Art IS Work

You may have seen the excerpt from Jonah Lehrer’s new book, Imagine, in the Wall Street Journal. Imagine has also been featured on NPR, in Salon, and elsewhere. It’s an exciting book because it not only celebrates creativity, it provides a path to foster creativity.

Lehrer identifies several types of creativity or “genius.”

There is the epiphany, that sudden lightning strike where an answer presents itself in the most unlikeliest of places or times, usually when we’ve given up or taken a break from working on a problem. This type of creativity depends on first hard work, followed by hitting a mental brick wall, followed by removing ourselves from the problem.



We’ve all been there, done that–especially hitting the wall, or as we writers like to call it, “writers’ block.”



But the trick comes after you remove yourself. You can’t just give up, instead you give in. To a need to relax, to laugh, or even to drink.


Lehrer reports that “exposing subjects to a short humorous video…boosts the success rate by  about 20%. Alcohol also works…Drunk students solved nearly 30% more word problems than their sober peers.”


No wonder writers are often portrayed as decadent, drunk, dreamers…but that’s only a small part of creativity. Those lightning strikes of epiphany can reveal a solution but not only do you need to put in the work BEFORE they’ll happen (that’s the boring, banging your head against your desk part of creativity that no one enjoys and no audience wants to hear about) but you also need to take that epiphany and return to work armed with the new insight from your epiphany.


As Lehrer says: “Sometimes, we just need to keep on working, resisting the temptation of a beer-fueled nap. There is nothing fun about this kind of creativity, which consists mostly of sweat and failure.”


He quotes Nietzsche, “All great artists and thinkers are great workers” and Milton Glaser who engraved the slogan “Art is Work” above his office door.


Lehrer mentions a third key ingredient in his recipe for creativity. In addition to hard work, sparks of insight, you also need a wide range of diverse experience and/or knowledge.


To me, this last, is the most important. It’s the catalyst that allows you to take a story from familiar and satisfying to remarkable and compelling. It’s the spark that makes a reader lean forward and turn the pages faster while also allowing the writer to have so much fun that they forget the pain and hard work that comes with embarking on a new story (remember all that sweat and banging your head against the desk time that’s a compulsory part of creativity?) and allows us to keep writing.


As Lehrer says, “Because they (creatives) don’t know where the answer will come from, they are willing to look for the answer everywhere.”


This is why I spent yesterday reworking an opening, sweating over word choices, researching the cries a leopard in captivity makes (yes, this is a mainstream FBI thriller set in North Carolina), watching videos on counter-moves against choke holds, imagining what kind of lonely life an undercover FBI agent would lead in a small town where he’s pretending to be a bad guy, stripping wall paper, playing Sudoko, pounding out a few more words, scribbling notes, free-associating plot ideas, and finally relaxing in a hot bath before coming up with the idea that changed everything and going back to work until 1am.


Art is work. And sweat. And laughs. And all sorts of amazingly different things you connect and weave together to form a tapestry that is greater than the parts its made of.


If we do our job right, the reader sees none of that. But they’ll never forget the worlds we take them to or the people we introduce them to and they’ll be eager to come back for more.


Excuse me, I think it’s time for another soak in the tub….


Happy writing!

Ready to share your stories with the world as a ProWriter? Check out the new courses on Breaking into Publishing and Secrets of Indy Publishing created by myself and Joanna Penn. Click HERE for more info.

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