Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Robin Williams, Jonah Lehrer, Neuroscience--and Creativity.

A few days ago, I read an interview in the LA Times with Jonah Lehrer, a bestselling author who writes about creativity.

Usually, I run like the devil from articles like that. I worry that if I actually analyze how the process works, the rarefied air will be let out of the bottle—and the magic (such as it is) will be gone. Not that I have any illusions that writing a book is magic. It is hard, hard work––but then, I do have to admit there are those moments of magic (creativity?) that come out of nowhere, which makes it all worthwhile.

I scanned down the article to read the bolded questions. You are an LAUSD kid, right?  Lehrer answered yes, which got my attention. In addition to writing, I teach drama in the Los Angeles Unified School District, the second largest public school district in the country. That meant that I could not pass up an article about someone who attended LAUSD from K-12. He not only lived to tell about it, he obviously thrived.

What Lehrer said about creativity in the interview is that there are simply two phases of the creative process and everyone requires both: focus and relaxation. You work and work and work – and you make progress – and then you hit the wall. That’s when you need to relax: do something else, take a walk, hit the showers.

Not an earth-shattering concept but here (perhaps) is the more unusual part of the interview.

Lehrer noted that when scientists put jazz pianists in a brain scanner and asked them to improvise (now, that’s got to be one BIG scanner), the musicians literally turn off a part of the brain that normally keeps people from saying and doing things—in essence, they create without worrying about what they’re creating.

I’m assuming that’s what’s also known as flow. Those moments when everything extraneous disappears and you’re in the moment. You don’t even realize you are in the moment—and then you look up—and hours have gone by.

How do you get to flow? Focus and relaxation, perhaps. The constant yin-yang of what Lehrer initially spoke of as the elements of the creative process loosens the binds of our internal censors. It’s not a conscious turning off of that part of the brain; after awhile, it’s automatic.

But you can’t get to that flow until you’ve spent time doing whatever it is you do, getting better and better. Writing, playing jazz, telling jokes. All of those need time, and effort, to develop craft. All those hours of rehearsal, or practicing jokes in front of a mirror, sitting at your computer writing and writing, even if it doesn’t initially seem that you are getting somewhere, will ultimately pay-off.

There is no better (or more fun) example than Robin Williams. It’s not only in his stand-up act, which one can assume he’s worked on, but in TV interviews that you literally see his brain firing on all pistons.  No censor. I love the bit about socks that comes up in this segment with Dave Letterman.

Clearly, one of the reasons he’s so successful are the years Robin spent practicing voices, becoming characters and then, as in the interview, focusing on Letterman. He finds the moment, and bam, he’s off, automatically turning off the part of the brain that censors people so he can get to those crazy, and hysterically funny places.

Hard to do… but so worth the effort. Focus and relaxation, focus and relaxation….no censor. Hmmmm, now that I’ve finally written this, maybe I can go relax….


Jordan Dane said...

Robin definitely channels his humor through voices. Great example. I love your post, Carol.

Anita Grace Howard said...

Great post, Carol! I'm the same way about "over-analyzing" the process, too. I always worry about ruining the inner workings. But glad you took the chance this time because it led to some great insights.

CS Perryess said...

Hey Carol,
I'm with you about not wanting to take apart the creative process too much, yet the analytic parts of me are fascinated with it all. Thanks for the great post & the food for thought.


Carol Tanzman said...

I think most creative people are wary of analyzing too, too much. And Charlie, congrats on your news (an award for your short story). You are a prime example of keep working at your craft so the "magic" can happen!