Imagine/Jonah Lehrer (and thoughts on failure)

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Among the books I am now reading is Imagine by Jonah Lehrer, the same writer who brought us How We Decide and Proust was a Neuroscientist.  The History and Sociology of Science major in me likes this kind of book—the melding of popular questions with current science, the anecdotal proof points that take us briefly into the minds of Bob Dylan (I've seen him perform), say, or Milton Glaser (I met him in his office), or the guy who had the 3M cellophane tape epiphany (I use a lot of that tape).  I like to measure what I know about my own creative process (such as it is) against what Lehrer and his cohort of experimenters have to say.  Imagine is the right read for this Memorial Day weekend.

I have read, then, about the difference between divergent and convergent creativity, the role of a little fold of brain matter near the right ear, the importance of being frustrated, the saturating power of melancholy, and the need for constraints (structural frameworks for poets, to name one example). I have read about the hazy conjugating glory of near sleep and the necessity of walk taking (I depend on these states) and about the need for deliberate distractions.   

For example:
The unexpected benefits of not being able to focus reveal something important about creativity. Although we live in an age that worships attention—when we need to work, we force ourselves to concentrate—this approach can inhibit the imagination.  Sometimes it helps to consider irrelevant information, to eavesdrop on all the stray associations unfolding in the far reaches of the brain. Occasionally, focus can backfire and make us fixated on the wrong answers.  It's not until you let yourself relax and indulge in distractions that you discover the answer; the insight arrives only after you stop looking for it.

In Imagine I recognize so much that is true about my own work.  I fail when I hold on too tight, for example.  I fail when I put myself on a schedule.  I fail when I don't let myself walk away.  I fail when I have too much literary freedom—when I do not give myself at least one or two constraints to work against and commune with.   I fail when I try to write the first draft at a keyboard; I need to be on the couch or the deck or by the sea with pen and paper in hand.  With first drafts I am Dionysian.  With later drafts, Apollonian.

Buy Imagine.  You'll see what I mean. 


Lilian Nattel said...

That sounds fascinating, Beth. I'm going to have a look at it. And there are so many variations in people's creative processes. Some writers pour out the first draft, some need a plan, some need to figure it out as they go along and have room for silliness and obvious mistakes to get it out.

Liviania said...

This book keeps cropping up everywhere. It seems that what he's saying has struck a real chord with people I know.

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