Monday, April 16, 2012


But you can write

Bob Dylan had burned out. The young singer-songwriter had maintained a grueling tour schedule for the first half of 1965, and he was ready to give up. In fact, he did give up: he told his manager he was quitting the business. He left his guitar behind, drove his motorcycle out of the big city, and moved to an empty cabin. He was finished.

It was then that he had his real writing breakthrough. When he had turned his back on the business, when he was all alone in an empty cabin with nothing but a notebook and pencil, that’s when his mind opened up.

Dylan’s story unfolds in Imagine: How Creativity Works, an exploration on the curious workings of creativity by renowned science journalist Jonah Lehrer. After a few days of solitude, Dylan felt a creative tickle, and was compelled to pick up his pencil. An uncontrollable rush of creativity kept him scribbling for hours, until he’d filled twenty pages with lyrics. Dylan compared the impulse to “vomit,” it was so unstoppable. What he wrote was a kind of songwriting that had never been done before. It wasn’t a love song, or a straightforward story, but something loose and strange. He didn’t even know what the words meant. He’d written the first draft of “Like a Rolling Stone,” and the real Dylan was born.

This kind of creativity, says Lehrer, is called an “insight experience.” It’s the same kind of moment that Isaac Newton experienced under the apple tree, and Archimedes had in his bathtub. This is the “Eureka!” moment. Such moments are nearly always preceded by a “frustration experience,” and we don’t hear enough about this.

“Every creative journey begins with a problem. It starts with a feeling of frustration, the dull ache of not being able to find the answer,” Lehrer writes. “When we tell one another stories about creativity, we tend to leave out this phase of the creative process. We neglect to mention those days when we wanted to quit, when we believed that our problems were impossible to solve. Instead, we skip straight to the breakthroughs.”

Science writer Jonah Lehrer
These are soothing and heartening words for any frustrated writer. But obviously, frustration alone is not enough. You still have to sit down and write the song, or the book, or work out the math. There is where a second kind of creative experience comes into play, one that is less magical and more grueling: the work phase.

“The reality of the creative process is that it often requires persistence, the ability to stare at a problem until it makes sense,” Lehrer says. “It’s forcing oneself to pay attention, to write all night and then fix those words in the morning. It’s sticking with a poem until it’s perfect; refusing to quit on a math question; working until the cut of a dress is just right. The answer does not arrive suddenly, in a flash of insight. Instead, it will be revealed slowly, gradually emerging after great effort.” Lehrer calls this part of creativity “the unconcealing.”

Where insights happen
One of the questions Lehrer addresses in his book is which kind of creativity you need to feed at a particular time. Flashes of insight do not come while pecking madly at your keyboard hour after hour,* and novels do not get written while taking a hot shower. Different kinds of creativity take root and flourish in different kinds of soils.

Bipolar disorder, oddly enough, can give us a sense of the two kinds of soils needed for each type of creativity. Did you know that creative geniuses are twenty times more likely than the general population to have the brain disorder? Lehrer speculates that is because they have excesses of both kinds of necessary creative tools: the manic phases tend to give them bursts of sudden creativity and original insights: this is when their Eureka! moments happen, and the initial frenetic scribbling and sketching starts. But the mania wears off, and the work has to be edited. Pared down. Restructured. Mania is not good for this kind of slogging work.

Turns out, depressive phases can also help. The stereotype of the sad poet, staring gloomily into the rain as he composes his morose lines in his head, is kind of true. If the depressing isn’t utterly disabling, melancholy allows the creator to stick with her creation. People who are mildly depressed, Lehrer says, have demonstrated a marked ability to stick with tasks longer. A touch of blue makes you more persistent.
The insight of mania and the persistence of melancholy
“In other words, the emotional extremes of [bipolar disorder] reflect the extremes of the creative process,” he writes. “There is the ecstatic generation phase, full of divergent thoughts, and the attentive editing phase, in which all those ideas are made to converge.”

Lehrer is careful to note that nobody should envy the manic-depressive. “This doesn’t take away, of course, from the agony of the mental illness, and it doesn’t mean that people can create only when they’re horribly sad or manic,” he writes. “But it does begin to explain the significant correlations that have been repeatedly observed between depressive syndromes and artistic achievement.”

So, when is it time to take a bike ride and let your mind wander, and when is it time to glue your butt to the chair? “The good news is that the human mind has a natural ability to diagnose its own problems, to assess the kind of creativity that’s needed,” Lehrer says. Stick to your chair when you have a “tip of the tongue” feeling, that odd sensation of knowing that you know the answer to something, even if your brain can’t consciously recall it. But when you are utterly frustrated, and wandering in circles, take a break. Go on a long bike ride, let your mind wander.

Published in 2012
I’ve only summarized about half of Lehrer’s book on creativity, covering the bits about insight and persistence, but there’s so much more packed into the slim volume. He talks about the vitality of collaboration, of putting yourself in a situation where you are exposed to new ideas. He talks about the importance of milieu: Shakespeare’s genius wouldn’t have flourished anywhere but Elizabethan England. He talks about how to shut down the logical frontal lobes of our brains in order to access the untrammeled creativity of our dreaming minds. He even talks about when to revisit our first drafts for revision (answer: as long after we’ve written them as possible).

Lastly, Lehrer talks about how better to foster a spirit of creativity in the next generation: because we are going to need it. Not just for our individual creative projects, but for the serious challenges facing our civilization and our human lives on Earth.

*Lehrer says that many great writers, like W.H. Auden and Jack Kerouac, relied on Benzedrine and other amphetamines to keep their energy and focus for endless keyboard-pecking, but he doesn’t recommend it: stick to coffee. 

