Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘creativity’

06 SEPTEMBER, 2013

What Is Creativity? Cultural Icons on What Ideation Is and How It Works

By:

Bradbury, Eames, Angelou, Gladwell, Einstein, Byrne, Duchamp, Close, Sendak, and more.

“Creativity” is one of those grab-bag terms, like “happiness” and “love,” that can mean so many things it runs the risk of meaning nothing at all. And yet some of history’s greatest minds have attempted to capture, explain, describe, itemize, and dissect the nature of creativity. After similar omnibi of cultural icons’ most beautiful and articulate definitions of art, of science, and of love, here comes one of creativity.

For Ray Bradbury, creativity was the art of muting the rational mind:

The intellect is a great danger to creativity … because you begin to rationalize and make up reasons for things, instead of staying with your own basic truth — who you are, what you are, what you want to be. I’ve had a sign over my typewriter for over 25 years now, which reads “Don’t think!” You must never think at the typewriter — you must feel. Your intellect is always buried in that feeling anyway. … The worst thing you do when you think is lie — you can make up reasons that are not true for the things that you did, and what you’re trying to do as a creative person is surprise yourself — find out who you really are, and try not to lie, try to tell the truth all the time. And the only way to do this is by being very active and very emotional, and get it out of yourself — making things that you hate and things that you love, you write about these then, intensely.

Long before he became the artist we know and love, a young Maurice Sendak full of self-doubt wrote in a letter to his editor, the remarkable Ursula Nordstrom:

Knowledge is the driving force that puts creative passion to work.

In writing back, Nordstrom responded with her signature blend of wisdom and assurance:

That is the creative artist — a penalty of the creative artist — wanting to make order out of chaos.

Portrait by Lisa Congdon for our Reconstructionists project. Click image for details.

Bill Moyers is credited with having offered a sort of mirror-image definition that does away with order and seeks, instead, magical chaos:

Creativity is piercing the mundane to find the marvelous.

For Albert Einstein, its defining characteristic was what he called “combinatory play.” In a letter to a French mathematician, included in Einstein’s Ideas and Opinions (public library), he writes:

The words or the language, as they are written or spoken, do not seem to play any role in my mechanism of thought. The psychical entities which seem to serve as elements in thought are certain signs and more or less clear images which can be “voluntarily” reproduced and combined.

There is, of course, a certain connection between those elements and relevant logical concepts. It is also clear that the desire to arrive finally at logically connected concepts is the emotional basis of this rather vague play with the above-mentioned elements. But taken from a psychological viewpoint, this combinatory play seems to be the essential feature in productive thought — before there is any connection with logical construction in words or other kinds of signs which can be communicated to others.

Portrait by Lisa Congdon for our Reconstructionists project. Click image for details.

For Maya Angelou, a modern-day sage of the finest kind, the mystery and miracle of creativity is in its self-regenerating nature. In the excellent collection Conversations with Maya Angelou (public library), which also gave us her poignant exchange with Bill Moyers, Angelou says:

Creativity or talent, like electricity, is something I don’t understand but something I’m able to harness and use. While electricity remains a mystery, I know I can plug into it and light up a cathedral or a synagogue or an operating room and use it to help save a life. Or I can use it to electrocute someone. Like electricity, creativity makes no judgment. I can use it productively or destructively. The important thing is to use it. You can’t use up creativity. The more you use it, the more you have.

Tom Bissell, writing in Magic Hours: Essays on Creators and Creation, also celebrates this magical quality of creativity:

To create anything … is to believe, if only momentarily, you are capable of magic. … That magic … is sometimes perilous, sometimes infectious, sometimes fragile, sometimes failed, sometimes infuriating, sometimes triumphant, and sometimes tragic.

But there might be something more precise and less mystical about the creative process. In Uncommon Genius: How Great Ideas Are Born (public library), the fantastic collection of interviews with MacArthur “genius” grantees by Denise Shekerjian, she recapitulates her findings:

The trick to creativity, if there is a single useful thing to say about it, is to identify your own peculiar talent and then to settle down to work with it for a good long time.

Shekerjian interviews the late Stephen Jay Gould, arguably the best science writer of all time, who describes his own approach to creativity as the art of making connections, which Shekerjian synthesizes:

Gould’s special talent, that rare gift for seeing the connections between seemingly unrelated things, zinged to the heart of the matter. Without meaning to, he had zeroed in on the most popular of the manifold definitions of creativity: the idea of connecting two unrelated things in an efficient way. The surprise we experience at such a linkage brings us up short and causes us to think, Now that’s creative.

