(This speech was first presented at Brisbane Writers’ Festival. The title was the brief, and this is how I chose to exploreit.)
This is the story of a very odd couple. Like all relationships between identical siblings, theirs is an uneasy one. The Pro is slim, well dressed, and immaculately groomed–or likes to think he is, anyway–with a penchant for black. His older brother, the Geek, tends to shab about in tracksuit pants and t-shirts, and is somehow never quite the right weight. That they coexist at all is quite remarkable, given their disparate tendencies. It doesn’t take more than a casual glance to reveal that they are complete opposites in almost every respect.
The Pro thinks of himself as a Writer, with a capital W. He has a set routine he follows every day, and is proud of his output not just in terms of quantity but quality as well. He takes great care to be both reliable and personable, believing those two traits to be the cornerstones of professionalism. He strives to marry the fickle art of his muse with the demands of a steady career, knowing that the former is only fickle if you let it be, and that one sets one’s own demands, no one else. A career is successful only on its own terms. No matter how many awards one might win or books one might sell, if writing doesn’t allow one to lead an independent life, or doesn’t satisfy the inner critic, then it’s not successful at all.
The Geek, on the other hand, is a Scribbler, with a capital S. Ideas take him off on wild turns of speculation, derailing deadlines and upsetting schedules. While the Pro works his way through a carefully plotted synopsis, chapter by chapter, counting his 1500 words a day with all the miserliness of a tax collector, the Geek is a puppy snapping at butterflies, scampering after the ideas that will not go into the present book, or even the next book, but the book after that. They might not be suitable for a book at all, but something completely inappropriate like a feature script, a graphic novel, a computer game. When inspiration strikes him, he is off, grinning with delight at the wonder-laden fields of his own internal landscape.
The Pro disapproves of such behaviour. He knows the value of ideas–indeed, his career rests on them–but he also knows that going at them in such a fashion gets one nowhere. Back in the early days, when they first shared an office, the Pro would sometimes let the Geek follow his nose, trusting in his scruffier sibling’s instinct for a Good Idea to lead them somewhere fruitful. Numerous disappointments, however, taught him the error of relying too much on that particular approach. The Geek may have the joy of a puppy–but he has the attention span, too. No sooner would he find something genuinely interesting than he would be off in a completely different direction, barking like a loon. Putting the Geek in front of a word processor in that state resulted only in brilliant opening paragraphs that dwindled into disconnected phrases, and ultimately nothing else.
The Pro cannot afford false starts. If his career is to remain afloat, he must maintain a steady output, never pursuing too many ideas nor too few. While he sneers at the thought of a job in the field he studied at uni (Economics) he can see the sense in a carefully managed strategy for success. He has a ten-year plan.
The Geek sometimes despairs for his older brother. He lives for the Flow, the Rush and the Fire. He remembers the good old days when, seized suddenly by Inspiration, he would drop whatever he was doing and write for hours on end until a short story was finished, consuming nothing but coffee and cigarettes, sustained only by the sheer joy of Story. These days, the Flow is doled out in neat rations: never so much as to leave him utterly exhausted, as in those wild, heady days, but never so little that he loses interest. He feels like a junkie, or a donkey eternally lunging for the carrot. His hunger is never quite satiated.
There is a peculiar method to their madness. Keith Tyson, winner of last year’s Turner Prize in Britain, said in a recent edition of New Scientist:
“As an artist, you turn yourself into a 24-hour art developer, so you cannot pinpoint the precise moment [when an idea arises, when you are creating]. It is like asking when the Second World War started. The creative process is just an attitude… [It's] very hard to describe the creative process because often you are just messing around, thinking, doodling.”
The Geek is the doodler, the time-waster. He’ll spend all day reading magazines or surfing the web, justifying it as passive research, while the Pro nags and scolds him from the sidelines, where he is slowly and steadily winning the race. Nevertheless, the Geek is also a fiery upstart capable of blinding feats of spontaneity. When an idea strikes him, he is off his mark like an Olympic sprinter, leaving the Pro lagging well behind.
Tyson went on to say: “The artist is portrayed as a half-mad, half-creative person, and the scientist in a similar vein. One thing that drives the whole process in the studio–and in the lab–is the effort to remain curious, to remain a 14-year-old. Everything is interesting if you look hard enough.”
The Geek, reading this, feels that he has found a kindred spirit. While his stuffy younger brother agonises about finding public acceptance, he just gets on with doing what he loves, in a world he finds absolutely, endlessly fascinating.
The Pro is sympathetic. In fact, he agrees with Tyson on every point. Being a writer is indeed a 24-hour effort. It is hard work and not something one does when the mood takes hold. The Geek is a frequent victim of writers’ block; this is the flipside of his intuitive, haphazard approach. What will they do if the block sticks longer than a day or two? How will they eat if they don’t meet their many deadlines?
