worth the fuss

A couple of years have passed since Stanley Kubrick’s death. His assistant Tony Frewin invites journalist and documentary filmmaker Jon Ronson to the late director’s house. There, Ronson is to be given the rare opportunity of studying Kubrick’s archives. No, not the archived films themselves, but all the research—photos, drawings, articles, notes—that Kubrick used to meticulously craft each one.

Upon arriving at the house, Ronson is shown a book-lined room he assumes is Kubrick’s library. Frewin tells him to take a closer look at the shelves. Ronson can’t believe what he sees:

“Bloody hell,” I say. “Every book in this room is about Napoleon!”

An entire room of books about Napoleon, all fodder for a project that Kubrick abandoned—another Napoleon movie came out first—to make Clockwork Orange. Kubrick didn’t just buy all those books either:

“Somewhere else in this house,” [Frewin] says, “is a cabinet full of 25,000 library cards, three inches by five inches. If you want to know what Napoleon, or Josephine, or anyone within Napoleon’s inner circle was doing on the afternoon of July 23 17-whatever, you go to that card and it’ll tell you.”

This goes back to a repeated theme: beginners vastly underestimate how much actual work goes into making good work. They put in 5 percent and then wonder why they don’t see results. Can you imagine assembling this much material on a single creative project of any scope? Can you imagine letting all that work go and moving on to another project—and another pile of research? (Personally, I’d hang up my viewfinder and take up canasta.)

The Napoleon project wasn’t atypical for Kubrick. He assembled a similarly monumental trove for every film he made, from Paths of Glory to Full Metal Jacket. For Eyes Wide Shut, Kubrick had boxes and boxes of photos of New York City doorways to be used in recreating a single Manhattan street inside a London studio.

Ronson’s account of his visit is worth reading if you’re a fan of Kubrick’s films or simply interested in the creative process. What struck me in particular, however, was what Ronson has to say about the actual boxes Kubrick used to store most of his research material:

From the beginning, I had mentally noted how well constructed the boxes were, and now Tony tells me that this is because Kubrick designed them himself. He wasn’t happy with the boxes that were on the market—their restrictive dimensions and the fact that it was sometimes difficult to get the tops off—so he set about designing a whole new type of box. He instructed a company of box manufacturers, G Ryder & Co, of Milton Keynes, to construct 400 of them to his specifications.

“When one batch arrived,” says Tony, “we opened them up and found a note, written by someone at G Ryder & Co. The note said, ‘Fussy customer. Make sure the tops slide off.'”

Tony laughs. I half expect him to say, “I suppose we were a bit fussy.” But he doesn’t. Instead, he says, “As opposed to non-fussy customers who don’t care if they struggle all day to get the tops off.”

As you settle deeper into your creative groove, you can’t help but get fussy. No one should obsess about their tools and methods at the start of their creative path, but once you’ve been at it a while, once you’re spending hours a day, every day, on making your work, you can’t help but notice the tiny things. The friction involved in opening a poorly constructed box, for example. They add up. Simultaneously, you learn to love the tools that work well. They pay off.

To this day, John McPhee relies on Kedit, a text editor he started using in 1984, to write his articles and books. It was the first software he tried after surrendering his Underwood typewriter. Kedit turned out to suit McPhee so well that he never switched to newer options as they became available. Kedit hasn’t been actively developed for decades, however, so the journalist stays in regular touch with the “semi-retired” creator of the program to keep the creaky software operational. At this point, McPhee’s entire approach to crafting his complex and elliptical work is woven into this obscure and obsolete application.

This is the danger of optimizing your process around an ideal tool. You get locked in. Think of mathematicians and the panic they felt when their favorite chalk went out of production.

You might, as Kubrick did, trust your instincts enough to design a custom solution, a tool truly perfect for you and the way you work. At that point, you’re really stuck. The eccentric Canadian pianist Glenn Gould had a decades-long relationship with master piano tuner Verne Edquist. Gould went to extraordinary lengths to get his favorite piano, CD 318, to play precisely the way he wanted it to. But Gould was almost equally attached to his custom chair. According to composer Colin Eatock:

The chair that Gould used throughout his career was built by his father, Bert Gould, in 1953. Bert took an ordinary folding chair, cut the legs shorter, and installed adjustable extenders on each leg—so that not only the chair’s height but also its angle could be precisely modified.

Gould was clearly obsessed with this thing. He refused to part with it, even after the stuffing fell out of the seat—and despite the creaking noises it made in recording sessions. When his concert manager presented him with a new chair as a replacement, Gould set it aside and returned to his fetish-object.

Today, the chair—more of a scrap than a functional piece of furniture by the time Gould died—is on display behind plexiglass at Ottawa’s National Arts Centre.

You’re never going to achieve mastery buying the brand of notepad or pencil used by a master. And if you haven’t already created an abundance of new work, I wouldn’t dial up R. Ryder & Co. for custom stationery of any kind. But be mindful about your work. Notice the things that work well about your setup and the areas that introduce friction. Simply putting your reference materials a little closer to your desk or adjusting the tilt of your monitor can make a difference, even if that difference amounts to an absence of neck pain at the end of a session. When it comes to the creative work that sustains you, getting it right is worth at least a little fuss.