What Can We Steal From Malcolm Gladwell’s “Creation Myth”?

Title of Work and its Form: “Creation Myth,” nonfiction
Author: Malcolm Gladwell (on Twitter @Gladwell)
Date of Work: 2011
Where the Work Can Be Found:  The piece debuted in the May 16, 2011 issue of The New Yorker.  You may be able to find it here if you’re a subscriber.  The piece was also selected for the 2012 edition of Best American Essays.

Bonuses: Jealousy alert!  Mr. Gladwell appeared on The Colbert ReportHere is the archive of Mr. Gladwell’s work for The New YorkerHere is a fun bur brief profile/interview of Mr. Gladwell that was published by AllThingsD.

Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Diction

Discussion:
I’ve always been a sucker for the story: Long ago in a valley far, far away, the rock star engineers of Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Center created just about everything we associate with modern computing.  The graphical user interface.  The mouse.  The laser printer.  The problem?  Xerox PARC never capitalized upon the bounty created in their labs.  Mr. Gladwell begins the piece by reminding the reader of the biggest legend relating to Xerox PARC.  The story has been that Steve Jobs’s 1979 visit to the lab was the catalyst for Apple’s later success.  Jobs glimpsed the future and snatched it from Xerox’s grasp.  This impression is not entirely true.  As Mr. Gladwell points out, “the truth is a bit more complicated.”  With the subject and structure established, Mr. Gladwell spends most of the piece discussing his real point: history shows us that the innovative don’t always succeed because they may not have the entrepreneurial skills needed to turn the dreams into reality.  “Visionaries,” he points out, “are limited by their visions.”  Mr. Gladwell uses some diverse examples; military tactics developed differently in Israel and the Soviet Union and the United States because of the resources and capabilities available to each.  Mr. Gladwell brings in interviews with PARC engineers and other people who are important to the story.  The climax seems to come in an apt reference to the Rolling Stones.  The boundless creativity of Mick Jagger needs a pragmatist like Keith Richards to “turn off the tap.”  (It is indeed strange to think of Keith Richards as the practical one.)

This piece reflects Mr. Gladwell’s usual M.O.  And it’s a wonderful M.O.  He is explicitly SHOWING instead of TELLING.  A lesser writer (such as myself) would simply say, “people with great imagination must involve themselves with folks who can help restrict their creativity and channel it into something productive.”  Instead, Mr. Gladwell wraps the lesson in a fascinating story from the past.  (I love learning about early computing.)  In his books and articles, Mr. Gladwell certainly does offer many practical lessons and frameworks through which we can better understand the world, but he never allows the lesson to get in the way of his stories.  Even if it is explicit, the “moral” of your story should be implicit in the work.  Mr. Gladwell has such a wide readership because he weaves together interesting stories that are meaningful.  He doesn’t simply point his rhetorical finger at you and tell you what to believe.

Another thing that I’ve noticed about Mr. Gladwell’s work is that he does very little “throat clearing.”  Instead of starting out with a paragraph of preamble, the writer gets right to work:

In late 1979, a twenty-four-year-old entrepreneur paid a visit to a research center in Silicon Valley called Xerox PARC. He was the co-founder of a small computer startup down the road, in Cupertino. His name was Steve Jobs.

Mr. Gladwell’s clear sentences reveal the joy he takes in telling the story and in sharing information with others.  I suppose it’s hard to quantify, but it always seems to me as though the gentleman is gleeful in sharing knowledge with his reader.  Many of the sentences are short and descriptive, but Mr. Gladwell flexes his poetic muscles at times:

One PARC scientist recalls Jobs as “rambunctious”—a fresh-cheeked, caffeinated version of today’s austere digital emperor.

This is the legend of Xerox PARC. Jobs is the Biblical Jacob and Xerox is Esau, squandering his birthright for a pittance.

He had brought a big plastic bag full of the artifacts of that moment: diagrams scribbled on lined paper, dozens of differently sized plastic mouse shells, a spool of guitar wire, a tiny set of wheels from a toy train set, and the metal lid from a jar of Ralph’s preserves.

The above sentence particularly proves my point.  Mr. Gladwell’s prose is highly utilitarian, but when he diverges from his pattern, there’s a good reason.  A lesser writer would have included far less description of the “artifacts.”  Every choice you make in your work–your diction, your structure–should be made in the service of the whole.  Mr. Gladwell’s goal (at least one of them) was to impart his lesson about the proper care of creative minds.  It was therefore a felicitous choice to make his sentences utilitarian and to very quickly lay the foundations of the stories that would illuminate his point.

What Should We Steal?

  • Prioritize storytelling over moralizing.  Getting a message out there is important; it’s why many of us become writers in the first place.  Attracting and maintaining the attention of the reader is just as important, if not more so.
  • Favor clarity of sentences over poeticism.  This idea is an especially good one for journalists and nonfiction writers.

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