This notion, of course, is not new. In his timelessly insightful 1939 treatise A Technique for Producing Ideas (public library), outlining the five stages of ideation, James Webb Young asserts:

An idea is nothing more nor less than a new combination of old elements [and] the capacity to bring old elements into new combinations depends largely on the ability to see relationships. The habit of mind which leads to a search for relationships between facts becomes of the highest importance in the production of ideas.

Three years later, in 1942, Rosamund Harding added another dimension of stressing the importance of cross-disciplinary combinations in wonderful out-of-print tome An Anatomy of Inspiration:

Originality depends on new and striking combinations of ideas. It is obvious therefore that the more a man knows the greater scope he has for arriving at striking combinations. And not only the more he knows about his own subject but the more he knows beyond it of other subjects. It is a fact that has not yet been sufficiently stressed that those persons who have risen to eminence in arts, letters or sciences have frequently possessed considerable knowledge of subjects outside their own sphere of activity.

Seven decades later, Phil Beadle echoes this concept in his wonderful blueprint field guide to creativity, Dancing About Architecture: A Little Book of Creativity (public library):

It is the ability to spot the potential in the product of connecting things that don’t ordinarily go together that marks out the person who is truly creative.

Steve Jobs famously articulated this notion and took it a step further, emphasizing the importance of building a rich personal library of experiences and ideas to connect:

Creativity is just connecting things. When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn’t really do it, they just saw something. It seemed obvious to them after a while. That’s because they were able to connect experiences they’ve had and synthesize new things. And the reason they were able to do that was that they’ve had more experiences or they have thought more about their experiences than other people. Unfortunately, that’s too rare a commodity. A lot of people in our industry haven’t had very diverse experiences. So they don’t have enough dots to connect, and they end up with very linear solutions without a broad perspective on the problem. The broader one’s understanding of the human experience, the better design we will have.

Musician Amanda Palmer puts this even more poetically in her meditation on dot-connecting and creativity:

We can only connect the dots that we collect, which makes everything you write about you. … Your connections are the thread that you weave into the cloth that becomes the story that only you can tell.

Beloved graphic designer Paula Scher has a different metaphor for the same concept. In Debbie Millman’s How to Think Like a Great Graphic Designer (UK; public library), Scher likens creativity to a slot machine:

There’s a certain amount of intuitive thinking that goes into everything. It’s so hard to describe how things happen intuitively. I can describe it as a computer and a slot machine. I have a pile of stuff in my brain, a pile of stuff from all the books I’ve read and all the movies I’ve seen. Every piece of artwork I’ve ever looked at. Every conversation that’s inspired me, every piece of street art I’ve seen along the way. Anything I’ve purchased, rejected, loved, hated. It’s all in there. It’s all on one side of the brain.

And on the other side of the brain is a specific brief that comes from my understanding of the project and says, okay, this solution is made up of A, B, C, and D. And if you pull the handle on the slot machine, they sort of run around in a circle, and what you hope is that those three cherries line up, and the cash comes out.

But Arthur Koestler, in his seminal 1964 anatomy of creativity, The Act Of Creation (public library), argues that besides connection, the creative act necessitates contrast, or what he termed “bisociation”:

The pattern underlying [the creative act] is the perceiving of a situation or idea in two self-consistent but habitually incompatible frames of references. The event, in which the two intersect, is made to vibrate simultaneously on two different wavelengths, as it were. While this unusual situation lasts, [the event] is not merely linked to one associative context, but bisociated with two.

I have coined the term ‘bisociation’ in order to make a distinction between the routine skills of thinking on a single ‘plane,’ as it were, and the creative act, which … always operates on more than one plane. The former can be called single-minded, the latter double-minded, transitory state of unstable equilibrium where the balance of both emotion and thought is disturbed.

He differentiated between cognitive habit, or merely associative thought, and originality, or bisociative ideation, thusly:

Twenty years later, creative icon and original Mad Man George Lois echoed Koestler in his influential tome The Art of Advertising: George Lois on Mass Communication (public library):

Creativity can solve almost any problem. The creative act, the defeat of habit by originality, overcomes everything.

