Joshua Wolf Shenk explores creative pairs in his book, Powers of Two (2014). His central argument is that creativity is most nourished and heightened not in a lone genius or in a broad network of influences, but through the intimacy and accountability found in the relationship between precisely two people. The book proceeds through Shenk’s stages of creative pairs, from initial meeting to the complex dynamics of working together and often to what he calls “interruption”, when creative pairs break up for a variety of reasons.
I’m interested at the moment in one of the dynamics of creative relationship that Shenk describes: Distance. He opens the chapter as follows.
“Like many people, I’m used to thinking about relationships according to the common question ‘Are you close?’ But I’ve come to see that the better question is about how two people best animate the space between them – how they maintain the élan of curiosity and surprise alongside familiarity and faith.” (p. 119)
A remarkable idea, right? For me, Shenk has reframed the goal of relationship. So often, I and probably many of us seek friendships and romantic relationships out of a sense of loneliness. We want to find our people, those who get us because they share our interests or our circumstances. But according to Shenk, it’s also important to animate the distance between us – to acknowledge how we are different, how we remain mysterious, how we continue to surprise in unexpected ways.
Of course, there are distances that might be too far apart (or too close, I suppose). Shenk talks about the “optimal distance” for keeping alive the creative spark between two people.
“The phrase optimal distance has an unfortunate connotation of something fixed, static. But for many pairs, the right blend of intimacy and distance is a fluid, ongoing process. It emerges not from clarity about space but from ambiguity and uncertainty. Contrary to our simplified model, the moon is not circling the earth. Actually, the moon is in constant free fall toward the earth. The illusion of orbit is created only because the earth itself is constantly moving. Rather than a set position, optimal distance is more like a dance.” (p. 136)
I love this description of relationship as dance. Just as dance involves intimate closeness, it also requires enough distance that movement is possible. And the distance never stays the same.
This description of relationship makes me think of Ron Wolfson’s book Relational Judaism. In it, he lists a variety of ways one can relate Jewishly.
What would it look like not only to seek deeper understanding (i.e. building closeness) in each of these relationships, but to animate the distance as well? What would it mean to delight in the differences between reader and text, between self and God, between friends and community?