often dominated by the pursuit of a single objective. These artists repeat themselves, painting the same subject many times, and gradually changing its treatment in an experimental process of trial and error. Each work leads to the next, and none is generally privileged over others, so experimental painters rarely make specific preparatory sketches or plans for a painting. They consider the production of a painting as a process of searching, in which they aim to discover the image in the course of making it; they typically believe that learning is a more important goal than making finished paintings. Experimental artists build their skills gradually over the course of their careers, improving their work slowly over long periods. These artists are perfectionists and are typically plagued by frustration at their inability to achieve their goal.
Where Picasso wanted to find, not search, Cézanne said the opposite: “I seek in painting.”
An experimental innovator would go back to Haiti thirty times. That’s how that kind of mind figures out what it wants to do. When Cézanne was painting a portrait of the critic Gustave Geffroy, he made him endure eighty sittings, over three months, before announcing the project a failure. (The result is one of that string of masterpieces in the Musée ”Orsay.) When Cézanne painted his dealer, Ambrose Vollard, he made Vollard arrive at eight in the morning and sit on a rickety platform until eleven-thirty, without a break, on a hundred and fifty occasions—before abandoning the portrait. He would paint a scene, then repaint it, then paint it again. He was notorious for slashing his canvases to pieces in fits of frustration.
Mark Twain was the same way. Galenson quotes the literary critic Franklin Rogers on Twain’s trial-and-error method: “His routine procedure seems to have been to start a novel with some structural plan which ordinarily soon proved defective, whereupon he would cast about for a new plot which would overcome the difficulty, rewrite what he had already written, and then push on until some new defect forced him to repeat the process once again.” Twain fiddled and despaired and revised and gave up on “Huckleberry Finn” so many times that the book took him nearly a decade to complete. The Cézannes of the world bloom late not as a result of some defect in character, or distraction, or lack of ambition, but because the kind of creativity that proceeds through trial and error necessarily takes a long time to come to fruition.
One of the best stories in “Brief Encounters” is called “Near-Extinct Birds of the Central Cordillera.” It’s about an ornithologist taken hostage by the FARC guerrillas of Colombia. Like so much of Fountain’s work, it reads with an easy grace. But there was nothing easy or graceful about its creation. “I struggled with that story,” Fountain says. “I always try to do too much. I mean, I probably wrote five hundred pages of it in various incarnations.” Fountain is at work right now on a novel. It was supposed to come out this year. It’s late.
Galenson’s idea that creativity can be divided into these types—conceptual and experimental—has a number of important implications. For example, we sometimes think of late bloomers as late starters. They don’t realize they’re good at something until they’re fifty, so of course they achieve late in life. But that’s not quite right. Cézanne was painting almost as early as Picasso was. We also sometimes think of them as artists who are discovered late; the world is just slow to appreciate their gifts. In both cases, the assumption is that the prodigy and the late bloomer are fundamentally the same, and that late blooming is simply genius under conditions of market failure. What Galenson’s argument suggests is something else—that late bloomers bloom late because they simply aren’t much good until late in their careers.
“All these qualities of his inner vision were continually hampered and obstructed by Cézanne’s incapacity to give sufficient verisimilitude to the personae of his drama,” the great English art critic Roger Fry wrote of the early Cézanne. “With all his rare endowments, he happened to lack the comparatively common gift of illustration, the gift that any draughtsman for the illustrated papers learns in a school of commercial art; whereas, to realize such visions as Cézanne’s required this gift in high degree.” In other words, the young Cézanne couldn’t draw. Of “The Banquet,” which Cézanne painted at thirty-one, Fry writes, “It is no use to deny that Cézanne has made a very poor job of it.” Fry goes on, “More happily endowed and more integral personalities have been able to express themselves harmoniously from the very first. But such rich, complex, and conflicting natures as Cézanne’s require a long period of fermentation.” Cézanne was trying something so elusive that he couldn’t master it until he’d spent decades practicing.
