Jonah Lehrer: When Writing, Creativity, and Imagination Go Too Far

August 1, 2012

For those of us who write, the news that a very talented and successful writer has been discredited because of his or her own unethical actions is something that hurts us all—professionally as well as personally. At a painfully obvious level, it fuels the arguments of those who want to see inaccuracies and bias in every piece of nonfiction writing or broadcast reporting they encounter. So the news that Jonah Lehrer’s best-selling book Imagine: How Creativity Works has been withdrawn from the market by its publisher and that Lehrer has had to resign from his position as a writer for The New Yorker is very bad news, indeed.

From what has been reported to date, Lehrer’s first completely inexcusable mistake in Imagine was to fabricate quotes and add a made-up sentence to an actual quote from singer-songwriter Bob Dylan—an amazingly bad lapse of judgment given that much of the material with which Lehrer was working in Imagine appears to have already provided ample support to points he was making about how the creative process works. He then reportedly compounded the error by engaging in an extended game of obfuscation over a three-week period with writer Michael C. Moynihan, who documented the initial fabrications and his exchanges with Lehrer on the subject in an article published in Tablet Magazine this week. Lehrer’s work, furthermore, has been questioned and criticized by others, including a reviewer for The New York Times who raised plenty of questions about Lehrer’s conclusions drawn from research he cited after an earlier reviewer for the newspaper had praised the book.

What made Imagine so appealing to so many of us when it was released earlier this year was that Lehrer’s writing was so clear and crisp; his summaries of numerous research studies seemed well supported through citations in the book’s endnotes; and his conclusions seemed to be consistent with what we had seen from other writers and studies. It inspired us to recommend the book in our own reviews and essays and to connect Lehrer’s work to fields in which we work, as I did in a piece written for the American Society of Training & Development (ASTD) Learning Technology online community of practice.

So the news that this apparently wonderful, engaging, and thought-provoking book has, overnight, almost completely disappeared from bookstores and websites, and will apparently only remain available through libraries or on the shelves of those of us who obtained copies before the publisher’s understandable recall, is extremely dispiriting.

I’ve never before faced the situation where a book has been recalled after I had so favorably written about it and also used it as a jumping off point for the sort of piece I wrote for ASTD; the news that the book had been pulled, therefore, left me wondering how to handle a revelation like that one in an age where we can actually withdraw our online reviews and even ask that an online article be withdrawn. The dilemma sent me back to re-read the brief online review I posted on a few sites and to also reread that ASTD article. And when I was finished, I walked away with extremely mixed feelings: on the one hand, I felt that what I had been inspired to write for the ASTD posting still had value, so I’m not going to ask that it go the way of the book itself and be withdrawn; on the other hand, I have already deleted the online reviews since it seems silly to offer any type of rating or critique for a book that a publisher has pulled back.

Ultimately, because I do still believe the book as published had—and still has—value in making us think creatively about the science of the creative process—even though, by Lehrer’s own admission, he was irresponsibly creative in imagining quotes for attribution—I’m going to keep an earlier blog posting online, along with an acknowledgment that the book has been withdrawn—as a reminder of how a good book could have been a great book if the writer had been faithful to the basic precepts of accuracy in nonfiction writing. As a reminder that the act of writing in an onsite-online world exposes us to greater scrutiny—and more assurance of comeuppance when deserved—than anything we’ve ever before experienced. And as a reminder that when a member of our extended community of writers takes a terribly wrong turn, the rest of us need to Imagine ourselves in that position—and avoid it at all costs.

ALA Annual Conference 2012: Communities of Writing

July 10, 2012

Many of us who write or who spend time with writers are no longer naïve enough to think that it would be wonderful to meet every writer we have ever admired; writers—like anyone else—can be absolutely insufferable when given the opportunity to be full of themselves/ourselves. But when we manage to set our overinflated egos aside for at least a few minutes and listen more than talk, we discover the pleasures of being part of the formal and informal communities we create.