For Gretchen Rubin, however, habit isn’t the enemy of creativity but its engine. In Manage Your Day-to-Day: Build Your Routine, Find Your Focus, and Sharpen Your Creative Mind, she writes:

Anthony Trollope, the nineteenth-century writer who managed to be a prolific novelist while also revolutionizing the British postal system, observed, “A small daily task, if it be really daily, will beat the labours of a spasmodic Hercules.” Over the long run, the unglamorous habit of frequency fosters both productivity and creativity.

[…]

You’re much more likely to spot surprising relationships and to see fresh connections among ideas, if your mind is constantly humming with issues related to your work. … By contrast, working sporadically makes it hard to keep your focus. It’s easy to become blocked, confused, or distracted, or to forget what you were aiming to accomplish.

[…]

Creativity arises from a constant churn of ideas, and one of the easiest ways to encourage that fertile froth is to keep your mind engaged with your project. When you work regularly, inspiration strikes regularly.

In 1926, English social psychologist and London School of Economics co-founder Graham Wallas penned The Art of Thought, laying out his theory for how creativity works. Its gist, preserved in the altogether indispensable The Creativity Question (public library), identifies the four stages of the creative process — preparation, incubation, illumination, and verification — and their essential interplay:

In the daily stream of thought these four different stages constantly overlap each other as we explore different problems. An economist reading a Blue Book, a physiologist watching an experiment, or a business man going through his morning’s letters, may at the same time be “incubating” on a problem which he proposed to himself a few days ago, be accumulating knowledge in “preparation” for a second problem, and be “verifying” his conclusions on a third problem. Even in exploring the same problem, the mind may be unconsciously incubating on one aspect of it, while it is consciously employed in preparing for or verifying another aspect. And it must always be remembered that much very important thinking, done for instance by a poet exploring his own memories, or by a man trying to see clearly his emotional relation to his country or his party, resembles musical composition in that the stages leading to success are not very easily fitted into a “problem and solution” scheme. Yet, even when success in thought means the creation of something felt to be beautiful and true rather than the solution of a prescribed problem, the four stages of Preparation, Incubation, Illumination, and the Verification of the final result can generally be distinguished from each other.

But Malcolm Gladwell, in reflecting on the legacy of legendary economist Albert O. Hirscham in his review of Worldly Philosopher: The Odyssey of Albert O. Hirschman, doesn’t think the creative process is so deliberate:

Creativity always comes as a surprise to us; therefore we can never count on it and we dare not believe in it until it has happened. In other words, we would not consciously engage upon tasks whose success clearly requires that creativity be forthcoming. Hence, the only way in which we can bring our creative resources fully into play is by misjudging the nature of the task, by presenting it to ourselves as more routine, simple, undemanding of genuine creativity than it will turn out to be.

But David Byrne is skeptical of this romantic notion that creativity is a purely subconscious muse that dances to its own mystical drum. In How Music Works (public library), one of the best music books of 2012, he writes:

I had an extremely slow-dawning insight about creation. That insight is that context largely determines what is written, painted, sculpted, sung, or performed. That doesn’t sound like much of an insight, but it’s actually the opposite of conventional wisdom, which maintains that creation emerges out of some interior emotion, from an upwelling of passion or feeling, and that the creative urge will brook no accommodation, that it simply must find an outlet to be heard, read, or seen. The accepted narrative suggests that a classical composer gets a strange look in his or her eye and begins furiously scribbling a fully realized composition that couldn’t exist in any other form. Or that the rock-and-roll singer is driven by desires and demons, and out bursts this amazing, perfectly shaped song that had to be three minutes and twelve seconds — nothing more, nothing less. This is the romantic notion of how creative work comes to be, but I think the path of creation is almost 180º from this model. I believe that we unconsciously and instinctively make work to fit preexisting formats.

Of course, passion can still be present. Just because the form that one’s work will take is predetermined and opportunistic (meaning one makes something because the opportunity is there), it doesn’t mean that creation must be cold, mechanical, and heartless. Dark and emotional materials usually find a way in, and the tailoring process — form being tailored to fit a given context — is largely unconscious, instinctive. We usually don’t even notice it. Opportunity and availability are often the mother of invention.

For John Cleese, creativity is neither a conscious plan of attack nor an unconscious mystery, but a mode of being. In his superb 1991 talk on the five factors of creativity, he asserts in his characteristic manner of laconic wisdom:

Creativity is not a talent. It is a way of operating.

