John Dickerson is a correspondent for 60 Minutes. He is also a Contributing Editor to The Atlantic and the host of the Whistlestop podcast and co-host of the Slate Political Gabfest.

Friendship and Collaboration

I like this line from Emerson about friendship: “There is a power in love to divine another’s destiny better than that other can, and, by heroic encouragements, hold him to his task.” It’s from the essay “Uses of Great Men.”

I’ve always liked the idea that friends are there to remind us of ourselves– to “divine another’s destiny better than the other can.” I came across this notion again recently in an interview with the creators of Hamilton. Here’s Tommy Kail the creative director: “A lot of our job collectively, and– and my job in particular with each of these three is to remind them of where they started. You know, what– what– what was the impulse? What was the instinct? What was the spark? ‘Cause sometimes you can work a thing too much. All of us can. And sometimes the best note is go back. Sometimes the best note is just leave it alone.”

 

Emerson, having characterized this idea, approaches it another way in a journal entry. It’s October 7, 1840: “I have been writing with some pains essays on various matters as a sort of apology to my country for my apparent idleness. But the poor work has looked poorer daily, as I strove to end it. My genius seemed to quit me in such a mechanical work, a seeming wise– a cold exhibition of dead thoughts. When I write a letter to anyone whom I love, I have no lack of words or thoughts. I am wiser than myself and read my paper with the pleasure of one who received a letter, but what I write to fill up the gaps of a chapter is hard and cold, is grammar and logic; there is no magic in it; I do not wish to see it again.”

Buck up Ralph Waldo! In this passage he is testifying to the power of friendship to draw that best creative self from ourselves. Even without the prompting, Emerson feels the pull of friendship in the letter writing he describes. It makes him write like a dream. When he doesn’t have a friend in mind, it’s just all cold pudding.

UPDATE: I wrote to the newsletter announcing that I was writing in this space and had a revelation. I am trying to access that “friend letter” voice here. Not voice, exactly, but mode of thinking, for the ideas that I feel fit into this file folder in my brain. I’d leave them there, but the windows in the brain room are increasingly open. Ideas stored there are flying out. Some are lost forever. So I’m trying to nail some down here, where run-on sentences are allowed.

Anyway, writing for the friend in your head is partially why editors will tell you “write it like you would in a letter to your mother.” This is far better than the editor’s encouragement to “have fun with it!” What you are to do in that instance is have fun with the shoe that you throw at them.

How did we get to talking about editors? Well, now that we are:

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