This is the vexing lesson of Fountain’s long attempt to get noticed by the literary world. On the road to great achievement, the late bloomer will resemble a failure: while the late bloomer is revising and despairing and changing course and slashing canvases to ribbons after months or years, what he or she produces will look like the kind of thing produced by the artist who will never bloom at all. Prodigies are easy. They advertise their genius from the get-go. Late bloomers are hard. They require forbearance and blind faith. (Let’s just be thankful that Cézanne didn’t have a guidance counsellor in high school who looked at his primitive sketches and told him to try accounting.) Whenever we find a late bloomer, we can’t but wonder how many others like him or her we have thwarted because we prematurely judged their talents. But we also have to acccept that there’s nothing we can do about it. How can we ever know which of the failures will end up blooming?
Not long after meeting Ben Fountain, I went to see the novelist Jonathan Safran Foer, the author of the 2002 best-seller “Everything Is Illuminated.” Fountain is a graying man, slight and modest, who looks, in the words of a friend of his, like a “golf pro from Augusta, Georgia.” Foer is in his early thirties and looks barely old enough to drink. Fountain has a softness to him, as if years of struggle have worn away whatever sharp edges he once had. Foer gives the impression that if you touched him while he was in full conversational flight you would get an electric shock.
“I came to writing really by the back door,” Foer said. “My wife is a writer, and she grew up keeping journals—you know, parents said, ‘Lights out, time for bed,’ and she had a little flashlight under the covers, reading books. I don’t think I read a book until much later than other people. I just wasn’t interested in it.”
Foer went to Princeton and took a creative-writing class in his freshman year with Joyce Carol Oates. It was, he explains, “sort of on a whim, maybe out of a sense that I should have a diverse course load.” He’d never written a story before. “I didn’t really think anything of it, to be honest, but halfway through the semester I arrived to class early one day, and she said, ‘Oh, I’m glad I have this chance to talk to you. I’m a fan of your writing.’ And it was a real revelation for me.”
Oates told him that he had the most important of writerly qualities, which was energy. He had been writing fifteen pages a week for that class, an entire story for each seminar. “Why does a dam with a crack in it leak so much?” he said, with a laugh. “There was just something in me, there was like a pressure.”
As a sophomore, he took another creative-writing class. During the following summer, he went to Europe. He wanted to find the village in Ukraine where his grandfather had come from. After the trip, he went to Prague. There he read Kafka, as any literary undergraduate would, and sat down at his computer.
“I was just writing,” he said. “I didn’t know that I was writing until it was happening. I didn’t go with the intention of writing a book. I wrote three hundred pages in ten weeks. I really wrote. I’d never done it like that.”
It was a novel about a boy named Jonathan Safran Foer who visits the village in Ukraine where his grandfather had come from. Those three hundred pages were the first draft of “Everything Is Illuminated”—the exquisite and extraordinary novel that established Foer as one of the most distinctive literary voices of his generation. He was nineteen years old.
Foer began to talk about the other way of writing books, where you painstakingly honed your craft, over years and years. “I couldn’t do that,” he said. He seemed puzzled by it. It was clear that he had no understanding of how being an experimental innovator would work. “I mean, imagine if the craft you’re trying to learn is to be an original. How could you learn the craft of being an original?”
He began to describe his visit to Ukraine. “I went to the shtetl where my family came from. It’s called Trachimbrod, the name I use in the book. It’s a real place. But you know what’s funny? It’s the single piece of research that made its way into the book.” He wrote the first sentence, and he was proud of it, and then he went back and forth in his mind about where to go next. “I spent the first week just having this debate with myself about what to do with this first sentence. And once I made the decision, I felt liberated to just create—and it was very explosive after that.”
If you read “Everything Is Illuminated,” you end up with the same feeling you get when you read “Brief Encounters with Che Guevara”—the sense of transport you experience when a work of literature draws you into its own world. Both are works of art. It’s just that, as artists, Fountain and Foer could not be less alike. Fountain went to Haiti thirty times. Foer went to Trachimbrod just once. “I mean, it was nothing,” Foer said. “I had absolutely no experience there at all. It was just a springboard for my book. It was like an empty swimming pool that had to be filled up.” Total time spent getting inspiration for his novel: three days.
