While I was on vacation and mostly disconnected from electronic gadgets, we took occasional trips into the nearest city. We shopped for food and distractions for the little ones and I was rewarded with brief, sanity-restoring access to 3G. On one of those trips, as I gorged on up-to-the-minute news items, I saw an article about Jonah Lehrer.
You may recall that I had recently finished reading his latest book, the one on creativity, and had posted about it. Twice. I had even created a printable in my enthusiasm for the concepts discussed in his book.
So his name caught my eye and I couldn't wait to read the article.
Except it was about how he'd resigned from his position as a staff writer at The New Yorker after admitting to making up quotes in his book, the one I couldn't put down.
When I returned to the land of continuous internet, I looked it all up, every reference to the story, to try to understand what happened. I read a number of withering reviews in which inconsistencies and inaccuracies were raised, which were published before it even became known that parts were made up.
I was all kinds of bummed. At first, I was embarrassed that I'd swallowed it all, hook, line and sinker. That I'd been so easily duped. Ah, hello, critical thinking skills? Clearly they'd abandoned me.
Later though, when I was still disproportionately bummed, I realized that something else entirely was bothering me. I realized that I had wanted very badly for Lehrer's account to be true. I wanted that world of easy creativity, all neatly divided up into its essential parts, effortlessly adopted and practiced by all, to be true. I wanted it to be that easy. And it isn't.
I mentioned in my previous posts that I'd been looking into the research on creativity. Before I left for vacation, I'd been pulling up the research papers quoted in the book. I managed to borrow a copy of a thick book called The Cambridge Handbook of Creativity, a collection of papers written by creativity researchers. I'd also been doing my own searches of the psychology databases.
I had been reading papers and taking notes and noticing, little by little, that they weren't as exciting as the colourful anecdotes from Lehrer's book, but they were research after all; they weren't supposed to be exciting. And they weren't as definitive either, but maybe, after I read them all, I'd have a better understanding of creativity and it would all come together and a neat and cohesive manner.
Which it won't, of course. And that is the lesson here, right? Or one of the lessons, at least. Creativity is messy. Like just about everything else that is worth doing and studying in life. There might be studies confirming a theory about our capacity for novel and valuable ideas, but also just as many studies debunking that theory.
And that is okay. It has to be because we have no other choice in the matter.
Still, after I returned from my vacation, I stopped reading about creativity for a while. I started following the discussion about Lehrer, which led me to other discussions about who should be writing about science, how they should write about science, how to evaluate scientific papers and science writing, etc.
If you know me well, you'll guess this part. I lost confidence. I worried that I wasn't in a position to contribute my thoughts about creativity in a meaningful way and that I might never be.
I'm starting to get over it now. It's not completely sorted out, but I've started reading again.
One day, I'd like to be able to talk about creativity, not only from my own experience, but also with the knowledge gained from reading widely about the work in the field. I'm curious about us and our ability to think new thoughts and create valuable new things. But I don't ever want to fall prey to the notion that I've figured it all out. Because I never will.
And that is okay.