A must-read book for writers: IMAGINE by Jonah Lehrer

Now that I find myself between writing projects, I’m reading a ton of books that I’ve been hankering to dig into for months. And the most remarkable of my recent reads is a nonfiction book called IMAGINE:HOW CREATIVITY WORKS by Jonah Lehrer. I’ll just come right out and say it: this is one freaking great book! Every chapter I read, I wanted to shout out: “Yeah, this is exactly what works for me!” It’s as if Jonah Lehrer got inside my head and dissected everything I do.

Over the years, I’ve blogged (or spoken about) the importance of curiosity, about how my creative sparks often come from connecting two disparate pieces of information, and how I often get my “ah ha!” moments while driving long distances. Lehrer discusses each of these points and more, using real-life examples from people in business, science, music, and just about every occupation.

Take curiosity. It’s long been my belief that you need to have a variety of interests and a wide breadth of knowledge to be a writer. For that reason, I encourage young writers to read many different subjects, to indulge their curiosity, and to acquire random bits of information because you never know when it will lead to some new and original idea.

Many of my books, in fact, sprang from connecting various data points, or bits of information. My SF thriller GRAVITY came about because I had been reading about scientific experimentation in orbit, and learned that bacterial cultures behave differently without gravity, growing in three dimensional shapes rather than in flat sheets. I had also read an article, perhaps a year earlier, about newly discovered single-cell organisms called Archaeons, which are found in some of the most hostile environments on earth. That got me thinking: what if Archaeons were actually extraterrestrial organisms that survived entry into earth’s atmosphere aboard a meteor? What if we sent some Archaeons up to a space-based laboratory? What if those Archaeons, minus the effects of gravity, suddenly began to behave in new — and nasty ways? Because they are, in fact, hostile colonizers meant to wipe out any native planet life, to make way for future aliens?

That book would never have been born if I hadn’t connected two separate bits of information, 1: Archaeons and 2:microgravity research.

Likewise for my book LIFE SUPPORT. I’d long been interested in mad cow disease, and had wanted to use it in a medical thriller, but didn’t know how to turn it into a plot. Then I came across a bizarre little research paper about scientists who manipulated fruit fly genes so that the flies were born with multiple eyes or wings. That was just the weird piece of information I needed to come up with the premise for LIFE SUPPORT.

So writers: curiosity counts. So does acquiring random information. Harboring a wealth of data in your gray matter means you have more information to work with.

Lehrer also talks about the Eureka! moment, that wonderful flash of inspiration that can suddenly solve all your plot problems. And boy, do I have plot problems. It happens because I don’t plan my books out in advance, and I feel my way through a story … until I get stuck because I don’t know how to make the mystery fit together. With every book, I’ll suffer from “plot block” about 2/3 of the way through the first draft. It stops me from writing for days, even weeks, while I struggle to come up with the answers. From long years at this, i’ve discovered that I can often achieve that Eureka! moment by getting behind the wheel of a car and driving. Something about the act of driving seems to open up my mind to answers.

It turns out I’m not alone. Lehrer says what we need is to get our brains into alpha mode, to relax the tension and let our brains start to make random connections. He says that hot baths or going for a long drive are often mentioned as helpful for creative breakthroughs. He even pinpoints the specific anatomical spot in the brain that lights up on EEG when that Eureka! moment occurs.

And travel. Everyone who’s read my blog knows how much I crave the sights and sounds of new countries. You know I’ve been to Turkey and Libya and South Africa. What I may not have talked about is how vital I’ve felt travel is to a writer. What you pick up abroad isn’t just a new language or a new cuisine — you also pick up a new way of looking at the world, and it makes you question your own experiences. Travel refills your creative well, and I think it’s vital to staying fresh as a writer.

Lehrer, too, discusses the importance of travel to creativity, and uses as an example the creation of the Barbie doll, which came about only because the wife of a Mattel executive was traveling in Germany and completely misinterpreted the meaning of a voluptuous doll she spotted in the window of a bar.

Seriously, read this book. It needs to be on every writer’s shelf.

UPDATE: It turns out Jonah Lehrer fabricated more than a few things in his book.

4 replies
  1. BernardL
    BernardL says:

    Mr. Lehrer could not have asked for a better or more thorough review. One funny point I really agree with you on is how much more reading I do if I’m not writing. When I’m writing, my reading really drops. It seems when my fictional creation side is in overdrive, my fictional enjoyment side unplugs. 🙂

  2. Tess
    Tess says:

    Bernard, I find the same thing. Once I finish writing a book, I start to attack the pile of books I’ve been hoarding, roaring through them one after the other.

  3. Gabriele
    Gabriele says:

    Yes, traveling is good for inspiration. Fortunately, I live in a country rich in history and bordering other countries rich in history, so there’s no shortage of plotbunnies. And they breed and bring their friends; and some ODD friends they have. 😉 In fact, I get more of the little critters than I can deal with – I’m not a fast writer.

  4. fming
    fming says:

    Greetings – some of our Directors in the Division of Student Affairs here at the University of Maryland College Park (where I work) will be reading this book. Maybe they will be inspired! Thanks for your review. (BTW I am encouraged that you “left a successful practice as an internist to raise her children and concentrate on her writing.”. I pray it has been fun and rewarding and I am certain your children will call you “blessed” when they are adults!)

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