Why Is That Man Running Through The Street Naked?

“Loafing is the most productive part of a writer’s life”  – James Norman Hall

I stayed up too late last night playing video games. I don’t do this very often anymore, as most of my time that isn’t spent at work or with my wife is spent working on THE NOVEL(s). But waiting for “the next save point” may actually help my creative process, at least according to Jonah Lehrer.

Lehrer’s latest book, Imagine: How Creativity Works  explores the different ways in which innovative thoughts originate, and the ways some companies are trying to adapt to the ways people really create.

Creative thinking seems to come out of two kinds of activity, rest versus rigor. There are times when we are beating our heads against a problem and are unable to come up with a solution until we take a moment to relax (say like Euclid in the bathtub). Other times our best and most refined work comes out of the discipline of doing a thing every day.

For me, blogging has been a good example of this second kind of creativity. I try to post four times a week at the same time each day. Some days, like today, I really don’t know what I’m going to write about until an hour or so before (sometimes only minutes). The discipline of writing every day gets me in the habit of creating something every day, and in turn seems to make coming up with ideas easier.

For a while.

I definitely fall more into the rigor camp of creativity. I don’t like to “wait around for my muse to speak to me”, and I think most productive writers adopt similar habits. But rest can be just as important for coming up with the big ideas. Lehrer’s Fresh Air interview sites numerous examples of creative people “burning out” for a while, then suddenly having the insight that made them famous. Thus, I’m not just playing Anachronox, I’m giving my brain the space to come up with new ideas.


But the thing I agree with Lehrer on the most is the importance of letting yourself go. Whether it’s the “punch the keys, damnit!” line from Finding Forrester, or thinking about how a child would solve a problem, or simply getting a little drunk or tired, removing your inner censor can often help you to make connections you wouldn’t otherwise make. Some of my best (and my worst) writing has been done when I’m tired. Even the good stuff is in serious need of revising of course, but I might not have come up with the idea at all if I hadn’t allowed myself to be in a little more flexible state of mind.

How about you? When do you get your best ideas (in the shower? on your commute? etc.). Do you find yourself more inclined to rest or to rigor?

(A bit of an aside: Though it’s a rough read, the Calliope story from Sandman’s: Dream Country explores some interesting ideas about sources for inspiration, and what can happen to a person if they get too many ideas at the same time.)


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4 responses to “Why Is That Man Running Through The Street Naked?

  1. I get my best ideas when I’m hitting my head against a wall. I got a concussion the last time my muse struck. I sometimes wonder what the greatest idea I will ever come up with will be. I’ve never figured it out, but then again I’ve never quite put my head into it. I’m sure that no matter what it is will be to die for!

    • Doesn’t quite sound like a sustainable way to come up with ideas, unless you wear a helmet. I think we never have an idea what our best idea is until much later. My basic answer to the best idea is what I’m working on now. My goal is continuous improvement, knowing full well that external judges will like some things better than others. Whatever it is just don’t beat your head in thinking of it! Thanks Jodasa (John)!

  2. Lura Slowinski

    I do my best work when I have a mix of rest and rigor. Unfortunately, I haven’t been so good lately at giving myself time to just chill and let my mind wander, which is where most of my good ideas come about. I’ve been rigorously writing a novel in the wrong direction as a result. I need to get better about striking that balance.

    • I’m stuck a little in the wander stage at the moment, because of a ridiculously good game I’m playing. And as for writing in the “wrong” direction, that’s one of the things I find fun about revision. My current rough draft is at least 40% bigger than it needs to be, but that just means I have a lot of material to choose from. Sometimes you have to write the wrong thing before you can write the right thing. Sounds kinda trite but I’ve found it to be very true. Good luck!

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