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Grit, Meet Passion – Thoughts on “Imagine” by Jonah Lehrer

Posted on Apr 16, 2012 in Blog, Literature, Reviews, Writing | 0 comments

The best part about reading a book when it comes out is that you can close the book, leave the bar, turn on the car radio and interrupt the author speaking on NPR.

I’m a slow reader and have a pile of to be reads sitting next to my desk.  I’m also a writer, and have an unfinished sequel staring at me with a mendicant blinking cursor.
Imagine by Jonah Lehrer - book cover
But when I saw that Jonah Lehrer had a new book about the neuroscience of creativity, I had to read to it right away. In many ways, I think of Lehrer as the kind of neuroscientist I would have been had I stayed with it.  I got my undergraduate degree in Neuro with every expectation I would pursue a career in research and media, particularly among the so-called “higher” processes of the human mind: ecstasy, creativity, love, etc.

But I became too disillusioned too quickly to stick with it. I was quickly convinced that a career in neuroscience meant a lifetime of vivisecting guinea pigs rather than watching my generation’s Picasso’s and Curie’s at work.

It is ennobling that Lehrer is doing the work that I caved on.  He is a scientist who understands the studies he’s quoting, and a writer who cares about his readers’ understanding and entertainment.  In a world oversaturated with weak science reported to small-minded journalists who digest and sound-byte theories and results into rules and genetic predeterminism, it’s beautiful to read a book that gives credence to possibilities over essentialism.

That I chose to become the artist I always expected to study is very much a dream come true.  I never expected I’d have the nerve to make the art. I always expected I would be the servant of the artist, the steward, the translator, the midwife.  Why I chose to, after years of convincing myself otherwise, is something Lehrer actually speaks to in his book.  It is within the mulling that insight is gestated. At 30 I released my first novel, a book I had started writing when I was 27.  Many of my peers, woo-woo and non-woo-woo alike refer to this time of life as the “Saturn Return,” an astrological signifier of a return to one’s purpose- an inward seeking of meaning and calling.  For many, this time is supposedly one of great tumult, when the edifices a person has built between teens and adulthood are questioned, dismantled, and revised. For lucky others, it is a time of sowing seeds, endeavoring new projects, taking leaps whether prepared or not.

I suppose I was lucky to fall into the second category.  At the far end of experiencing my lively and tumultuous 20s in Los Angeles, I found the great love of my life, began writing a book, and abandoned my identity as Steward to the Artist.

My 20s, particularly the middle ones, were a series of non-starters and I found myself seeking, almost desperately, for insight.  I became interested in what I called Secular Ecstasy, again seeking to study the phenomenon of non-religious altered states. To the best of my knowledge, I’m the only person referring to it in such terms, and I do still hope to someday write that book (though I’ll give it to Lehrer if he wants it).   Things like group ritual, dance, hallucinogenic drugs, group sex, events like Burning Man and sweat lodges- I was fascinated and sought out experiences that broke one’s mind out of the mundane.  It’s not hard to see why I would seek these experiences out.  It was a time of great frustration. Although I’ve always been one of the more even-keeled people I know, I was suffering under the great and privileged weight of Too Many Choices. I knew I didn’t want to stay where I was, but contemplating where to go was petrifying.

Thanks in large part to the encouragement of my partner, my parents, and the high opinion and humbling praise of many of my peers and coworkers, I decided to take a leap and write a book.

This is where the stroke of insight Lehrer speaks of rings most true. I have been an “Attempted Writer” for most of my life.  I have notebooks filled with pithy dialogue exchanges, painstakingly painted settings, notions of plot and character.  But never, ever, did I finish anything that wasn’t required for a class.  Not once.  Not even things I thought were fun or worthwhile.  Every story started out the same: doomed to fade and die before completion.

Then one evening whilst the Lesbian Lover was making dinner, I told him of my belief that female werewolves make far more sense than males for a bevy of reasons.  He said, “that sounds like a book” and for some reason, after 27 years of writing single-page starts that amounted to nothing, I wrote and published that novel.

Now, there’s a subtle step between the “aha” and the product (so named a “novel” in my case, but just as easily “painting” “film” or “graphic novel”). That, of course, is the work.  It’s the part that critics dismiss, particularly when referring to pop-culture superstars like Lady Gaga or Kanye.  We focus on the vacuous lyrics and ignore the grueling hard work that goes on behind the scenes.  We see handlers and cash and forget there are non-stop global tours, contracts, and blown vocal chords in the mix. What takes “Aha” to “Product” is the aptly named “Grit.”  This is the key that all artists seem to know inherently and our audiences either never notice or take for granted. Lehrer is right to give it so much credence.  It’s what makes us roll our eyes when we hear of “overnight sensations.”  As Lily Tomlin said of actress and crush-of-my-life Jane Lynch, “It is always a pleasure to see someone become an overnight sensation after 20 years in the business.”
As with so many things, the person who achieves is the one who doubles-down when things get hard.

I’ve often cursed the voices of the Universe in that “It’s just the Universe telling you. . .” kind of way.  Because, how should I know if, when I reach a road block, it’s “the universe telling me” to quit and course-correct or it’s telling me to redouble my efforts and fight through it to my victory?

I’ve raised this question among entrepreneurs and artists enough to know that it’s a common quandary.  Hold or cut bowstrings? Fish or cut bait?

I’ve had this question arrive in many cases, but only when I’m looking for an excuse to change my vector.  I’ve never truly questioned my partnership or my authorship.  To me, it’s a question that never computes.  I fight through the hardships with my partner because I want to wake up next to him for as many mornings as I can muster for as long as possible.  I never question my choice to write books because writing books is the only place I feel 100% myself every damn moment.
Which takes us to another ineffable step of the creative process: the Inner-Rightness.  (Lehrer calls this the “feeling of knowing.”) There is, in every creative’s life (including the creation of partnerships, children, a life heretofore unlived) a moment, a phase, a really shitty year, when we question our choice.  At those points, we have to be able to trust our bodies and minds to tell us what it needs.  I’m drunk at 3am suffering over a plot hole. Do I muscle through? Do I call it a night?
I’m crying holding wedding invitations I’ve yet to drop in the mail. Do I call it off? Do I take a deep breath and take the plunge?
I’m looking at a job offer from Singapore. What the hell do I say?

It’s these intensely personal moments, the answer lying so deep within our subconscious as to appear utterly invisible, when our body/mind tell us what it wants. The hardest part is closing the laptop, flipping off the light, putting down the cell phone, and listening. But there, of course, is where what we call magic happens.

As if it were unclear from this post, I suggest anyone interested in creativity pick up Imagine by Jonah Lehrer.  It’s an easy and inspiring read, more Malcolm Gladwell than James Austin.

It also seems appropriate that I would use this post announce my next endeavor, that I have been keeping an open secret.  I’ve been working on a book called Practical Creativity which shares many of the same philosophies as Imagine, though it focuses more on practical tools a person can implement to aid one’s creative process. At the core of both Imagine and Practical Creativity is the belief that creativity is not external, not deigned by god or endowed by the muse.  It is an process intrinsic to one’s humanity.  By having a functional (or even semi-functional) brain, you have the ability to create art.

I expect to have Practical Creativity available by my 31st birthday- October 3rd of this year, if not much sooner.  And I hope it will help people choose into their own artistry rather than continuing to live lives on the side lines.


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