The Creative Writer

I thoroughly enjoyed reading Imagine: How Creativity Works by Jonah Lehrer. It takes an idea–that creativity can be measured–and proceeds to educate the reader in understanding what sparks a creative idea and how a person nurtures that idea. He then goes on to show that it’s the level of excitement, and not the depth of knowledge (though some familiarity with a subject is essential), that leads to breakthroughs of genius.

This is a great background book, meaning you don’t need to run out to buy a copy (whereas I heartily recommended that you do so for The Lean Startup). At some point in your writing career, you should read this as a way of assuring yourself that you’re not going to one day run out of ideas for new stories as long as you avoid falling into traps of complacency (meaning you write only what’s familiar). I feel guilty saying anything other than you must run and buy a book, but the point of this blog is to examine books (mainly business, but I’m incorporating some general nonfiction as well) that will help the writer’s career.

There is a main lesson that I take away from this book: creativity can happen anywhere and with anything. Lehrer examines creativity in fixed environments (as in product companies like 3M) as well as in scientific studies. The key to understanding creativity is to realize that the person solving the puzzle or creating the new brand of mop has to be engaged enough to want to reach a conclusion that satisfies the problem and has enough knowledge of that problem to do so.

When I apply this to a writer I would say this means the writer has to understand his problem (create the plot to a book) and be sufficiently knowledgable enough to solve his problem (possess the ability to know how to structure a book). The only way that I can see doing this well is to not only write, but to have able readers to give their honest opinions on the writing as well as to be a reader themselves.

Join me next week for a new book and discussion. I haven’t decided on the new one yet so please leave comments about ones you’re curious and interested in.

Creativity and the Writer: Exploring Creativity in Imagine

We’re again looking at Imagine: How Creativity Works by Jonah Lehrer. I love how Lehrer meticulously examines creativity in all of its forms. And he just got to the part that I’ve been rabid to read: talking about the writer and how they jump-start creativity.

For any writer—whether you write fiction, nonfiction, essays, op-eds, or magazine articles—one of the  cornerstones of writing is being creative. How you say something matters. Otherwise we’d simply recite facts and bore our audience. But I hear most writers (more fiction than nonfiction) refer to inspiration or joke about having a muse. They have to be stimulated in order to get to the point where they can write. According to Lehrer, though, these writers don’t understand that they need to sit back and wait for creativity to hit. Unconsciously, they’re creating they create their own inspiration by the actions they take to get to the point where they need to write. So, according to Lehrer, creativity can be a learned behavior for writers, not one that has to strike at certain times.

Lehrer talks about three writers: Auden, Zadie Smith, and Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Auden inspired himself by taking Benzedrine. It created a way for him to concentrate on his work for longer periods of time, perfecting each word and line of his poetry until it was spare lean prose. He talks about Zadie Smith, who suggests that if a writer can bear to, they should leave their writing aside for a bit (she suggests a year, but three months will do) and come back to it as a “smart stranger”, that is one who is familiar with the work, but forgets the details so that they can see mistakes in their work much more easily. And he talks about Samuel Taylor Coleridge who would attend public chemistry lectures in London to watch scientists set elements on fire. He said it renewed his stock of metaphors.

The technique that these three writers have in common is coming up with a way to jump-start their creativity. They seemed to know that they didn’t have to sit around and wait for great writing to magically flow from their fingers. They needed to do something to inspire the writing and further work to perfect it.

But how does this apply to today’s writer? The main point of all of Lehrer’s writing is recognizing creativity in oneself and others. But that’s easier said than done when thinking about a deadline or needing to complete revisions for an interested agent or publisher. A writer would need to understand their technique for creation as well as understand what they are trying to produce. I’d go further and say that all writers need to do two things: create goals for themselves writing wise and understand that all writing, no matter the subject, needs polishing.

I like the idea of writers having goals because they’re working towards a concrete point. I must complete 5 pages or revise 2 chapters or research medieval wine making techniques are all tangible goals. They make up the pieces that will lead to writing a whole piece. Instead of having the lofty goal of I will write a , which has no benchmarks and no graduated steps for a writer to hold onto or to build on, a writer who has a dozen small steps to achieve stands a better chance of getting that work onto the page. But I agree with Zadie Smith. Distance is a writer’s creative friend. Spending too much time with your own writing clouds your judgment. I find that triggers two extreme conditions: either the writer thinks what they’re writing is absolute brilliance or absolute garbage. Getting away from your writing helps bring perspective to what you are trying to do.

Join me next week to explore the last of Imagine. I’m curious to see if there is any insight Lehrer can offer on juggling writing and life since he’s both an author and a journalist exploring the idea of creativity.