Acclaimed Author Jonah Lehrer Discusses ‘Imagine,’ His Latest Best Seller, and Mysteries of Creativity
Posted Tuesday, April 10, 2012 1:22 PM
What do the “a-ha” moments in our minds mean, and where do they come from? The connections between art and science and the mystery of creativity have become the specialties of author and journalist Jonah Lehrer. What makes Lehrer stand out as a writer is that even while explaining the science behind a phenomenon such as creativity, he takes away none of its magic, and even as he acknowledges the complexity of his subject, he still illuminates it beautifully.
Lehrer completed an undergraduate degree at Columbia in both English and neuroscience, and went on to study literature at Oxford University as a Rhodes Scholar. There he started his first book, Proust was a Neuroscientist, in which he reveals how artists and writers, such as Paul Cézanne and Walt Whitman, have made discoveries about the mind that scientists only caught up to and rediscovered later.
Although Lehrer is only 30 years old, he has already written another book that became a best-seller, How We Decide, and his third book, Imagine: How Creativity Works, was published in March. It is currently a New York Times best-seller for non-fiction. In Imagine, Lehrer again combines his knowledge of art and science, this time to tell the story of creativity and explain the science behind innovation. The book is about “our most important mental talent: the ability to imagine what has never existed.”
Imagine is highly enlightening and entertaining. Lehrer sheds light on creativity through history, psychology and sociology, and shares anecdotes ranging from cellist Yo-Yo Ma to surfer Clay Marzo, Bob Dylan to Shakespeare, and Pixar Studios to New York City. According to Lehrer, sometimes relaxing completely is what stimulates our creativity and allows us to move to a different level of understanding. This can be as simple as taking a walk or a shower. At other times, creativity is a matter of tenacity and concentration, because, as Lehrer emphasizes, “Art is work.” After having a great idea, one has to spend a lot of time honing it to realize its full potential.
Lehrer also reveals how some of the most complex problems in a field can be solved by outsiders, and that some environments, such as big cities and certain kinds of schools, are more likely to generate creative minds. He shows why brainstorming does not work, while criticism and constraints foster creativity, and how sitting in a red room stifles our imagination, while a blue-colored room could set it free. As he describes the processes behind creativity, Lehrer also gives valuable advice on how creativity can be nurtured, both in the individual and in society overall.
Lehrer was in the middle of his Imagine book tour when he agreed to speak to Highbrow Magazine. It turns out that Lehrer, with his modest self-deprecating manner and wonderful sense of humor, is as much a pleasure to talk to as he is to read. The conversation took place on a sunny day in early April, over Vanilla Nut smoothies, in Clocktower Coffee Roasting Company in Mountain View, California—a part of Silicon Valley, whose creativity boom Lehrer covers in Imagine.
Creativity is such a cool and important topic. How do you get your book ideas in general, and how did you get the idea for this book specifically?
The books themselves begin as these mysteries I want to know more about. I maybe only have glimmers of answers. It is mostly a question that I have about a topic that interests me enough that I want to spend years of my life on it. These moments of insight just struck me as this fascinating mystery. It’s like your brain is sharing a secret with you—it’s bizarre. I wanted to know how that happened. That’s kind of where this book came from.
I was wondering, is the inside cover of your book Imagine a bright deep blue on purpose, since you write in your book that this is the color that stimulates the imagination? Did you plan that?
That is actually a pretty close shade to what I was describing—they used a color like this one in an experiment that showed that blue-colored walls could help us think in a way that is more abstract and increase creative output. It’s probably an accident that the first and last page are this color, but I would love to take credit for it.
While researching this book, have you discovered anything that has influenced how you work? I think every person who reads this book will start thinking about creativity in a different way, and I am wondering if that is also true for you as a writer.
You know, for me what changed was that I used to have this puritanical mindset where if I was stuck, I would just consume caffeine, and power through and try to fix it. And then of course what you’d often find in the morning is that the fix-its didn’t fix anything, and you were where you were before, except now you’re hung-over on caffeine. So now when I’m stuck, I do force myself to take a break, like to go for a hike and leave my phone behind. If nothing else, that is definitely more enjoyable. I sometimes come back to what I was doing the next day and I do have a better sense of how to fix it. I think that is one part of this book that has changed my writing process.
And how long did it take you to write Imagine?
About three years.
Over the same period, I have seen lots of your articles appear in various publications. How do you work on your books and articles at the same time?
For me, the books are just great to have in the back burner, because they are a good excuse to be curious about everything. That is also why I am drawn to these vague topics, like creativity, or decision-making or art and science. They are an excuse to ask really silly, naïve questions. Some articles began for the book, and then they didn’t work for the book but they became articles. Like I had a piece in Wired last year about the guy who cracked the scratch lottery. And I was thinking about it for Imagine because it is a perfect example of persistence and solving a difficult puzzle. But it didn’t quite work in the book for a variety of reasons, so I ended up just turning it into a magazine article. Sometimes it happens the opposite way. The books are fun because they are an excuse to talk to a lot of different people and to be omnivorous. And that is a wonderful excuse to have.
