Creative Nonfiction

November 2013

A New Orleans Hospital Becomes Hell: Sheri Fink’s Five Days at Memorial

By |11.04.13|


How do we cope with a disaster on the scale of Hurricane Katrina? Do we learn the necessary lessons and adjust accordingly, or do we simply slip back into a state of denial? How prepared […]

March 2012

Jonah Lehrer on How Creativity Works : 5 Insights from Julia Child, Dylan, & Picasso

By |03.23.12|


In 1965 singer Bob Dylan was burned out after a grueling tour; he was sick of reporters’ questions and tired of performing the same old songs. Dylan told his manager that he was quitting music for good and proceeded to disappear. He squirreled himself away in a cabin in Woodstock. Dylan’s plan was to write fiction and paint, so he didn’t even bother to bring along his guitar. But after a short period of rest, words began pouring out of the songwriter. By some accounts Dylan wrote 10 pages of stream-of-conscious verse in a short burst of activity; in other accounts, Dylan says it was 20 pages. Regardless of the length, in only a few months the singer was in the recording studio again recording one of his most memorable and influential songs, “Like a Rolling Stone.” Dylan called the creation of the song a “breakthrough,” later explaining that it changed his perception of where he was going in his career.

Why do creative epiphanies like the one Bob Dylan experienced happen? Is there a scientific reason that breakthroughs occur at certain times in our lives and not at others? Are there specific things we can do to encourage innovation in our personal lives and in the workplace?

Writer Jonah Lehrer delves into questions like these in his new book Imagine: How Creativity Works. Lehrer, whose previous books include Proust Was a Neuroscientist and How We Decide, specializes in the relationship between science and the humanities. Lehner’s work could be described as Gladwell-esque. His books and articles for publications like Wired and The New Yorker are aimed at a general audience and attempt to synthesize research from the fields of neuroscience and psychology with interviews and biographical accounts of artists, creative thinkers, etc.

Lehrer’s recent interview on NPR’s Fresh Air is a useful introduction to many of the ideas discussed in Imagine. While most of these findings won’t be new to those of you who have read other popular books on the subject of psychology and creative thinking, Lehrer does a skillful job weaving together disparate sources. This book will surely be a hit with the TED crowd and with entrepreneurs, managers, and creative professionals who are trying to foster innovation in the workplace.

But after listening to Lehrer’s NPR interview this morning, I’ve been thinking more about how Lehrer’s ideas apply to artists of all disciplines, as well as to the employees of organizations. Here are some key insights that I find most compelling…

The deepest, creative insights usually occur when we relax and let go.
The worst thing we can do as artists is to try too hard. We try too hard in all sorts of ridiculous ways–we set unrealistic goals and deadlines, we set out to make the ultimate “masterpiece,” we compare ourselves to others, and we chastise ourselves when we fail to live up to these lofty standards. In order to make our best work, we have to leave all of this mental baggage at the door and approach the work empty-handed without expectations.

Lehrer cites Bob Dylan and the story of how he came to write “Like a Rolling Stone” as a prime example of an artist who experienced a major breakthrough as a result of letting go.

When we’re stressed, under deadline pressure, and trying desperately to produce our best work, we are likely to fail unless we step back, force ourselves to unplug, and take a break. As Lehrer points out, we’ll actually be more innovative and efficient if we stop obsessing and instead go for a walk, take a shower or nap, tinker with a favorite hobby, or meditate. Scientists have determined that people in a relaxed state and a good mood are far more likely to develop innovative or creative thoughts.

Lehrer gives some striking illustrations of this symbiotic relationship between creativity and relaxation. Researchers have found that people are more creative and productive when they work in a room that is painted blue, to give one example. Why? Because blue is associated the ocean and the sky and relaxation.