New! See Lehrer on the Colbert Report


  1. Another great post, Stephanie. To me, creating characters is the most rewarding part of writing fiction. They seem to wander into the story, uninvited. Sometimes I have to throw them out. As a child, on long car trips, before there were other entertaining things beside books, and passing scenery, I made up people to inhabit gas stations and other scenes we passed. Only a few of the main characters in my work are loosely based on real people, the rest are purely imaginary. As far as Lehrer's book goes, I don't think any of the mental problems he mentions, are necessary to have an active imagination. Regis

    1. Hi Regis. :) Like you I find that when my mind is wandering the most (like on long bike rides) I have the most fruitful thoughts. Lehrer says that one reason he thinks showers are so productive is that they are the last place we can go where there are no gadgets to distract us.

      I agree that you don't have to have mental problems to be creative — and Lehrer would agree with you, too. He is simply noting that there is a demonstrated correlation between highly creative people and mental illness (especially bipolar disorder), and speculating about what the rest of us can learn from this.

  2. Sister Stephanie, provocative post, indeed! Although, being a basket case is not a mandatory requirement in the writing profession, I should say that some form of neurosis (and a touch of narcissism) tends to be present in most writers, Yours Truly included.

  3. Great article Stephanie! Brings to mind a memoir by Stephen King I read once, "On Writing". These insights into the creative process have always been fascinating to me.

    Is the greatest art born from heartache, neurosis and even madness? Oh, isn't that an age old question. I don't know whether it's true, but for me, it tends to be the case. The art that moves me the most is the art that comes to life from these sort of harrowing circumstances, where it's pretty much inevitable to create something to express or mitigate that anxiety.

    In that sense, art, writing or whatever you want to call it, can be a way of survival. A means to bring back together the shattered pieces of one's psyche and somehow make sense of it all. Like I said, that's only my personal perception, but I've always been drawn to that dual notion inside creativity and artistic expressions: the allure of the creation, or the vitality and passions of life, is more potent when in the presence of doom.

    1. I loved King's "On Writing" as well! Like many of the writers Lehrer mentions, King also had a drug problem for a while, which he credited in part with some of his books: he wrote Tommyknockers with cotton balls stuffed up his nose to absorb the cocaine-induced bleeding. He says he doesn't even remember writing Cujo, he was so strung out on coke. And after he recovered, he thought he'd lost his muse. But he was able to resume writing again, without the help of stimulants.

      After my own car accident, I remember sitting in the shattered car and telling the firefighter who was trying to get me out, "I'm going to write about this!" Writers use their writing to separate themselves from their pain, I think. Or some of them do. It turns suffering into a sort of object you can study.

  4. Lone Wolf.... I haven't read many of King's books, but after his near death experience, being hit by a car, and out of commission for months, he must have written some great stuff lately. Any King-ophiles care to comment?

  5. I'd have to say that I don't really have a specific time or place when my creative juices get going. For example, just now, while I was washing a bunch of dishes by hand and mentally cursing the dishwasher for being such a pain, I came up with a whole outline in my head for a new play. It just popped into my head out of the blue and once I started thinking about it the story and the actions of the characters it seemed to unravel in my mind.

    Many times, when I'm going through the editing phase of my novels, I often have plot structure problems, dialogue issues, etc. circling in my mind right before I fall asleep. Sometimes this can help me go to sleep, but at other times I have to get up and quickly write down my corrections before I can get a decent night's sleep!

  6. Sister Steph, I have solved many writing dilemmas in the shower (that's why my showers are so long - ask any of my family members, ha ha). I think that mundane activities, such as running, showering or cleaning, help us access those creative neurons in our brain. Maybe because there's no pressure to come up with a plot solution or scene (like there is when we're sitting in front of the computer.)

    Are you familiar with the books "Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain" and "Writing the Natural Way"? Both of them aim to access the subconscious mind through free association/brainstorming (called clustering in the book). I believe that's what may have happened to Dylan. Once the pressure was off, he was able to access his creative mind.

    Thank you for a very interesting post!

    1. We have the drawing book, although I haven't looked at it in a while. I'll have to check out the second book, too: sounds interesting!

      This is a little off-topic, but your use of the term "brainstorming" made me think of it. Lehrer does address brainstorming specifically, but in the sense of sitting with a group of people and free-associating on ideas. With groups, he says, it doesn't work. Studies have now been done on the tactic, and fewer solutions are generated in brainstorming sessions ... because the #1 rule of brainstorming is "don't criticize any ideas." He says that the criticism itself, and vigorous debate, actually accesses a particular part of your brain that unlocks creativity and new ideas. But I think brainstorming by yourself is a different thing, and can be pretty useful, especially if you're blocked.

    2. Brainstorming (called "clustering" in "Writing the Natural Way") is an individual exercise where you write down a word and circle it and from them write every word (or idea) that you can think of. There's no right or wrong. Later you go back and study recurring words/ideas and patterns, etc. I have the book if you want to check it out.

  7. Hey everyone! I'm so excited to tell you that Jonah Leher was on the Colbert Report last night, so you can hear him speak about this yourself. I added the link to the end of my post: check it out!

  8. "So, you stole your title from John Lennon." Ha ha ha! Colbert is hilarious. Thanks for the link!

    1. I love Colbert. Stephen and Jonah in one place = heaven! (I have a bit of a nerd-crush on Mr. Lehrer, in case you haven't picked up on that.)

  9. I am so excited to read this book. I had my librarian order it, and it should be in any day. I heard him interviewed on NPR, I think, and everything he said about creativity made sense to me.


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