Posted by amybou on:
Jonah Lehrer, best-selling author of Imagine: How Creativity Works, delighted a sold-out Campbell Hall on Thursday, May 17 with his stimulating talk on the creative process. Before his engagement at UCSB’s Arts & Lectures, we had the chance to interview Lehrer about his writing process at UCSB’s CLAS Writing Lab. The interview will be broadcast on Paul Rivas’s Real Gauchos on Thursday, May 24 at 7:00am on KCSB 91.9 FM. Lehrer's Arts & Lectures talk will be aired on KCSB in the coming weeks.
It’s Okay to Fail
Lehrer spoke to an audience of writing tutors and staff about his evolution from a self-described "pretentious," black turtleneck-wearing undergraduate at Columbia University to a New York Times-best-selling author. Ultimately, Lehrer said that it was his “failure” to become a scientist that led him to become a writer. He explained that even as an undergraduate majoring in neuroscience, the process of writing about science was his way to fully understand the material. In Lehrer’s mind, writing and science are “not just in the same hallway, but in the same room.” This was particularly inspiring to hear at our department, Campus Learning Assistance Services, which offers tutoring in both writing and the sciences (as well as other in fields).
Refine Your Work
“Writing is just editing,” Lehrer said during his candid discussion of the writing process. “Draft 70 is when it starts to click into place.” Self-editing is a vital part of Lehrer’s process; he finds that printing out early drafts and crossing out lines by hand, rather than simply editing on the computer screen, is much more effective. We couldn’t agree more.
Share Your Work
“I’m not shy about sending out early drafts,” Lehrer said, then explained how he relies on a handful of early readers to give him feedback about his work-in-progress. Lehrer asks his readers to make a checkmark next to paragraphs where their attention starts to drag. He finds that there’s often remarkable consensus among his readers regarding where the work feels “boring.”
Kill Your Darlings
Lehrer also praised his editor at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Amanda Cook, who “dramatically improved” Imagine with her red pen, as he wrote in the acknowledgements. He estimated that his editor cut his first book (Proust was a Neuroscientist) by fifty percent, his second book (How We Decide) by thirty percent, and Imagine by twenty-five percent. He said there’s truth to the Truman Capote quote about the importance of “killing your darlings”--those flourishes that ultimately don't belong in the work.
Talk About Your Work (And Hang Out With Weirdos)
Lehrer finds that talking about his work-in-progress is just as important as sharing early drafts with readers. “The written word aspires to the spoken word,” as he described it. He said that discussing his work is a valuable way to gauge the interest of his listeners as he’s developing and refining his material. In Imagine, Lehrer makes a connection between success and the diversity of one’s social network. During his talk at the Writing Lab, he stressed the importance of talking about his work with strangers. (He also advised us to “hang out with a bunch of weirdos.”)
Toward the end of his talk, Lehrer shared his struggles to break into journalism. He said that he spent the first few years after college writing for free for various websites, supported by his then-girlfriend and now-wife. The check bounced on his first paid assignment at a small magazine that later folded. Eventually he learned that his 2,000 word pitches to magazine editors were way too long; after countless rejections (or simply “silence”) he began to distill his pitches into 250 words. He urged the aspiring writers in the audience to keep their pitches short and to communicate to the editor what makes them qualified to write the piece.
Choose Easy, Work Hard
In his lecture at Campbell Hall, Lehrer argued that in order to succeed, you need to choose the right dream, work hard, and have grit: the ability to persevere and stick with something. Apparently, single-mindedness about achieving a goal coupled with choosing the right goal predict the ability to succeed in any given field. If we choose the right goal, according to Lehrer, our frustrations won’t feel permanent. We’re thankful that Lehrer took his own advice—to “choose easy, and work hard”—as his decision to become a writer has enriched our university and our community.
As a side note, Jonah Lehrer is an incredibly nice, gracious, charming, funny, and self-deprecating individual. He even appreciated the Madeleines (a nod to Proust was a Neuroscientist) and complimented the Writing Lab's "Gallery of Revision," which features author photos and quotes and manuscript pages from early drafts of work by Joan Didion, Ralph Ellison, Virginia Woolf, and others. He particularly liked the quotation by Nabokov: "I have rewritten—often several times—every word I have ever published. My pencils outlast their erasers."
We hope that Jonah stops by the Writing Lab to talk about his next book, which is apparently on the topic of love.
Now if you haven’t already done so: get your hands on a copy of Imagine: How Creativity Works at once!