Relaxing and letting go is not just an internal process, but in many cases demands changes in our external behavior as well. As William Powers has pointed out in his book Hamlet’s Blackberry: Building a Good Life in the Digital Age, we must make conscientious choices about how and when we use technology, unless we want to be slave to a screen 24/7. Compulsively checking email, Facebook, Twitter, etc. interrupts deep creative thinking. We’re addicted to screens; too often we forget that we control technology–it doesn’t control us. We have a choice–we can keep technology in it’s place, or allow it to erode our attention spans and precious work time. Taking digital breaks is just as important as taking physical ones. Whether we use internet blocking software like Mac Freedom, turn off social networking, phones, and email while working, or commit to staying offline on weekends (as Powers has done), our creative work will benefit.

Art isn’t all fun and games.
If only the deep insights and epiphanies were enough…But it takes a lot of hard work to realize a creative project. Here’s Lehrer discussing the subject in his Fresh Air interview:
“It would be wonderful if the recipe for all kinds of creativity was to take showers and play ping-pong and go on vacation and go for walks on the beach, but when you really talk to people in the creative business, they want to tell their romantic stories about the epiphanies but then if you push them, they say even that epiphany had to go through lots of edits on it and iterations and lots of hard work after we have the big idea. And that’s a big part of the creative process too, and it is not as fun. In fact, there’s evidence that it makes us melancholy and a little bit depressed. But it’s a crucial part in creating something interesting and worthwhile. If creativity were always easy or about these blinding flashes, Picasso would not be so famous.”


In order to do our best creative work, we need to find the right balance between mental absorption and letting go.
Silence, focus, and concentration are important. But too much introspection and self-awareness can get in the way of innovation. Research has found that when professional musicians and performers improvise on stage, their dorsolateral prefrontal cortex–the part of the mind that controls inhibitions–actually shuts down.

Self-consciousness is an enemy of creativity. Remember how exciting art class was in kindergarten when we had no inhibitions? But eccentricity, individuality, and creativity are discouraged and eventually “schooled” out of us. At some point, we all learn the so-called “rules” about art–rules about staying inside the lines, coloring in one direction, and choosing the “right” green crayon for a grassy lawn.

Lehrer’s research shows that ignoring such rules and allowing ourselves to be playful again is an essential ingredient for the creative life. As Yo-Yo Ma told Lehrer, we must welcome the first mistake, because the first mistake makes us free. To do our best creative work, we must be focused, but also relaxed and at ease in our own skin.


November 2011

Writer Jeff Sharlet: Faith, Faithlessness, and the Country in Between

By |11.02.11|

If you follow the subject of American religion, you have likely heard of author Jeff Sharlet.

Sharlet has published five books on the subject, including C Street: The Fundamentalist Threat to American Democracy and The New York Times best seller The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power. He has profiled influential religious figures like Pastor Ted Haggard of Colorado Springs and spent time in Uganda reporting on the country’s anti-homosexuality bill — a bill that would have imposed lifelong prison sentences and the death penalty.

Jeff Sharlet is one of the hardest-working journalists I know. He is always hopping on a plane to follow some lead. He is a writer who believes in getting a story directly from the source. He will spend days, weeks, or months with a subject if he has to. He is never afraid to ask the hard questions, and never daunted by power, fame, or stacks of archival materials.

This combination of hard-hitting, investigative journalism, literary style, and historical knowledge is what makes Sharlet’s work unique. He has written about the intersection of religion and politics for publications like Rolling Stone, Harper’s, and Mother Jones and appeared on NPR’s Fresh Air, The Daily Show, CNN, the BBC, and the Bill Maher Show. He has received grants and fellowships from the Pew Charitable Trust, The MacDowell Colony, the Blue Mountain Center, The Nation Institute, and the Kopkind Foundation.

In 2000, Sharlet teamed up with novelist Peter Manseau to create Killing The Buddha, which has since become an award-winning online literary magazine. That led to a year on the road for Sharlet and Manseau, investigating the varieties of religious experience in America, including a cowboy church in Texas, witches in Kansas, a Pentecostal exorcism for a terrorist in North Carolina, an electric chair gospel choir in Florida. 