In Inside the Painter’s Studio (public library), celebrated artist Chuck Close is even more exacting in his take on this “way of operating,” equating creativity with work ethic:

Inspiration is for amateurs — the rest of us just show up and get to work.

In his short 1957 paper The Creative Act, French surrealist icon Marcel Duchamp considers the work of creativity a participatory project involving both creator and spectator:

The creative act is not performed by the artist alone; the spectator brings the work in contact with the external world by deciphering and interpreting its inner qualifications and thus adds his contribution to the creative act. This becomes even more obvious when posterity gives a final verdict and sometimes rehabilitates forgotten artists.

Meanwhile, artist Austin Kleon, author of the wonderful Steal Like an Artist, celebrates the negative space of the creative act in his Newspaper Blackout masterpiece:

But perhaps, after all, we should heed Charles Eames’s admonition:

Recent years have shown a growing preoccupation with the circumstances surrounding the creative act and a search for the ingredients that promote creativity. This preoccupation in itself suggests that we are in a special kind of trouble — and indeed we are.

Complement with Kierkegaard on creativity and anxiety and French polymath Henri Poincaré on how creativity works, then revisit these five fantastic reads on fear and the creative process.

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28 AUGUST, 2013

The Art of Thought: Graham Wallas on the Four Stages of Creativity, 1926

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How to master the beautiful osmosis of conscious and unconscious, voluntary and involuntary, deliberate and serendipitous.

In 1926, thirteen years before James Webb Young’s Technique for Producing Ideas and more than three decades before Arthur Koestler’s seminal “bisociation” theory of how creativity works, English social psychologist and London School of Economics co-founder Graham Wallas, sixty-eight at the time, penned The Art of Thought — an insightful theory outlining the four stages of the creative process, based both on his own empirical observations and on the accounts of famous inventors and polymaths. Though, sadly, the book is long out of print, with surviving copies sold for a fortune and available in a few public libraries, the gist of Wallas’s model has been preserved in a chapter of the 1976 treasure The Creativity Question (public library) — an invaluable selection of meditations on and approaches to creativity by some of history’s greatest minds, compiled by psychiatrist Albert Rothenberg and philosopher Carl R. Hausman, reminiscent of the 1942 gem An Anatomy of Inspiration.

Wallas outlines four stages of the creative process — preparation, incubation, illumination, and verification — dancing in a delicate osmosis of conscious and unconscious work. These phases, which literary legend Michael Cowley would come to parallel in his 1958 model of the four stages of writing, go as follows:

1. PREPARATION

During the preparation stage, the problem is “investigated in all directions” as the thinker readies the mental soil for the sowing of the seeds. It’s the accumulation of intellectual resources out of which to construct the new ideas. It is fully conscious and entails part research, part planning, part entering the right frame of mind and attention. Wallas writes:

The educated man has, again, learnt, and can, in the Preparation stage, voluntarily or habitually follow out, rules as to the order in which he shall direct his attention to successive elements.

2. INCUBATION

Next comes a period of unconscious processing, during which no direct effort is exerted upon the problem at hand — this is where the “combinatory play” that marked Einstein’s thought takes place. Wallas notes that the stage has two divergent elements — the “negative fact” that during Incubation we don’t consciously deliberate on a particular problem, and the “positive fact” of a series of unconscious, involuntary (or, as he terms it, “foreconscious” and “forevoluntary”) mental events taking place. He writes:

Voluntary abstention from conscious thought on any problem may, itself, take two forms: the period of abstention may be spent either in conscious mental work on other problems, or in a relaxation from all conscious mental work. The first kind of Incubation economizes time, and is therefore often the better.

T. S. Eliot would come to echo the value of incubation seven years later in his own meditation on the role of idea-incubation in the creative process, as would many other great minds: Alexander Graham Bell, for all his deliberate dedication, spoke of the power of “unconscious cerebration” and Lewis Carroll advocated for the importance of mental “mastication.”

Wallas proposes a technique for optimizing the fruits of the Incubation stage — something our modern-day psychology of productivity would come to confirm — by deliberately building interruptions of concentrated effort into our workflow:

We can often get more result in the same way by beginning several problems in succession, and voluntarily leaving them unfinished while we turn to others, than by finishing our work on each problem at one sitting.