It has been several years since I was briefly and pleasurably part of the Squaw Valley Community of Writers and a smaller fiction-writing group, but I’ve never been far removed from writers as colleagues, friends, and mentors—and yes, in some cases, tormentors. As is the case with so many other communities of interest, formal and informal communities of writers can often be the only means we have of sustaining our creative processes when long hours, days, weeks, or even months of effort seem to produce little of consequence for us or for our readers.

Meeting a variety of first-rate writers promoting their new releases, further marketing the book Lori Reed and I co-wrote last year (Workplace Learning & Leadership), and attending a reception for writers united under a single publishing house (ALA Editions) at the 2012 American Library Association (ALA) Annual Conference last month provided yet another reminder of how important these communities can be for those whose work is largely completed in long stretches of solitary effort. And how far-reaching our connections are even when we do not clearly see them.

At the heart of the reception was ALA Editions’ right-on-target goal of formally and cordially welcoming authors from Neal-Schuman to the ALA Editions stable of writers after ALA Editions acquired Neal-Schuman. More importantly, however, it provided an opportunity for writers and others associated with both publishing houses to sit together, share ideas, and look for the creative opportunities that our unanticipated connections might provide.

It doesn’t take long, when walking into the sort of small and intimate setting ALA Editions provided that evening, to recognize familiar faces: staff from the publishing house; colleagues associated with ALA Editions; and even a few from the latest addition to the ALA family. But the real fun began as we occasionally lined up to retrieve a beverage or small plate of hors d’oeuvres and play the read-that-nametag game to match familiar names with unfamiliar faces.

The winning moment came for me when I looked up from a name tag and found myself unexpectedly eyeball to eyeball with a writer—Esther Grassian—whose work influenced me tremendously while I was earning a Master’s degree and focusing on online learning a few years ago. Because it was an article she co-wrote (“Stumbling, Bumbling, Teleporting, and Flying…Librarian Avatars in Second Life”) that had attracted my attention as a student, I had no idea she also had co-authored two Neal-Schuman books with Joan Kaplowitz and would, therefore, be at the reception. Having met plenty of colleagues who write, I’m far from star struck when I meet a writer whose work I admire—OK, OK, let’s be honest: I’m always star struck when I meet someone whose work I admire, but I was trying (probably unsuccessfully) to not let it show in a setting where Grassian and I were ostensibly colleagues rather than writer-admirer.

She was gracious enough to sit with me and a few of the other attendees as we discussed our work, what we are doing, and what we hope to be doing over the next couple of years. And the magic continued as various people one or the other of us knew joined us at that table and become part of a brief and pleasurable evening when we could learn from each other. Consider possibilities none of us might have stumbled upon without those exchanges. And celebrate the wonderfully sustaining power of communities of writing.

Tony Judt, the Politics of Collaboration, and Learning

January 24, 2011

Often lost in complex discussions of collaboration, team-building, and other related endeavors in training-teaching-learning is a broader theme: the political aspect of all we do.

Historian-writer-professor Tony Judt’s penultimate book Ill Fares the Land, which began as a New York Review of Books essay, provides an incisive political look at collaboration. The result is a source of inspiration for those of us fostering collaboration in much smaller settings than those Judt discusses.

With a scholar’s breadth of knowledge and a writer’s flair for enticing readers into his work, he starts with a basic theme: the need for trust that is present when fairness and equality are nurtured. His entire first chapter, “The Way We Live Now,” builds a devastating case against complacence by documenting the results of inequality in a variety of countries throughout the world and demonstrating that those with the greatest success are the ones where fairness and equality are most effectively established.

After documenting in very human terms the results of inequality and discussing how this removes the trust that makes collaboration possible, Judt delivers his punchline: “Clearly we cannot do without trust. If we truly did not trust one another, we would not pay taxes for our mutual support. Nor would be venture very far outdoors for fear of violence or chicanery at the hands of our untrustworthy fellow citizens. Moreover, trust is no abstract virtue. One of the reasons that capitalism today is under siege from so many critics, by no means all of them on the Left, is that markets and free competition also require trust and cooperation. If we cannot trust bankers to behave honestly, or mortgage brokers to tell the truth about their loans, or public regulators to blow the whistle on dishonest traders, then capitalism itself will grind to a halt” (pp. 37-38).

