Your Imagination at Work

Imagine, by Jonah Lehrer

I missed posting last week (how did the holidays sneak up on me?) so this post will be a bit longer than usual. The book that I’m talking about during the month of April is Jonah Lehrer’s Imagine: How Creativity Works. I first read about Imagine in The Wall Street Journal. It’s just the kind of book that fascinates me since it takes an abstract concept and seeks to explain it to the reader in a digestible way. And since creativity is the cornerstone of writing, I thought this would be perfect to explain the quirks of being a creator.Lehrer doesn’t disappoint. I’ve been snatching minutes out of my day to read further. (It’s a highly readable book so I recommend that you go out and get a copy). His style balances highly readable case studies pertaining to measuring the creativity of others (Swiffer, Bob Dylan and 3M) and analysis about their processes of harnessing creativity. Swiffer creators taped people mopping their floors, Bob Dylan needed solitude and drugs, and 3M pioneered the idea of their scientists using 15% of their day to explore new ideas. But how does this lead up to hyper creativity? Lehrer asserts that each had a problem. It was their frustration that led to their breakthrough. This breakthrough triggered the idea that set them on the path to solving their problem.

Here is where I think Lehrer pushes the idea of measuring creativity. He asserts that solving the problem doesn’t end the creative process. It’s really the beginning of the creative process. What truly defines the creative process is the obsession to improve the initial idea. Creativity (and imagination) isn’t a single moment that leads to a breakthrough. It’s a string of moments where the mind tries to solve the problem until it reaches a road block (leading back to frustration and the need to repeat the process) or until you reach a satisfying conclusion.

For Bob Dylan it was the need to be alone, out of the company of sycophants and groupies that follows a musician, especially one as successful as him, that allowed him to create more music. Just when he threw up his hands and thought he’d pursue a different path he created some of his most accomplished music. But his frustration was an important part of his ability to ignore his desire to give up music and write a novel and write some of the best lyrics that he’s ever written.

How does the understanding of others creative processes and imagination pertain to writers? Being around writers brings to light the much used term of writer’s block. This refers to a writer not being able to write because of a lack of interesting ideas to turn into books. And writer’s block is blamed for many writers, both aspiring and published, for damaging productivity. That is writers can’t write as much as they’d like because their creative edge is blocked. But I think this is where the company policy of 3M can help writers. According to Lehrer, 3M, “invented the 15 percent rule, a concept that allows each researcher to spend 15 percent of his or her workday pursuing speculative new ideas. (People at 3M refer to this time as the bootlegging hour.) The only requirement is that the researchers share their ideas with their colleagues.” If writers were to spend a portion of their day seeking out creativity, then they’d be better able to push through writer’s block. (I don’t know if it would have to be 15% since that could be a huge chunk of time depending on how your day is spent; for me I balance being the primary caretaker of my child while my husband is at work with managing my old company, growing my new one, and fitting in cooking, cleaning, and volunteering. I shudder to think how much 15% would be until I think about the benefit, or the side effect, which would be seeking out creativity for 15% of my day.) They could treat writing more as a job, quantifiable by the progress of your work than the idea of your muse needing to visit in order for you to become inspired enough to write.

Join me next week for a post exploring the creative process of writers and for more talk about Imagine: How Creativity Works.


The writer as an entrepreneur

[The post in which I explain my method-of-madness and talk about The Lean Startup, by Eric Ries]

Each month I’ll be blogging about one book, using it as a jump off point to discuss topics in business and how these topics relate to writers. This month’s book is The Lean Startup: How Today’s Entrepreneurs Use Continuous Innovation to Create Radically Successful Businesses, by Eric Ries. I’ll link to the book on Amazon, though I encourage you to purchase it from whatever site or store is easiest for you. My blog posts for the month of March will be focused on different sections of the book.

The first part of The Lean Startup is called Vision. A lot of what’s talked about is understanding that entrepreneurs and startups are lurking around in more places that you’d think. This is fitting because I have this radical notion that writers should recognize that they are entrepreneurs themselves.

Most writers do not refer to themselves as entrepreneurs or business people. They refer to themselves as writers, leading with the creative side of what they do (or would like to do). If they were to say, I own a company selling original works of fiction or nonfiction to publishing houses, this would put what they do in a very different light. It wouldn’t sound as creative as saying, I’m a writer, or, I’m a novelist, or, I write books. But it would add authority to what they are seeking to do, which is become a published writer. By treating themselves as business people, they force others to treat them as business people.

Ries has a brilliantly simple definition of what an entrepreneur is. He defines an entrepreneur as anyone who is creating a new product or business under conditions of extreme uncertainty. This fits what writers do perfectly. They’re creating a product that they can’t be sure will get published and will reach its intended audience of readers.

Ries then goes on to define what a startup is. “A startup is a human institution designed to create a new product or service under conditions of extreme uncertainty,” (p 27).Herein lies the crux of my argument. Should a writer define writing a book, whatever the subject, as building a business? Well consider this:

A writer must do the following to get published by a traditional publishing house: write publishable manuscripts (according to the standards set by the publishing industry), find an agent or lawyer to broker a deal between themselves and a publishing house, and promote themselves using social media and traditional media.

A writer must do the following when self-publishing: write a publishable book (according to the standards set by the reading public), sell books to customers in various formats and promote their brand using social media and traditional media.

A startup business must produce a product people want to buy or a service people want to use, identify and sell their product or service to customers, and promote their brand using social media and traditional media.

Everyone mentioned has a goal in mind: to sell their product to their customer base. So what is the benefit of writers identifying themselves as entrepreneurs? It means from the first time they set out to write their book, they would have a framework to structure their business by. It’s much easier to find an agent, a publisher, and readers when you’re producing a book they want to purchase (or, in the case of the agent, represent). My intent isn’t to suck all the fun out of being a writer by lecturing about needing to approach writing in a business manner. It’s to shift the thinking of writers to pursue their writing as any startup company would so that they can rely on some of the benefits that a startup has: gaining funding to build your business, setting actionable benchmarks for your career, creating and building a brand, and relying on the advice and wisdom of people you wouldn’t necessarily go to for inspiration.

Next week: Can a writer use the Lean Startup method for writing their book?