3. ILLUMINATION

Following Incubation is the Illumination stage, which Wallas based on French polymath Henri Poincaré’s concept of “sudden illumination” — that flash of insight that the conscious self can’t will and the subliminal self can only welcome once all elements gathered during the Preparation stage have floated freely around during Incubation and are now ready to click into an illuminating new formation. It is the moment beloved graphic designer Paula Scher likens to the winning alignment of a slot machine, the same kind of “chance-opportunism” masquerading as serendipity that fuels much of scientific discovery.

But, Wallas admonishes, this Illumination can’t be forced:

If we so define the Illumination stage as to restrict it to this instantaneous “flash,” it is obvious that we cannot influence it by a direct effort of will; because we can only bring our will to bear upon psychological events which last for an appreciable time. On the other hand, the final “flash,” or “click” … is the culmination of a successful train of association, which may have lasted for an appreciable time, and which has probably been preceded by a series of tentative and unsuccessful trains. The series of unsuccessful trains of association may last for periods varying from a few seconds to several hours.

[…]

Sometimes the successful train seems to consist of a single leap of association, or of successive leaps which are so rapid as to be almost instantaneous.

Decades later, the great science communicator and MacArthur “genius” Stephen Jay Gould would come to concur that such “trains of association” — connections between the seemingly unconnected — are the secret of genius.

4. VERIFICATION

The last stage, unlike the second and the third, shares with the first a conscious and deliberate effort in the way of testing the validity of the idea and reducing the idea itself to an exact form. Once again borrowing from Poincaré’s pioneering theories, Wallas cites the French polymath:

It never happens that unconscious work supplies ready-made the result of a lengthy calculation in which we only have to apply fixed rules. … All that we can hope from these inspirations, which are the fruit of unconscious work, is to obtain points of departure for such calculations. As for the calculations themselves, they must be made in the second period of conscious work which follows the inspiration, and in which the results of the inspiration are verified and the consequences deduced. … They demand discipline, attention, will, and consequently, conscious work.

But perhaps most important of all is the interplay of the stages and the fact that none of them exists in isolation from the rest, for the mechanism of creativity is a complex machine of innumerable, perpetually moving parts. Wallas notes:

In the daily stream of thought these four different stages constantly overlap each other as we explore different problems. An economist reading a Blue Book, a physiologist watching an experiment, or a business man going through his morning’s letters, may at the same time be “incubating” on a problem which he proposed to himself a few days ago, be accumulating knowledge in “preparation” for a second problem, and be “verifying” his conclusions on a third problem. Even in exploring the same problem, the mind may be unconsciously incubating on one aspect of it, while it is consciously employed in preparing for or verifying another aspect. And it must always be remembered that much very important thinking, done for instance by a poet exploring his own memories, or by a man trying to see clearly his emotional relation to his country or his party, resembles musical composition in that the stages leading to success are not very easily fitted into a “problem and solution” scheme. Yet, even when success in thought means the creation of something felt to be beautiful and true rather than the solution of a prescribed problem, the four stages of Preparation, Incubation, Illumination, and the Verification of the final result can generally be distinguished from each other.

The Creativity Question is altogether indispensable and enormously enriching in its entirety, the kind of book you return to again and again. Complement it with this 1939 creative catalyst and its modern-day counterpart.

Public domain images via Flickr Commons

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27 AUGUST, 2013

Neil deGrasse Tyson and Neil Gaiman on the Secret of Genius

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“You don’t even know what the word ‘vacation’ means because what you’re doing is what you want to do and a vacation FROM that is anything BUT a vacation.”

“Creating a life that reflects your values and satisfies your soul,” Calvin & Hobbes creator Bill Watterson observed in his superb 1990 Kenyon College commencement address, “is a rare achievement.” Indeed, the search for meaning, the life of purpose, the quest to do what makes you come alive — those are the greatest human aspirations. And who better to weigh in on the essence of this grand pursuit than Neil deGrasse Tyson, modern-day philosopher and eloquent cosmic sage, and Neil Gaiman, dedicated writer and champion of answering the daunting call of the creative life? In this short excerpt from the 2012 Connecticut Forum, the Neils answer the question “What makes someone visionary and brilliant?” and remind us that the most important component of genius is, in fact, love and unrelenting cultivation.

Tyson knows that truly fulfilling work never feels like “work”:

If everyone had the luxury to pursue a life of exactly what they love, we would all be ranked as visionary and brilliant. … If you got to spend every day of your life doing what you love, you can’t help but be the best in the world at that. And you get to smile every day for doing so. And you’ll be working at it almost to the exclusion of personal hygiene, and your friends are knocking on your door, saying, “Don’t you need a vacation?!,” and you don’t even know what the word “vacation” means because what you’re doing is what you want to do and a vacation from that is anything but a vacation — that’s the state of mind of somebody who’s doing what others might call visionary and brilliant.