It’s not difficult for any of us who are working in training-teaching-learning to draw parallels between Judt’s world view and what we see within the organizations we serve: inequality—even the perception of inequality—diminishes our ability to draw learners into what we offer. To ignore that problem is to miss an opportunity to increase the effectiveness of all we do; if we are not part of the process of sustaining or helping rebuild trust where it is missing, we are not rising to our potential of trainers as leaders in workplace learning and performance.

In one of the final sections of the book, “The Shape of Things to Come,” Judt turns to his belief that we “have entered an age of fear,” including “fear of the uncontrollable speed of change” (p. 217)—again, a theme he examines at a political-historical level and which is equally of interest to those of us attempting to facilitate change through the learning opportunities we provide.

As one of Judt’s colleagues observed, “No one talks like this any more” (p. 9), and Judt’s passing in August 2010 makes that comment even more poignant. Perhaps it’s time for more of us to be reading works like this one and carrying on the conversation so that what the author left us isn’t lost to those who follow.

Writers’ Voices, Readers’ Cravings: Why Reading Is Alive and Well

January 23, 2011

Those seeking an engaging response to the ridiculously premature predictions of the death of books and/or reading and/or literature need look no further than any of the numerous author readings and book discussions scheduled across the country on an almost daily basis.

And when we’re lucky enough to gather with friends, colleagues, and strangers in a room where several authors have a chance, one after another, to briefly read from, discuss, and sign advanced uncorrected proofs—nearly final versions of books about to be published—it’s all the more clear that great voices, in every sense of the word, are what will keep us going.

The Association of American Publishers Trade Libraries Committee, during the 2011 American Library Association (ALA) midwinter meeting held in San Diego earlier this month, issued what to some would seem to be a quixotic proposal: an invitation to rise—after several days of morning-to-night meetings, social gatherings, and other activities—early enough to hear six disparate authors read and talk at 8 a.m. It’s a tribute to our continuing love for and anticipation of the next great book that so many of us packed into that room to hear the writers and receive free copies of what they are about to publish.

What was particularly striking was how rich and varied those writers’ voices are. Cara Black, discussing Murder in Passy, the next installment in her Aimee Leduc mystery series with its Parisian settings, made us smile with her perfectly pronounced “Bonjour!” Novelist Douglas Kennedy, discussing the themes of love and loss which permeate his forthcoming novel The Moment, enchanted us with a lovely passage read in that soothing British accent which serves as a seductive tool to draw us into what he writes. Hilary Winston’s irreverent sense of humor, timing, and obvious enthusiasm in discussing her soon-to-be released nonfiction book My Boyfriend Wrote a Book About Me appropriately and enticingly captured the spirit of a writer who decided to respond in kind after a former lover trashed her in a novel that, she said, devastated her by drawing heavily from their most intimate moments together.

Deborah Harkness drew us into her novel A Discovery of Witches by telling us that this story about a 1,500-year-old vampire and an enchanted manuscript found in Oxford’s Bodleian Library, was inspired by a question she asked herself: if you were a vampire and had an extremely long lifespan, what sort of job would you hold? Shilpi Somaya Gowda obviously connected viscerally with many members of her audience in discussing how her novel Secret Daughter explores what happens when a child is given away by her mother.

Even the voice of Jacqueline Winspear, who was unable to attend because she was recovering from a bout with the flu, captured us with her writer’s voice through the advance copies of A Lesson in Secrets, the next in her Maisie Dobbs series of novels set in the period between the first and second world wars.

Completing the sense of author-presentations-as-events was the newest voice of all: twenty-two-year-old Alice Ozma, promoting The Reading Promise: My Father and the Books We Shared. We didn’t stand a chance! Hearing Ozma tell us that this was her first public appearance to promote her first book captured us as soon as she stood in front of us. Her obvious love of reading and writing, combined with her description of how she and her father started a “reading streak” which continued with him reading to her for a minimum of 10 minutes each day—generally in the evenings, and often for more than 10 minutes—for 3,218 consecutive days, told us all we needed to know about how reading, writing, and the continuity and culture our writers provide for us remain essential elements of our lives.