Sharlet is also the co-founder of two influential websites that cover the subject of spirituality and religion: Killing the Buddha (now edited by Nathan Schneider) and The Revealer (edited by Ann Neumann). In my biased opinion, both of these journals publish some of the finest writing on religion I’ve seen online or in print. Sharlet and the team of writers who keep these projects going deserve credit for filling a void. It’s rare to see the top of religion covered with such intelligence, humor, and open mindedness.

Although Sharlet has a reputation for his journalism and work at The Revealer and Killing the Buddha, he is best known for his investigative reporting on the Family, a powerful, secretive fundamentalist network in Washington, D.C., that has been influencing American government, the military, and foreign policy since the 1930s.

Working as an intern, Sharlet obtained unprecedented access to the group’s headquarters on C Street and is the only reporter to have written about the group from the inside. As reported in Newsweek and on NPR, the evangelical group’s views on religion and politics are so exceptional and inclusive that some other Christian-right organizations consider them heretical.

A year after the book’s publication, the Family was suddenly thrust in the media spotlight when several sex scandals involving Senator John Ensign and Governor Mark Sanford, both prominent members of the Family, made headlines. The group was also accused of illegally subsidizing the rent of certain members of Congress and enabling the anti-homosexuality legislation in Uganda. It was Sharlet’s work that finally brought the group to the public’s attention.

The author’s most recent book, Sweet Heaven When I Die, is a collection of 13 essays about belief, skepticism, and spirituality. Sharlet writes about Brad Will, an anarchist journalist who filmed his own murder by police while covering an uprising in Mexico; BattleCry, an evangelical youth movement devoted to spreading its particular brand of the Christian message; a new-age healer named Sondra Shaye; and renowned intellectual Cornel West.

Entertaining, humorous, incisive, and original, Sweet Heaven is a unique melding of literary genres. In reviewing the collection for The Washington Post Michael Washburn wrote: The “book belongs in the tradition of long-form, narrative nonfiction best exemplified by Joan Didion, John McPhee [and] Norman Mailer…Sharlet deserves a place alongside such masters.”

My favorite essay in Sweet Heaven is “Born, Again,” a thought-provoking piece on hope that draws chilling parallels between artistic desire, parental loss, and the murderous, “coal-filtered” blues of Dock Boggs. Few writers can be as informative and entertaining as Sharlet, particularly when it comes to the subject of music:
Dock Boggs — a man with fists for hands and a voice like strychnine — belongs as much on a bill with filth-punk G.G. Allin…, grunge fatality Kurt Cobain…, and assassinated hip-hop genious Biggie Smalls — dead, respectively, of overdose, despair, and the murderous ebb and flow of insult and capital — as he does with old-timey all-stars Dick Justice, Aunty Molly Jackson, and Clarence Ashley. Maybe more so, for like Allin, Cobain, and Smalls, Boggs was a theatrical man, both a balladeer and a blues singer. He knew how to snarl and wink at the same time. That’s what makes such artists frightening — you can never be certain which is surface and which is true meaning. Is it the threat or the invitation?
What marks Boggs as different from other musicians murdered by their own songs is that he survived. That’s simply a fact, not a clue; it’s a result of chance, not the saving grace of art, much less the religion Boggs would find and then lose again.

The opening essay of the book — a piece that combines reportage with the story of an old college girlfriend who has found love and religion in the mountains of Colorado — is both funny and moving. It is Sharlet’s vivid descriptions of place that I often find most enjoyable:
On your way to Cañon City you pass Cotopaxi, one of Colorado’s many abandoned utopias, a trick played in 1882 by a Portuguese Jew on Eastern European Jews lured into a dark canyon with promises of farmland evidently false to anyone who bothered to consult a map of the region. Jews mined, Jews died, Jews moved. Cotopaxi is now a Christian town, inasmuch as one can worship a loving God in the deep armpit of dry, brown mountains.

Comments Off