'Do what you love' by Andy J. Miller for the 'Advice to Sink in Slowly' project. Click image for details.

Gaiman echoes the sentiment with laconic self-awareness:

We get to look good because we get to do what we want.

Complement with this timeless anchor for how to find your purpose and do what you love, then revisit Gaiman’s fantastic commencement address on living the creative life.

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26 AUGUST, 2013

Michael Lewis on Writing, Money, and the Necessary Self-Delusion of Creativity

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“When you’re trying to create a career as a writer, a little delusional thinking goes a long way.”

The question of why writers write holds especial mesmerism, both as a piece of psychological voyeurism and as a beacon of self-conscious hope that if we got a glimpse of the innermost drivers of greats, maybe, just maybe, we might be able to replicate the workings of genius in our own work. So why do great writers write? George Orwell itemized four universal motives. Joan Didion saw it as access to her own mind. For David Foster Wallace, it was about fun. Joy Williams found in it a gateway from the darkness to the light. For Charles Bukowski, it sprang from the soul like a rocket. Italo Calvino found in writing the comfort of belonging to a collective enterprise.

In Why We Write: 20 Acclaimed Authors on How and Why They Do What They Do (public library) by Meredith Maran — which also gave us invaluable wisdom from Susan Orlean, Mary Karr and Isabel Allende, and which was among the 10 best books on writing from my recent collaboration with the New York Public LibraryMichael Lewis, one of today’s finest nonfiction masters, shares his singular lore.

Lewis begins at the bumpy beginning, echoing Ray Bradbury’s insistence on perseverance in the face of rejection: Even though his thesis adviser at Princeton praised the intellectual angle of his senior thesis but admonished him to never attempt making a living with that kind of writing, Lewis was drawn to the writing life. He wrote a piece on the homeless and pitched it to various magazines. It was rejected, with one magazine editor noting that “pieces on the life of the underclass in America” were unsuitable for publication. (One has to wonder whether the defiant remnants of this early brush with gobsmacking censorship spurred Lewis’s provocative look at the housing and credit bubble more than twenty years later.) Still, he “kept plugging away” and, in 1983, applied for an internship as a science writer at the Economist. He recalls:

I didn’t get the job — the other two applicants were doing their PhDs in physics and biology, and I’d flunked the one science class I took in college — but the editor who interviewed me said, “You’re a fraud, but you’re a very good fraud. Go write anything you want for the magazine, except science.” They published the first words I ever got into print. They paid ninety bucks per piece. It cost money to write for the Economist. I didn’t know how I was ever going to make a living at writing, but I felt encouraged. Luckily, I was delusional. I didn’t know that I didn’t have much of an audience, so I kept doing it.

True to Alan Watts’s philosophy and the secret to the life of purpose, Lewis remained disinterested in money as a motive — in fact, he recognized the trap of the hedonic treadmill and got out before it was too late:

Before I wrote my first book in 1989, the sum total of my earnings as a writer, over four years of freelancing, was about three thousand bucks. So it did appear to be financial suicide when I quit my job at Salomon Brothers — where I’d been working for a couple of years, and where I’d just gotten a bonus of $225,000, which they promised they’d double the following year—to take a $40,000 book advance for a book that took a year and a half to write.

My father thought I was crazy. I was twenty-seven years old, and they were throwing all this money at me, and it was going to be an easy career. He said, “Do it another ten years, then you can be a writer.” But I looked around at the people on Wall Street who were ten years older than me, and I didn’t see anyone who could have left. You get trapped by the money. Something dies inside. It’s very hard to preserve the quality in a kid that makes him jump out of a high-paying job to go write a book.

More than a living, Lewis found in writing a true calling — the kind of deep flow that fully absorbs the mind and soul:

There’s no simple explanation for why I write. It changes over time. There’s no hole inside me to fill or anything like that, but once I started doing it, I couldn’t imagine wanting to do anything else for a living. I noticed very quickly that writing was the only way for me to lose track of the time.

