Charles Dickens, Twyla Tharp, Steve Jobs – Focus; Focus on the Core, the Spine
The first steps of a creative act are like groping in the dark: random and chaotic, feverish and fearful, a lot of busy-ness with no apparent or definable end in sight. There is nothing yet to research. For me, these moments are not pretty. I look like a desperate woman, tortured by the simple message thumping away in my head: “You need an idea.”
You need a tangible idea to get you going. The idea, however miniscule, is what turns the verb into a noun – paint into a painting, sculpt into sculpture, write into writing, dance into a dance.
…Spine, to put it bluntly, begins with your first strong idea. You were scratching to come up with an idea, you found one, and through the next stages of creative thinking you nurtured it into the spine of your creation. The idea is the toehold that gets you started. The spine is the statement you make to yourself outlining your intentions for the work… If you stick to your spine, the piece will work. (emphasis added).
Twyla Tharp — The Creative Habit: Learn it and Use it for Life (A Practical Guide)
I was listening to NPR the other day. It was the 200th birthday of Charles Dickens. Any author that receives a segment on his 200th birthday (plus a birthday party at Westminster Abbey) qualifies as a significant author. But we didn’t need NPR to tell us that.
In the midst of the story by Linda Wertheimer (Dickens At 200: A Birthday You Can’t ‘Bah Humbug’), this paragraph jumped out.
Novelist Jennifer Egan is a fan who came back to the books and unexpectedly found that Dickens felt modern.
“The way that Dickens structured his books has a form that we most readily recognize now from, say, the great TV series, like The Wire or The Sopranos,” says Egan. “There’s one central plot line, but then from that spin off all kinds of subplots. And so he would go off in all sorts of directions and create these amazing secondary characters who would go in and out of focus. But then there was also this sort of central spinal column of a plot that he would return to.”
“This sort of central spinal column of a plot…” When I heard this, I remembered the section about “spine” from Twyla Tharp’s The Creative Habit. To Tharp, you need an idea! And then, that idea has to be attached to the “spine,” and the “spine” is what centers the piece, centers the project, centers the “idea.”
This idea of “spine” reminds me of the Steve Jobs decision, upon his return to Apple. Apple had too many products in the pipeline. They were too unfocused. They had lost their spine. Jobs got rid of practically every project except the core two or three. Jobs helped them re-find and remember their spine.
Call it backbone, but don’t think just of courage; think of connection to the core, connection to the central idea. Consider the dictionary definition of spinal column: “constituting a central axis or chief support.” Everything is connected to, and supported by, the spinal column. You can’t have a body, a structure, a company without that central axis or chief support.
The word spine is also the word used to hold the pages of a book together. No spine, no book – just a loose connection of pages.
Business books use many words to describe this concept: focus; core product… but here is the clear principle: have a solid, sound, unshakeable core.
In the devotional classic, John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, the main character, Christian, is trying to cross the river. The water is moving rapidly; the water is rising, and he is about to go under. But Hopeful calls out from the midst of the same dangerous river:
Then they addressed themselves to the water, and entering, Christian began to sink, and crying out to his good friend Hopeful, he said, I sink in deep waters; the billows go over my head; all his waves go over me.
And Hopeful calls out: “Be of good cheer, my brother, for I feel the bottom, and it is sound.”
“Feel the bottom.” Get the spine right. Get the core product, the core principle, the core service right. Don’t go off chasing anything that is not utterly connected to your core – your spine.
Dickens, and Tharp, and Jobs, and Bunyan had it right.
What is your spine?