As their profile has increased, demands on their time have increased too. Being a full-time writer isn’t just about writing. It’s a job like any other, with its demands and opportunities. Between the two of them, the Geek and the Pro have to juggle the books and the phone, alternating roles of secretary, accountant, manager, webmaster, researcher, housekeeper, and chef. The shopping won’t be done on its own. The garden will die while they’re on tour if no one looks after it. They’ve learned the hard way that one can’t survive on junk food alone. Sleep isn’t just dead time: it has a powerful recuperative value without which everything falters. (And it brings the occasional flashes of inspiration, too.)
Far from their study confining them, the last two years has been a veritable whirlwind of travel. The Geek and the Pro have been invited to every state writers’ festival in the country at least once (including this one) and have attended all the major genre conferences, where possible. They have travelled to Los Angeles–where the Pro got to look especially stylish in a brand-new tuxedo–and will shortly be going around the world on a non-stop schmooze-fest. They have averaged one flight a week, and have totalled up more nights away from home than in it. Yet the Pro still strives to maintain his output. He has finished two novels already this year–one of which went on to be a NY Times bestseller–and is already halfway through another. He whips out his laptop at the slightest opportunity: in planes, airport lounges, hotel rooms, cafes. He is a quick-draw scribe egging his brother on, whenever a creative noon might fall.
His brother is no slouch either. The Geek may look like he’s or sightseeing, but he’s actually soaking up the environment around him, looking for ideas. He doesn’t know what he’ll need or how he’ll use it, but he does know that keeping one’s eyes and mind open is a sure-fire way to happen upon inspiration. If you could take his method out of his head and give it flesh, it would be a fly-fisher casting over and over into the mighty world-river. If you ever notice the Geek staring blankly into the middle distance, chances are the fly-fisher in his head has caught something.
The Pro is a worrier, but he gets things done. The Geek knows he doesn’t worry enough, but he gets by in the end. Between the two of them, they strike a kind of balance. Both have strengths and weaknesses; together they can take advantage of the former and make up for the latter.
The Geek loves hearing from fans, but he feels uncomfortable seeking praise when it hasn’t been offered. The Pro is the one who actually answers fan mail, because the Geek is not a good letter writer. The Pro is the one who deals with editors and agents, but in the end it’s usually the Geek who does the work of fixing the problems. While the Pro is off setting up deals and scheduling the next project, the Geek is slaving away at the keyboard, adding one final layer of pizzazz to the story he started months ago. They both have mixed feelings towards their brag shelf, the place in which they display every book and magazine in which they have appeared. The Geek sometimes stares at in awe, wondering how on Earth he managed to get here–where he dreamed of being all his life. Surely it couldn’t have happened to little old him! The Pro is intensely proud of their achievements, acutely aware of the hard work and determination it took to get there, but knows he can’t afford to rest on his laurels. The moment they start to take anything for granted, to get too comfortable, that’s the moment it’ll all be pulled out from under them.
There is one area on which they totally agree, and that concerns community. This may surprise those who know the Geek best, for he is not a natural party person. He’s the one standing in a corner by a pot plant, crinkling a plastic cup in one sweaty hand, afraid of being set adrift, of sinking. The Pro, on the other hand, is gregarious and charming. He loves a good party, and he loves to gossip. He is found flitting from conversation to conversation, smiling and cracking jokes, downing numerous glasses of champagne and accepting compliments with cool self-deprecation, while the Geek scans the party for people he knows and likes, and sticks to the first one he finds.
Both the Pro and the Geek genuinely love people, although they go about expressing that affection in very different ways. They both depend on the community around them for support and friendship. Without their friends in the business, they would never have come this far. The Geek may get a little too excited about Dr Who and Star Wars sometimes, but he is pleased to learn that many of his colleagues display exactly the same social faux pas, when egged on a little. The Pro learns from his friends that they often share the same concerns as he for their careers, their industries, their futures. The existence of the community and their participation in it ensures that they never feel alone, as they did in the early days. Writing is a solitary pursuit, but it doesn’t have to be a lonely one.
Friends in the business are only half the story. The Geek and the Pro have learned the hard way that, although writing is their vocation and arguably the most important thing in their lives, it shouldn’t dominate their lives completely. A balance is important. Maintaining a social life was extremely difficult in the early days–when writing wasn’t earning much and they had to work numerous part-time jobs just to pay the rent–but with no one else to talk to but each other, they quickly go stir-crazy. Crazy doesn’t always mean brilliant or even saleable, so it’s no way to plan for a career, or to be terribly happy. The Geek and the Pro are careful now to make time to maintain a social life in order to stay at least nominally sane. This is another reason why the Pro likes his daily word-count target: not only does meeting it ensure that he maintains a steady output of workable prose, but it tells him when he can let himself stop. Without that benchmark, he might diligently work on into the wee hours without pause, or feel constantly guilty that he wasn’t doing enough. Neither is good for the stress levels.
Together, despite the odds, the Geek and the Pro weather bad reviews and unexpected setbacks unflustered. Deep down they know that, despite their differences, they are stronger for their collaboration. Without the Pro’s determined professionalism, they would never have finished their first novel; without the Geek’s wide-eyed optimism, the mountain of rejections would soon have overwhelmed them both. When the parties stop and it’s time to go back into the study, the Geek and the Pro settle back into their familiar routine and get on with what they do best.