[…]

I used to get the total immersion feeling by writing at midnight. The day is not structured to write, and so I unplug the phones. I pull down the blinds. I put my headset on and play the same soundtrack of twenty songs over and over and I don’t hear them. It shuts everything else out. So I don’t hear myself as I’m writing and laughing and talking to myself. I’m not even aware I’m making noise. I’m having a physical reaction to a very engaging experience. It is not a detached process.

Still, Lewis admits to being stirred by the awareness that he can change minds and move hearts — a somewhat nobler version of Orwell’s “sheer egotism” motive:

The reasons I write change over time. In the beginning, it was that sense of losing time. Now it’s changed, because I have a sense of an audience. I have the sense that I can biff the world a bit. I don’t know that I have control of the direction of the pinball, but I can exert a force.

That power is a mixed blessing. It’s good to have something to get you into the chair. I’m not sure it’s great for the writing to think of yourself as important while you’re doing it. I don’t quite think that way. But I can’t deny that I’m aware of the effects my writing will have.

“Art suffers the moment other people start paying for it,” Hugh MacLeod famously wrote. It might be an overly cynical notion, one that perpetuates the unjustified yet deep-seated cultural guilt over simultaneously doing good and doing well, but Lewis echoes the sentiment:

Once you have a career, and once you have an audience, once you have paying customers, the motives for doing it just change.

And yet Lewis approaches the friction between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation — one experienced by anyone who loves what they do and takes pride in clarity of editorial vision, but has an audience whose approval or disapproval becomes increasingly challenging to tune out — with extraordinary candor and insight:

Commercial success makes writing books a lot easier to do, and it also creates pressure to be more of a commercial success. If you sold a million books once, your publisher really, really thinks you might sell a million books again. And they really want you to do it.

That dynamic has the possibility of constraining the imagination. There are invisible pressures. There’s a huge incentive to write about things that you know will sell. But I don’t find myself thinking, “I can’t write about that because it won’t sell.” It’s such a pain in the ass to write a book, I can’t imagine writing one if I’m not interested in the subject.

And yet his clarity of vision is still what guides the best of his work:

Those are the best moments, when I’ve got the whale on the line, when I see exactly what it is I’ve got to do.

After that moment there’s always misery. It never goes quite like you think, but that moment is a touchstone, a place to come back to. It gives you a kind of compass to guide you through the story.

That feeling has never done me wrong. Sometimes you don’t understand the misery it will lead to, but it’s always been right to feel it. And it’s a great feeling.

Lewis adds to famous writers’ daily routines and seconds Maira Kalman’s faith in the power of deadlines:

When I was writing my first book, I was going from eleven at night till seven in the morning. I was very happy waking up at two in the afternoon. My body clock would naturally like to start writing around nine at night and finish at four in the morning, but I have a wife and kids and endless commitments. … My natural writing schedule doesn’t work with my family’s schedule. I actually do better when I have pressure, some mental deadline.

Aware that he is “mentally absent” from family life while immersed in a book project, Lewis considers himself lucky to be a “binge writer” who takes lots of time off between books … “which is why I still have a family,” he jokes. His immersion, in fact, is so complete that it changes his physical experience:

When I’m working on a book, I’m in a very agitated mental state. My sleep is disrupted. I only dream about the project. My sex drive goes up. My need for exercise, and the catharsis I get from exercise, is greater. When I’m in the middle of a project, whether I’m doing Bikram yoga or hiking up the hill or working out at the gym, I carry a blank pad and a pen. I’ll take eight hundred little notes right in the middle of a posture. It drives my yoga instructor crazy.

Like many of history’s great minds, from Henri Poincaré to T. S. Eliot, Lewis is a believer in the power of unconscious processing and creative pause, or the “mental mastication” period of which Lewis Carroll wrote:

At any given time I usually have eight new ideas. … I need time between projects. It’s like a tank filling up. I can’t just go from one to the other.

Lewis ends on a note of advice to aspiring writers, adding to the collected wisdom of literary greats with his three guidelines:

  1. It’s always good to have a motive to get you in the chair. If your motive is money, find another one.
  2. I took my biggest risk when I walked away from a lucrative job at age twenty-seven to be a writer. I’m glad I was too young to realize what a dumb decision it seemed to be, because it was the right decision for me.
  3. A lot of my best decisions were made in a state of self-delusion. When you’re trying to create a career as a writer, a little delusional thinking goes a long way.

Why We Write remains a must-read of the most highly recommended kind, featuring contributions from such celebrated authors as Jennifer Egan, Ann Patchett, and Rick Moody.

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