Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Life lessons, messiness, and cautionary tales

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 itTwice.  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.


  1. Wow, I also read his work and was infatuated with how simple it sounded and how I too could be creative.

    Why do people do things like that?

    On another note, I think you are HIGHLY qualified to write about creativity. Your journal pages are all the credibility you need!


    1. Hi Beth! Thanks so much for stopping by and thanks for your kind words. For the record, I still believe that creativity resides in all of us. :)

  2. I haven't read the book or anything else for that matter that discusses creativity. It seems to me that creativity is not to be studied like science. It just is. To me, dissecting it is to ruin it. I don't disagree that there are things that stimulate our creativity; things that inspire us. I'd be interested in reading what rings your creativity bell, but that won't necessarily work for me. So, Lehrer made up anecdotes about being creative; that was creative wasn't it?

    1. Hi LSB2832! Thanks so much for your comment. I tend to think that creativity begets creativity. The more we think about it, talk about it, look for it, and practice it, the more creative we become. I still have a lot of reading to do, but most of what I’ve read so far, including the research, enhances my view of creativity rather than diminishing it. Like you, I’m interested in what rings the creativity bells of others, but I’d like to read from other perspectives as well, including the research.

      In terms of whether creativity “just is”, I wonder if that’s the whole story or whether creativity is more like a muscle that needs to be flexed in order to grow in strength and improve in quality. My sense is that we need to flex our creativity muscle often and, in addition to engaging in creative pursuits, learning about all aspects of creativity is a good way to do that.

      In terms of the made up quotes in the book, Lehrer’s book was marketed as non-fiction, not a work of creative fiction. Readers were led to believe that the words between the quotes were those of the people Lehrer interviewed or studied, not Lehrer himself. I can’t imagine that those who were interviewed or researched for the book are happy about being represented by words and quotes they haven’t used or spoken.

  3. Wow, what a disappointment! But also a great place to reassess what you know and love and question about creativity. I have read a lot about creativity in respect to its relationship to mental illness. A lot of mentally ill persons were or are highly creative. I love to learn about creativity, too, and I agree that creativity begets creativity. The more we create and bring ideas to fruition, the more room there is for new inspiration and process. Don't get too discouraged. I also agree that you have every bit as much right to contribute to what is to be said about creativity.

  4. Christie, just because this author "let you down" does not mean that your feelings and your work are negated or minimized!! You were sparked by something he wrote, and your creativity flourished.

    Your Idea Repository is brilliant! Whether or not it was an idea from Lehrer or someone else, your interpretation of it... totally top notch.

    Like you, my left brain sometimes wants substantiation for my right brain's creative impulses... This is not a setback for you. You will continue to delve into creativity theory, all the while practicing creativity! Bravo for you! And yay for all of us who get to witness, admire and envy your work.

    beth in Seattle

  5. Hi Christie, I have only just found your blog through Pinterest. Your journal pages are great and I plan to print some off for my daughters to complete as they both enjoy writing and language but are put off keeping a diary by the thought of filling a page every day. This way they could do a page when they feel like it and also the "fill in the blanks" style is less daunting than filling a whole page with writing.

    Take care.

  6. hi, i'm bev and i'm from alberta. i have been a long time reader of your blog but today i'll become a commenter and follower. i felt the same sense of let down when the author of "three cups of tea" was proven to be a fraud. i had believed his tale and admired his noble deeds. when they all proved false i felt such sadness and embarrassment. the salesman was an author but i still bought the "snake oil"

    i find that my creativity is directly linked to my confidence. this is odd and kind of pitiful but sometimes i feel i don't have the right to be creative. i instead think that creativity belongs to the artists and the experts, not to a middle aged farm wife but if my confidence in an area grows i then find my creative ideas growing along with it. maybe creativity belongs to the bold and the brave.
    ps i blog at


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