Writing Lessons from Da Vinci

Having been to the National Gallery’s Da Vinci exhibit, one of the things that struck me is the number of works he left unfinished. St Jerome in the Wilderness. The Adoration of the Magi. The Virgin and Child with St Anne and St John the Baptist. They weren’t interrupted by illness or death; they were abandoned.

Da Vinci is often used as an example of the polymath, someone who has a number of different, often unrelated skills. As a child, he would show impatience, wanting to move into another field of learning rather than focus on the task at hand. At first I thought this might explain his incomplete works; a lack of focus.

I spend a lot of time searching for information about writing and publishing. I always have. And the advice being given has changed a lot. It used to be “write”. Now it’s “write, network, build a platform, be a brand”. Writers are now required to be polymaths: writers, marketers and sales people in one.

You probably expect me to launch into something about my deciding not to divide my attention, that it’s more important to focus on my writing than try to be a writer cum marketer cum networking guru. But you’d be wrong.

A lack of focus may have not have helped Da Vinci, but being a polymath didn’t mean that he failed to finish works. It meant those he did finish were all the better. Yes, they started with paint, but then folded in Maths and anatomy and engineering. There’s no point in a platform with no book, yes, but the reverse is equally true. Trying to combine many different skills into one endeavour is not only fun but, I think, a recipe for success if it’s tempered with focus.

It’s debatable whether a jack of all trades is a master of none. But it’s certainly true that he can knock up a good painting while designing an ornithopter.