Ben Fountain did not make the decision to quit the law and become a writer all by himself. He is married and has a family. He met his wife, Sharon, when they were both in law school at Duke. When he was doing real-estate work at Akin, Gump, she was on the partner track in the tax practice at Thompson & Knight. The two actually worked in the same building in downtown Dallas. They got married in 1985, and had a son in April of 1987. Sharie, as Fountain calls her, took four months of maternity leave before returning to work. She made partner by the end of that year.
“We had our son in a day care downtown,” she recalls. “We would drive in together, one of us would take him to day care, the other one would go to work. One of us would pick him up, and then, somewhere around eight o’clock at night, we would have him bathed, in bed, and then we hadn’t even eaten yet, and we’d be looking at each other, going, ‘This is just the beginning.’ ” She made a face. “That went on for maybe a month or two, and Ben’s like, ‘I don’t know how people do this.’ We both agreed that continuing at that pace was probably going to make us all miserable. Ben said to me, ‘Do you want to stay home?’ Well, I was pretty happy in my job, and he wasn’t, so as far as I was concerned it didn’t make any sense for me to stay home. And I didn’t have anything besides practicing law that I really wanted to do, and he did. So I said, ‘Look, can we do this in a way that we can still have some day care and so you can write?’ And so we did that.”
Ben could start writing at seven-thirty in the morning because Sharie took their son to day care. He stopped working in the afternoon because that was when he had to pick him up, and then he did the shopping and the household chores. In 1989, they had a second child, a daughter. Fountain was a full-fledged North Dallas stay-at-home dad.
“When Ben first did this, we talked about the fact that it might not work, and we talked about, generally, ‘When will we know that it really isn’t working?’ and I’d say, ‘Well, give it ten years,’ ” Sharie recalled. To her, ten years didn’t seem unreasonable. “It takes a while to decide whether you like something or not,” she says. And when ten years became twelve and then fourteen and then sixteen, and the kids were off in high school, she stood by him, because, even during that long stretch when Ben had nothing published at all, she was confident that he was getting better. She was fine with the trips to Haiti, too. “I can’t imagine writing a novel about a place you haven’t at least tried to visit,” she says. She even went with him once, and on the way into town from the airport there were people burning tires in the middle of the road.
“I was making pretty decent money, and we didn’t need two incomes,” Sharie went on. She has a calm, unflappable quality about her. “I mean, it would have been nice, but we could live on one.”
Sharie was Ben’s wife. But she was also—to borrow a term from long ago—his patron. That word has a condescending edge to it today, because we think it far more appropriate for artists (and everyone else for that matter) to be supported by the marketplace. But the marketplace works only for people like Jonathan Safran Foer, whose art emerges, fully realized, at the beginning of their career, or Picasso, whose talent was so blindingly obvious that an art dealer offered him a hundred-and-fifty-franc-a-month stipend the minute he got to Paris, at age twenty. If you are the type of creative mind that starts without a plan, and has to experiment and learn by doing, you need someone to see you through the long and difficult time it takes for your art to reach its true level.
This is what is so instructive about any biography of Cézanne. Accounts of his life start out being about Cézanne, and then quickly turn into the story of Cézanne’s circle. First and foremost is always his best friend from childhood, the writer Émile Zola, who convinces the awkward misfit from the provinces to come to Paris, and who serves as his guardian and protector and coach through the long, lean years.
Here is Zola, already in Paris, in a letter to the young Cézanne back in Provence. Note the tone, more paternal than fraternal:
You ask me an odd question. Of course one can work here, as anywhere else, if one has the will. Paris offers, further, an advantage you can’t find elsewhere: the museums in which you can study the old masters from 11 to 4. This is how you must divide your time. From 6 to 11 you go to a studio to paint from a live model; you have lunch, then from 12 to 4 you copy, in the Louvre or the Luxembourg, whatever masterpiece you like. That will make up nine hours of work. I think that ought to be enough.
