On being Prolific

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For some reason this week, I got to thinking about people who are prolific. I think it was probably triggered by the release of Ty Segall’s double album, Freedom’s Goblin, or maybe the recent release of King Gizzard and Lizard Wizard’s fifth album in a year. Or maybe it’s because I’ve been immersing myself in the wonderful catalogue of Sun Ra who was remarkably prolific over his long career.

Needless to say, I’m not terribly prolific as a writer or as a publisher, but I’ve admired for some time now scholars like media theorist Henry Jenkins who described himself “as prolific as hell.” And my interest in Philip K. Dick is, partly, owing to his prolific output. He published 44 novels and over 120 short stories in a 30 year career.

I still get a bit uptight about prolific artists, writers, and musicians. I started to wonder whether people could produce something meaningful when all they’re doing is producing. There is no doubt that prolific production causes confusion; Sun Ra’s discography is baffling and wildly variable. At the same time, I came to understand artists like Ty Segall as releasing albums as a way to perform for an audience. (And to be clear, this my reading of his catalogue, not necessarily anything that he has said). In some ways, his most recent album is another iteration in his trajectory as a musician with all its variability and dissonance.

Like jazz musicians who frequently release multiple iterations of the same song, I tend to imagine prolific musicians embracing the performativity of their craft. This isn’t to say that Bill Evans’ Waltz for Debbie isn’t a better album than the complete(ish) recordings of those sessions released as Sunday at the Village Vanguard, but to argue that, for music, at least, the performance of multiple versions of the songs each with their own character diminishes the value of any one performance?  

With writing, this all seems a bit less straightforward. I’ve recently been thinking about writing a third paper on “Slow Archaeology” which has a chance to be published. Part of me worries that playing the same song again in different ways will dilute my original idea (such as they are) or confuse someone looking for an essential version of my thinking. Maybe, like this blog, writing another version of my slow archaeology paper will move my thinking, but necessarily toward some more perfect version of the idea. I don’t think that one slow archaeology paper will necessarily supersede the other.

Perhaps being prolific is a way to embrace the iterative character of life, writing, and thinking. We can avoid thinking of being prolific as a way to achieve terminal expertise through some version of Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 hour rule, but instead consider being prolific in the same way that jazz musicians were prolific or pulp fiction writers were prolific. Practicing in public celebrates the variability of our craft, its unevenness, and the interplay and transformation of ideas over time. It mitigates against the idea that the publication is the last word on a topic or offers something perfected.

At the same time, being prolific allowed musicians and writers to monetize their outputs in an efficient way. The threat of a poor recording or publication diminishing the value of other works offered a bit of a brake on being prolific, I suppose. I recognize, of course, that the ability to profit from a single work isn’t the same for academic writers, but maybe there persists the idea that a bad article or mediocre publications run the risk of offsetting the impact of a good work. Maybe the risk of an “uneven catalogue” could have a significance for a scholar’s career inasmuch as the impact of our work is a measure that contributes to how effectively we gain promotion, win grants, and other monetary aspects of our careers.

I don’t really know how to balance these risks and benefits well or to understand whether we should aspire to be prolific, but I really like immersing myself in Sun Ra’s catalogue.

[As an aside, I’ve recently applied Gladwell’s rule to my to dogs who are awake and active for approximately 6 hours each day. If they follow Gladwell’s rule, it will take them about 5 years to be really good at being a dog. This seems to actually hold true. Argie, who is almost 2, is very good at being Argie, but at being a dog, he seems a bit confused still. Milo on the other hand, who is almost 5, is really good at being a dog. He’s a dog’s dog.]

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