How did you go from writing as a journalist to writing your first book?
In grad school, I wrote for this magazine called Seed. I wrote an article about a restaurant in the UK called the Fat Duck where the chef was trying to apply chemistry to the cooking. The second article I wrote for Seed was called “Proust was a Neuroscientist.” It was about my time in the lab and the experience of being an impressionable undergrad—I was taking a French modernist class and reading Proust in the lab while looking over a number of experiments and just hallucinating connections. Then an agent read that article and was like, “Oh, that is actually kind of interesting. Do you have any other thoughts on this?” I wrote her a long 5,000-word email, and then she didn’t respond for a whole month. She wrote back and said “Think about this for a while, and why don’t you try writing a book proposal?” I didn’t think she meant it seriously, but I thought it sounded fun. Then I spent my third year of grad school writing a book proposal.
How do you know a book is working the way you want it to as you write it?
The single biggest thing I rely on when I am writing is I give a draft to lots of people. People can tell you the holes in the writing. Books, I circulate, while articles I tend to keep pretty close. I want people to read my books, so as I write them, I want to know where they’re not working. You can spend so long on a book that you become blind, and it’s so tough to see the flaws. You can be so inside it that you don’t see what’s wrong with it. So I show it to everyone. I also like talking about it. My editor is always like, “Shut up about it, don’t give away your stories,” but for me, that’s how you make the stories better. I think the written word aspires to the condition of the spoken word, which is just easy, and relaxed, and natural. You feel the punch lines, you figure out which parts of the story people are getting bored by, and which parts of the story work. I do think that being able to talk about it makes my written story better.
Do you have any writing routine and where do you usually write?
Just caffeine, basically. Sometimes I am almost jealous of those writers that have really elaborate rituals—the sun has to be at a certain angle and they have to have certain books around them, and they have to be at their desk. That seems very romantic and fun to me, to have those kinds of rituals, but I am not like that. I just sit there in front of a screen. I am probably most efficient on a plane, just because when I am at home, I can be a distractible guy. Sometimes I write from a café, but I often work from a studio that is 10 feet from my house, so it’s not a long commute.
What has been the biggest challenge for you as a writer?
I think one of the challenges that no one ever warned me about is that you are always writing in your head. As a writer, you never leave the office. You’re always there. You’re always thinking about it. You’re always mulling it over and ruminating. On the one hand, that’s great, because it means you’re always working, and on the other hand it’s horrible for the same reason, because you’re always working, and you never get a break from yourself. I sometimes get so jealous of my friends who leave the office and they’re just done. Whereas we’re kind of cursed because we are always thinking back about that sentence.
Who are your favorite fiction writers?
My fiction habit has definitely been hurt. One of the things I always love about finishing a book, more than anything else—because I dread publication—is just getting time to read what you want again and enjoy it. If I were to pick one writer, it would be Virginia Woolf. She is a person who I feel like was totally downcast about writing, about this miserable profession—putting words on the page and playing with words all day, because writing is miserable. But then you read someone who does it well like Virginia Woolf and you think, “this is worth it.” In terms of current fiction writers, I like Ian McEwan. I think he does interesting things.
Are there any good books about how to write a book that you’ve used?
For me, it wasn’t as much about reading how to write as much as it was learning from the voices, structures, and styles that I enjoyed as a reader. As I wrote in Imagine, Bob Dylan describes his creative process as one of love and theft. You fall in love with someone’s work and then you are inspired by it.
Who has inspired you?
I think I spent years imitating Nabokov, until I realized he may be the single worst person to imitate since no one could pull it off because he was a genius. I find a lot of his novels insufferable. I don’t know if you have ever read Strong Opinions, his book of interviews? He is so eloquent. He may be the most eloquent writer, ever. But he’s also insufferable—he has a lot of strong opinions about himself and his surroundings. But simply to bask in his words is a pleasure…
Would you ever write a sequel to your first book, Proust was a Neuroscientist?
Maybe one day. That would be a fun book to write. The common ground between science and humanities is a theme that is near and dear to my heart, and I would definitely like to get back to it.
What kind of topic are you thinking about for your next book?
My next book may be about love. The science will say it’s about dopamine and oxytocin, but that begs to be questioned. What appeals to me about the topic is that it’s never the “nothing but”—like “love is nothing but dopamine in the brain.” It’s clearly also something else. What interests me about love is not just romantic love, not just the Romeo and Juliet kind. I think when we say we love something, it’s saying we found a source of pleasure that doesn’t get old, whether it’s Tolstoy or Pirandello, or a spouse, or a god, or a faith. And that’s weird, because every kind of pleasure gets old. The pleasure of a smoothie gets old. Even the pleasure of chocolate cake is only great for those first few seconds. That new iPad quickly gets old. Everything decays very quickly, except for things we love. So how does that happen? What makes some pleasures persist? That’s a mystery. I’ve got no answer. But maybe there is something there.
This interview is edited and excerpted from a longer taped transcript.
A former Arts editor for The Harvard Crimson, Elizabeth Pyjov is a contributing writer at Highbrow Magazine. Read her film blog at worldthroughfilm.blogspot.com