Zola goes on, detailing exactly how Cézanne could manage financially on a monthly stipend of a hundred and twenty-five francs:
I’ll reckon out for you what you should spend. A room at 20 francs a month; lunch at 18 sous and dinner at 22, which makes two francs a day, or 60 francs a month. . . . Then you have the studio to pay for: the Atelier Suisse, one of the least expensive, charges, I think, 10 francs. Add 10 francs for canvas, brushes, colors; that makes 100. So you’ll have 25 francs left for laundry, light, the thousand little needs that turn up.
Camille Pissarro was the next critical figure in Cézanne’s life. It was Pissarro who took Cézanne under his wing and taught him how to be a painter. For years, there would be periods in which they went off into the country and worked side by side.
Then there was Ambrose Vollard, the sponsor of Cézanne’s first one-man show, at the age of fifty-six. At the urging of Pissarro, Renoir, Degas, and Monet, Vollard hunted down Cézanne in Aix. He spotted a still-life in a tree, where it had been flung by Cézanne in disgust. He poked around the town, putting the word out that he was in the market for Cézanne’s canvases. In “Lost Earth: A Life of Cézanne,” the biographer Philip Callow writes about what happened next:
Before long someone appeared at his hotel with an object wrapped in a cloth. He sold the picture for 150 francs, which inspired him to trot back to his house with the dealer to inspect several more magnificent Cézannes. Vollard paid a thousand francs for the job lot, then on the way out was nearly hit on the head by a canvas that had been overlooked, dropped out the window by the man’s wife. All the pictures had been gathering dust, half buried in a pile of junk in the attic.
All this came before Vollard agreed to sit a hundred and fifty times, from eight in the morning to eleven-thirty, without a break, for a picture that Cézanne disgustedly abandoned. Once, Vollard recounted in his memoir, he fell asleep, and toppled off the makeshift platform. Cézanne berated him, incensed: “Does an apple move?” This is called friendship.
Finally, there was Cézanne’s father, the banker Louis-Auguste. From the time Cézanne first left Aix, at the age of twenty-two, Louis-Auguste paid his bills, even when Cézanne gave every indication of being nothing more than a failed dilettante. But for Zola, Cézanne would have remained an unhappy banker’s son in Provence; but for Pissarro, he would never have learned how to paint; but for Vollard (at the urging of Pissarro, Renoir, Degas, and Monet), his canvases would have rotted away in some attic; and, but for his father, Cézanne’s long apprenticeship would have been a financial impossibility. That is an extraordinary list of patrons. The first three—Zola, Pissarro, and Vollard—would have been famous even if Cézanne never existed, and the fourth was an unusually gifted entrepreneur who left Cézanne four hundred thousand francs when he died. Cézanne didn’t just have help. He had a dream team in his corner.
This is the final lesson of the late bloomer: his or her success is highly contingent on the efforts of others. In biographies of Cézanne, Louis-Auguste invariably comes across as a kind of grumpy philistine, who didn’t appreciate his son’s genius. But Louis-Auguste didn’t have to support Cézanne all those years. He would have been within his rights to make his son get a real job, just as Sharie might well have said no to her husband’s repeated trips to the chaos of Haiti. She could have argued that she had some right to the life style of her profession and status—that she deserved to drive a BMW, which is what power couples in North Dallas drive, instead of a Honda Accord, which is what she settled for.
But she believed in her husband’s art, or perhaps, more simply, she believed in her husband, the same way Zola and Pissarro and Vollard and—in his own, querulous way—Louis-Auguste must have believed in Cézanne. Late bloomers’ stories are invariably love stories, and this may be why we have such difficulty with them. We’d like to think that mundane matters like loyalty, steadfastness, and the willingness to keep writing checks to support what looks like failure have nothing to do with something as rarefied as genius. But sometimes genius is anything but rarefied; sometimes it’s just the thing that emerges after twenty years of working at your kitchen table.
“Sharie never once brought up money, not once—never,” Fountain said. She was sitting next to him, and he looked at her in a way that made it plain that he understood how much of the credit for “Brief Encounters” belonged to his wife. His eyes welled up with tears. “I never felt any pressure from her,” he said. “Not even covert, not even implied.”