I’m a Tesla, not an Edison

The rivalry between Tesla and Edison has gained much attention in recent years, though I have personally been aware of Tesla’s work since I was a boy. I have done a fair amount of research on Tesla, and some on Edison, but I’m just going to be painting their differences with broad strokes here, to serve my point – if you want to know more details, read (at least) their Wikipedia articles (and probably a book or two). The differences between them are striking in many ways, and some of those differences highlight things about me that separate me from other people.

The primary example I was intending to post about relates to Edison’s famous quote, “Genius is one percent inspiration, ninety-nine percent perspiration.” This attitude correlates to what I know of Edison’s work habits and his process of “invention.” For example, we know that as the “inventor” of the light bulb, he started from the previously established invention of the incandescent light bulb and painstakingly went through many thousands of variations over several years in an attempt to improve upon the result. Meanwhile many other scientists and inventors were working on the same thing and at least one of them was awarded a patent on “Edison’s invention” a year before Edison had a working bulb. He worked with teams of people, worked things out on paper, worked things out through experimentation, failure, and repetition, then kept working. Living up to his famous quote, he put 99% of his efforts into working, and 1% into thinking.

Tesla, on the other hand, spent a lot of his time thinking. Visualizing. Solving problems (completely) in his mind before ever beginning work on them. When Tesla built the first induction motor, it didn’t take him thousands of tries, dozens of skilled assistants, trial and error after error after error. Instead, he simply built an induction motor, and it worked, exactly as he’d known it would. And the induction motor wasn’t simply a variation of an existing technology, it was a wholly new invention, the like of which had not been imagined by anyone prior to Tesla. The only thing which had stood in the way of its construction years earlier was a lack of financial backing.

That was another key difference between Edison and Tesla: Edison was very much a capitalist, working & creating what he did in order to build power and wealth. Tesla had intended, in multiple instances, to give his inventions freely to the world and tried to prevent them from being exploited for the creation of wealth at the expense of the greater good. Edison “invented” for money. Tesla invented to make the world a better place, to improve things, and because it was fun for him. Edison became powerful and wealthy. Tesla struggled with money, unable to complete (or sometimes begin) the construction of his later inventions for want of financial backing.

Then there’s me. As an author, for a long time when I’ve seen the apparently-universal advice to & from writers/authors about writing every day, editing everything over and over, revising, outlining, rearranging & reorganizing, polishing, tightening, and otherwise working very, very hard on the perspiration-parts of writing, I’ve always thought it seemed odd how far from my experience it was but had trouble expressing that difference. I realized recently that what other writers are doing seems very much in line with Edison’s famous quote, but that what I do is more in line with how Tesla invented.

They’re taking an idea and heaping upon it ninety-nine times more work to turn it into a somewhat improved iteration of the same thing everyone else is writing. They often believe there’s a “right” way to write, and that there are “rules” for writing a “good” book, and a lot of their work goes into trying to fold, spindle, and mutilate their ideas & words until they fit. Alternatively, I sit down and write a nearly finished draft on my first attempt. This wouldn’t be possible without weeks/months/years of ideas gestating in my mind, sure, but not in any rigid or organized fashion. Not with any ‘revising, outlining, rearranging & reorganizing, polishing, or tightening’ taking place mentally. As with Tesla’s visual thinking, all I usually have to do is open my mind and the story appears within it, fully formed. Then I simply have to sit down and, as Tesla built each of his inventions, write it as it appears in my mind – and it works!

Which is not to say that my books work in the same way that all those Edisonian writers’ books do. In fact, if you attempt to judge my creations by the rules of what is currently considered “good” books you’ll almost certainly find them lacking. This is because that is not what I was trying to write. I’m not trying to create the ten-thousandth iteration of any of the same styles/structures/ideas that are already out there, that many other people are working on. I’m trying to create the polyphase induction motor in a world of brushed DC motors, not to build a slightly-longer-lasting or slightly-brighter-burning light bulb or a slightly-better telephone transmitter (all Edison goals/”inventions” and all also “invented” by others).

My favorite of my novels embodies the experience of depersonalization disorder, which multiple characters experience within it, through its own structure, style, and in the way its confusing resolution erases the only actions that happened on its pages. This is clearly not done with making money in mind. Forget What You Can’t Remember exists because I believe it is an experience worth having, an experience different from anything most people have to face. It is not my least-popular novel, but it is close. It is certainly my most-loathed novel. Being nearly the opposite of a thriller, and the structure of a thriller being at the core of the “right” way to write a “good” book, it isn’t going to please everyone. I guess financial struggles are another thing I’ll continue to have in common with Tesla for the foreseeable future, too.

As long as I’m still on the more-thinking side as well, I don’t think that’s such a bad thing.

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Author, artist, romantic, insomniac, exorcist, creative visionary, lover, and all-around-crazy-person.

One thought on “I’m a Tesla, not an Edison”

  1. Of note: I’m up way past my “bed time” – I’ve been quite nocturnal of late, and wrote this whole post, in bed, after finding myself too sleepy to sit up straight at my desk. I believe I’ve got the ideas out that I saw in my mind, but admit that they may have deserved another day or two’s examination before being presented. If they look unfinished, it’s probably just that I was trying to see the end of them through half-closed eyes.

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