[EDITOR’S NOTE: American Libraries conducted the following interview with writer Jonah Lehrer on July 29, one day before news broke that Lehrer was resigning from his position as staff writer at The New Yorker. It was discovered that he had fabricated quotes from singer-songwriter Bob Dylan and had included those quotes in his bestselling book Imagine. American Libraries sought follow-up comment from Lehrer, but his publicist declined the request.]
Jonah Lehrer is author of three books about the brain, including his most recent, Imagine, an exploration of the biochemical processes that constitute human creativity.
American Libraries: How did you get interested in writing about the brain and its thought processes?
JONAH LEHRER: I’ve been interested in those three pounds of meat for as long as I can remember. Originally, I wanted to be a neuroscientist, and I worked in a neuroscience lab for about five years, until I realized I wasn’t very good at it; I was a bad experimentalist. I was lucky enough to get a scholarship to study at Oxford, where I studied 20th-century literature and philosophy. Then I realized I missed science. That’s when I thought about becoming a science writer—I naturally gravitate toward subjects involving the mind or the brain. It’s always struck me as this big, fundamental mystery. Here’s this piece of meat inside our heads that’s responsible for all our love, all our desires, all our decisions, every new idea, and it just strikes me as a pretty grand question to figure out how it all works.
I’m assuming as a writer you have your own individual creative process. Did researching this book explain anything about it to you, like “Oh, that’s why I do that?”
Mostly the moments that I had were, “Oh, I’m doing it exactly it wrong.” My old approach when I was stuck, when I didn’t know how to begin a paragraph or end a story, I would literally just chug caffeine and stay up all night. Then of course you wake up in the morning and realize your fixes haven’t fixed anything, and now you’re just exhausted. Now, because of research involving where we have our moments of insight, and where we have our big breakthroughs, I’m much more willing when I’m stuck to take a break, go for a hike, lie on the couch and read a novel. That’s not guaranteed. Sometimes I’m just wasting time, and perhaps this is just an absolute rationalization for my laziness, because I do love reading novels on the couch, but I have found that sometimes that’s exactly what I need, that I will figure out how to end that story a mile into that hike. And that of course jives with the research on moments of insight and alpha waves and how sometimes when we’re daydreaming our best ideas come to us. So I’ve given myself permission to be even lazier.
The other way writing has changed my process is it’s made me more interested in making human connections. A lot of the research on creativity shows that many of our ideas don’t arrive when we’re alone, they arrive when we’re making small talk with strangers. And so I’m really making an effort. I’m a shy, introverted person—that’s probably why I became a writer—but I really do make an effort, when I’m on a plane, to make small talk with the person next to me. When I’m at a library, just striking up conversations while waiting in line to check out a book. Just trying to embrace those random connections because it’s those kinds of connections that often lead to our best ideas.
Do you have a collaborator? A trusted editor, another writer you show your work to?
I’m not one of those writers who keeps everything close to the chest. I send out just embarrassing drafts. I have very little dignity as a writer. I’m just constantly trying to get all my friends, writers and nonwriters, to read the drafts, to look over it. I know it’s asking a lot of people to make lots of notes, especially when the draft itself is still rough, so I ask them to make check marks wherever the book is getting boring—where it’s tedious, if they don’t understand something. Just a little check mark in the margins. And what you often find is there’s tremendous consensus on where those check marks go.
Did you have any periods of frustration or fallowness while you were writing Imagine?
Yeah. I’m not one of those people who loves sitting at my desk, so most of the time the entire process felt like a period of fallowness or frustration. In particular I remember working on the beginning of chapter three, which is basically the part of the book where I say—it’s the most obvious idea—creativity requires hard work; it requires us to focus. Sometimes we just have to chain ourselves to our desk, put our butt in the chair and grind it out. That’s not a surprising idea, and I couldn’t figure out how to do it. I couldn’t figure out how to structure it to make it a little bit surprising.
I spent weeks and weeks trying to figure out how to frame it, and of course the irony was I couldn’t get myself to work hard on the chapter about working hard. I kept on postponing it and dillydallying, trying to find some excuse to not focus on this because it seemed so daunting, and I finally came up with the thought of using W. H. Auden—one of my favorite poets—and really trying to investigate the drug habits of writers. Of course, they’re very, very dangerous, and Auden absolutely regretted taking amphetamines. Back then Benzedrine and the like were totally legal and frequently prescribed for things like asthma. Once I had that idea, I could imagine how the chapter might unfold.
What made Auden occur to you in the end?
It was just serendipity. I was reading Auden’s poetry. One of the things I do as a writer, when I’m stuck on words, I read poetry. Which sounds very pretentious and it probably is, but it also helps me get out of the clichés.
What are some of the ways librarians might use the concepts in your book to better serve their patrons?
One of the things that speaks directly to librarians is what a library does. Of course it’s about books. Of course it’s about giving people access to texts they may not be able to get on their own or afford on their own, and exposing people to the world of ideas. That’s essential. When I think of my own life, the number of ideas I’ve gotten from books … I think I’ve gotten all my ideas from books.
But in this world where we’re always staring at our phones, living in online bubbles, libraries are also places people from different walks of life can come together, especially in communities where that may not be easy. Libraries are one of the few places where people from all different classes, from all different backgrounds, where they mix and mingle. And I think that’s essential, to realize that part of the job of a library is not to be just a repository for dead trees, for books printed on paper; it’s also to give people a safe, comfortable space where they can share ideas.
I was recently at an academic library I sometimes visit, and without fail, I always end up having a conversation in line while waiting to check out a book, because somebody says, “Oh, that book looks interesting. What are you working on?”