How did I become so darn creative?

The blog The Passive Voice points me to some guy I’ve never heard of who offers six ways to boost your creativity:

  1. Wake up early
  2. Exercise frequently
  3. Stick to a strict schedule
  4. Keep your day job
  5. Learn to work anywhere, anytime
  6. Realize that “creative blocks” are just procrastination

Well, you know, I do all that stuff, and everything the guy says makes perfect sense.  Like his comment on #3:

It’s a common misconception that in order to be creative, one must live life on a whim with no structure and no sense of need to do anything, but the habits of highly successful and creative people suggest otherwise. In fact, most creative minds schedule their days rigorously. Psychologist William James described the impact of a schedule on creativity, saying that only by having a schedule can we “free our minds to advance to really interesting fields of action.”

So read the post and do everything this guy says.

Where do you get all your bad ideas?

While I was in Albuquerque I had the chance to chat with Rex Jung, a neuroscientist at the University of New Mexico.  One of his research interests is creativity. So, OK, the conversation got a bit off-track, and we ended up talking about foot fetishes.  He brought it up!  Anyway, Rex pointed me to this entertaining blog post about V. S. Ramachandran, the prolific Indian neuroscientist (he came up with the idea of the mirror box for treating phantom limb pain, which was the basis of a particularly bizarre episode of “House”.) Ramachandran had an idea about foot fetishes, based on the work of Penfield and Jasper, who did the amazing “awake craniotomies” that allowed them to map the regions of the brain associated with different kinds of functioning. Jung explains:

Penfield and Jasper wrote a book in 1954 entitled Epilepsy and the Functional Anatomy of the Human Brain in which they describe surgeries performed on some 750 patients undergoing awake craniotomy. Both males and females were studied, although only about 10 percent were female. With respect to the genitals, Penfield and Jasper state (page 69), “The representation of genitalia is only sensory and not motor.” Second, and importantly, they state, “Its relationship to foot is not altogether clear,” although they place the genitalia next to the foot on the sensory map (see above). Well there’s the rub …

Their sensory map looks like this:

On the basis of this evidence, Ramachandran came up with theidea that maybe the proximity of the genital processing right next to the foot and toe processing, plus a little miswiring, would lead to foot fetishes.  Well, OK….

Turns out that Penfield and Jasper’s data wasn’t all that strong about the position of the genital processing, and in reality it’s probably right where it belongs, under the trunk.  So?

So, what does it all mean for 1) genitals, 2) the brain, 3) Penfield, and 4) Ramachandran? With respect to the genitals, they look to be where they are supposed to be in the brain, and the cartoon of the little man should likely be updated so that he is not tripping over his junk. Second, the brain appears to be organized in a somatotopical manner (that means it roughly maps to the body in terms of location and importance of function). Third, Penfield and Jasper (among others) were studying people with epilepsy, tumors, and any number of other brain disorders, and some miswiring might be garbling the data, along with the highly possible reticence on the part of either the good doctors or patients to map or report stimulation regarding the genitalia as compared to ANY other sensory or motor function. And finally, Ramachandran remains a genius. He was likely wrong on this front, but he has brilliantly demonstrated a key feature of highly creative individuals: they put out a lot of ideas. Not all of them are right, but some might lead to a “novel and useful” treatment for phantom limb or a theory of synesthesia (the latter of which is well supported by “miswiring” data). Keep it sexy, Dr. R. …

This seems right to me.  To be creative, you need lots of ideas, but not all of them are going to be good ones.  The trick is to figure out which ones are worth spending your time and energy on.  I have pages and pages of notes about the novel I’m currently working on, and it is entertaining and rather distressing to read through these notes and look at all the bad ideas I’ve come up with.  How do I know if the good ones are ending up in the actual novel?  I’m relying on my friends to tell me.  If I get it wrong, it’s all their fault.

Just a quick visit to a parallel universe — what could possibly go wrong?

Creativity is an odd thing.  Best not to think to deeply about it.

My e-book folks are working on the cover for Portal, and they asked me to come up with a tag line for it.  A tag line summarizes a book in about twenty words or less, in a way that will make the casual reader want to buy the thing.  Tag lines are hard.  I don’t do tag lines.  My brain was an utter blank for a week, so I started writing an email to them saying we’ll have to do without one.

And then creativity happened.

Self-plagiarism is one thing; making stuff up is something else entirely

The last time we encountered Jonah Lehrer, he had been caught committing the odd crime of self-plagiarism.  Things have now taken a turn for the worse. In fact, his meteoric career has crashed and burned, as meteors tend to do, with the revelation that he fabricated Bob Dylan quotes in his book Imagine: How Creativity Works.  This time he ran afoul of the relentless reporting of a journalist and Dylan freak named Michael Moynihan, writing for Tablet magazine.  (Tablet‘s website has apparently also crashed and burned, and I can’t link to the article.)  Here is a report that quotes Moynihan:

I’m something of the Dylan obsessive — piles of live bootlegs, outtakes, books — and I read the first chapter of Imagine with keen interest. But when I looked for sources to a handful of Dylan quotations offered by Lehrer — the chapter is sparsely and erratically footnoted — I came up empty, and in one case found two fragments of quotes, from different years and on different topics, welded together to create something that happily complimented Lehrer’s argument. Other quotes I couldn’t locate at all.

He finally got Lehrer to confess.  The result: his book has been recalled, and he has had to resign from the New Yorker.

I imagine that Lehrer thought he could get away with his fabrications because book publishers don’t do the kind of obsessive fact-checking that the New Yorker is famous for.  But it’s a terrible risk to take, especially when you’re fabricating Bob Dylan quotes for a public with any number of Dylan obsessives in it.  As with the self-plagiarism, it seems to be a case of cutting corners.  At least he came up with what sounds like a sincere apology:

The lies are over now. I understand the gravity of my position. I want to apologize to everyone I have let down, especially my editors and readers. I also owe a sincere apology to Mr. Moynihan. I will do my best to correct the record and ensure that my misquotations and mistakes are fixed.

That’s pretty classy in a world of mealy-mouthed passive-voice pseudo-apologies. The classic in this genre is Newt Gingrich blaming his love of country for his adulteries:

“There’s no question at times of my life, partially driven by how passionately I felt about this country, that I worked far too hard and things happened in my life that were not appropriate.”

Things happened–lovely.  Anyway, this blog is primarily about fiction, and in fiction you don’t have to apologize for making stuff up.  On the other hand, you do have to apologize for stealing stuff.  Don’t steal stuff. It’s not worth the risk of getting caught, and the more successful you are, the more likely you are to get caught.  Here is the sad story of an overachieving Harvard student who plagiarized passages in a big-time young-adult chick-lit novel she wrote.  Wikipedia tells you much more than you want to know, comparing passages from her novel with similar passages from half a dozen others.  The really sad part of the story is that a few years after the plagiarism controversy her parents died in a plane crash.

I hope she gets over it.  I hope Lehrer gets over it, although I doubt he will.  From the New Yorker blog posts I read, I’d say the guy knows how to write.  He just lost sight of the rules.