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Creative Tension

Jim Wasserman, 1:18 pm ET

PAUL MCCARTNEY SAYS he originally wrote lyrics to a song that began, “She was just seventeen. Never been a beauty queen.” When he showed it to John Lennon, his writing partner, Lennon roared with laughter and said, “You’re joking.”

Lennon, who was a bit cheekier, then had McCartney change the second line to “you know what I mean” to add a wink-wink-nudge-nudge element. The eventual song, I Saw Her Standing There, became one of the Beatles’ first hits.

Speaking of wink-wink-nudge-nudge, a fascinating book on the behind-the-scenes creation and history of the Monty Python comedy troupe reveals that there were two general approaches to sketch creation. The Oxford guys, Terry Jones and Michael Palin, liked to start with a general idea and improv-develop the sketch as they played it out. The Cambridge fellows, John Cleese and Graham Chapman, were more methodical, planning each step with a “and then what happens” writing style. These different approaches generated friction and yet, meshed together, they created magic.

Both of these stories remind me of the power of creative tension. We love being affirmed in our beliefs, but often what we need is a “you’re joking” partner to keep us from wandering too far afield. In teaching, I loved observing teachers who taught the same subject but in different ways. I always came away with new ideas.

My favorite—and most successful—writing partnership is with a guy who’s on the other side of the political spectrum. We often tease each other and exchange little digs, but we also know we’re united in a common cause and have a mutual respect for each other. I love getting back his edits, including his suggestions, corrections and even an occasional, “You’re joking.” In fact, I get frustrated when I get a “you’re so right” because I don’t know what to do with it.

My favorite partner in life—my wife—is also a great source of creative tension. I’m a “live for today” spender. She’s a “but what about tomorrow” saver. I’m a risk-taker hoping for greater returns. She’s more of a safe and sure, steady growth person. Together, like Jack Sprat and his wife, we make a pretty good team.

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