And if we’re still in doubt, we need do little more than check our information sources for the readings that are taking place in bookstores, libraries, and other venues nearly every day, then attend as many of them as we can, for that is where new as well as established writers’ voices can be heard, and that is where our literary heritage continues to be sustained.

Pat Conroy, Tony Judt, and Exemplary Learning

December 30, 2010

Two of my favorite authors—novelist Pat Conroy and historian Tony Judt—have wonderfully autobiographical books out, and both have much to offer trainer-teacher-learners and writers.

Conroy’s My Reading Life interweaves ruminations on authors and books that have deeply influenced him—Gone With the Wind, Charles Dickens, Leo Tolstoy, Thomas Wolfe, and many others—and in the process also draws us into what they offer. Furthermore, he crafts splendid portraits of those around him who have, through books or by serving as the inspiration for characters in his own work, made him the writer that he is.

Nowhere does he more clearly touch those of us involved in workplace learning and performance, however, than in his essay “The Teacher.” Recalling how he first met high school English teacher Gene Norris in 1961, Conroy holds before us the person we all need to be: the one who recognizes the potential in his learners, who remains a lifelong source of encouragement to the student Conroy was and obviously still remains, and who continues to serve as a mentor and a friend as he was struggling with leukemia. Norris, even in his final days, encouraged Conroy the student to “Tell me a story.” All of us should be lucky enough to have that sort of trainer-teacher-learner in our lives and, more importantly, remember to emulate them.

Equally compelling, for entirely different reasons, is Conroy’s “Why I Write.” Whether it is because he touches the basic insecurities all of us—teachers, trainers, learners, and writers—have when he writes “I have been mortally afraid of the judgment of other writers and critics since I first lifted my proud but insecure head above the South Caroline marsh grass all those years ago” (p. 303) or because he leads us through our struggles by confirming that “Good writing is the hardest form of thinking. It involves the agony of turning profoundly difficult thoughts into lucid form, then forcing them into the tight-fitting uniform of language, making them visible and clear” (p. 304)—a challenge all of us face when we attempt to translate difficult concepts into terms our learners can grasp and absorb—Conroy nearly leaps off the pages of My Writing Life to encourage us to join him on his learning journey.

Tony Judt’s The Memory Chalet is equally compelling and poignant in what it offers. Like many of us involved in training-teaching-learning and/or writing, Judt relied on his communication skills to help us learn a bit of what he knew. To read his final essays, composed while he was dying from a degenerative disease—amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), more commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease—is to spend time in the company and the mind of a teacher-learner-writer who remained unwilling to surrender until death claimed him earlier this year.

Limited in mobility and communication tools, Judt turned inward in this terrifically moving book and explored, from a variety of angles, the way we swim in what we’ve learned for comfort in times of great adversity. The opening essays, “The Memory Chalet” and “Night,” lead us through the world of a writer who has to rely on others to move his thoughts and words onto the pages we are reading. He invites us to walk with him through his years at Cambridge, on a kibbutz, and in the various jobs he held while preparing for the life of a teacher-writer-historian.

And as we reach the end of what he has left us, he explores, in “Edge People,” the concept of identity and how it ultimately is shaped by all that we experience: “…within the university, many colleagues look upon me as a reactionary dinosaur. Understandably so: I teach the textual legacy of long-dead Europeans; have little tolerance for ‘self-expression’ as a substitute for clarity; regard effort as a poor substitute for achievement; treat my discipline as dependent in the first instance upon facts, not ‘theory’; and view with skepticism much that passes for historical scholarship today” (p. 205).

If more of us, as trainer-teacher-learners and as writers, can hold ourselves and the learners we assist to those magnificent standards of clarity, discipline, and healthy rather than cynical skepticism, we will remain true to the spirit of the Conroys, Judts, and other inspirational figures we have been lucky enough to encounter. More importantly, we will fulfill our promise as members of a magnificent continuum of creativity. And learning. And life.

Written in memory of Robert Zimmerman, a great friend, mentor, and colleague who succumbed to cancer on December 26, 2010. Thanks, Bob, for teaching me how to “fire on all cylinders.”

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