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Lessons Learned from a Self-Plagiarist

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Michael Dziedzic via Unsplash



 This past year, writer’s block hit me more acutely than ever. Time I had blocked off to write became day-long reading sprees and, when that felt too mentally taxing, hours of binge watching. Clearly, I needed help. That’s why I picked up Imagine: How Creativity Works by Jonah Lehrer.

Imagine is one of those contentious texts that leaves readers split between two camps. Lehrer’s critics are widely known and claims of self-plagiarism shroud the book. This is in part based on evidence that Lehrer reused wording from his Wall Street Journal column and another piece he wrote for The New Yorker. From there, the criticism mounted in severity. The New Republic’s Isaac Chotiner was the first to point out the “inaccurate, misleading, or simplistic” claims in Lehrer’s analysis of Bob Dylan’s drafting process for “Like a Rolling Stone.” But Michael Moynihan’s Tablet exposé was the final nail in the coffin, proving that Lehrer had fabricated these quotes wholesale and, what’s more, lied to an inquiring journalist about culling quotes from tapes he had never watched, from a source — Dylan’s manager Jeff Rosen — he had never contacted.

The scandal derailed the former Rhodes Scholar’s burgeoning career. Shortly after the revelations, he was fired from The New Yorker and WIRED; 200,000 copies of his book were then recalled from shelves. His fall from grace drew comparisons to that of memoirist James Frey, who admitted on The Oprah Winfrey Show to having fabricated large portions of his memoir, A Million Little Pieces, after a deluge of credible allegations. Memoir, however, is different than journalism. Lehrer’s public pillorying — which some might say was worse than Frey’s since Lehrer is no longer publishing — sent a clear message to all future journalists tempted to cut corners: don’t.

It occurred to me at that moment — call it an epiphany or just happy coincidence — that maybe I couldn’t write because I was thinking too hard.

And yet, literary merit must count for something, right? When I first picked up Imagine, I hadn’t heard of Lehrer, which meant that, by extension, I wasn’t aware of his 2012 scandal. My first reading of the book was, therefore, uncynical and objective.

Lehrer starts with a bang. In the first three chapters, he systemically tears apart the veil surrounding creative production. He explains that what generations of artists have thought to be the fickle muse can actually be whittled down to detectible patterns of brain activity affected by everything from our mood to the amount of coffee we’ve consumed. The right hemisphere of the brain, he notes, was, as recently as the 1980s, thought to be useless. Referencing work by neuroscientist Roger Sperry, Lehrer summarizes the misconception, “The right hemisphere was ‘not only mute and agraphic but also dyslexic, word-deaf, and apraxic, and lacking generally in higher cognitive function.’ ”

And yet, as Lehrer goes on to explain, the right hemisphere is responsible for some of the greatest epiphanies of the modern age. One company learned to profit from this: the corporation 3M, which patented the Post-it note, computer touch screens, kitchen sponges, lithium ion batteries, dental fillings and more. What’s made this industrial powerhouse so successful, he argues, is the sharing of knowledge across fields. To this day, 3M rotates its engineers every four to six years to keep good ideas circulating.

Of course, it doesn’t take a group to invent new things. On an individual level, all roads lead back to the anterior superior temporal gyrus (aSTG), a small chunk of tissue in the right hemisphere that is flooded with gamma wave activity seconds before an insight. This part of the brain is responsible for remote associations, the kind that produce novelties out of disparate ideas. The catch is, it only works when the mind is allowed to enter an alpha, or relaxed, state; the brain, after all, works even when you aren’t thinking.

Lehrer further notes another form of creativity centered in the left hemisphere that flouts this conventional image of creativity. If an artist focuses long enough and hard enough on a problem, they sometimes manage a breakthrough. The reason is found in the prefrontal cortex — the part of the brain that governs working memory and immediate consciousness. When the brain devotes enough attention to a particular problem, the prefrontal cortex, saturated with an amalgam of new and old ideas, will form new associations. These associations, of course, should not be confused with epiphanies. They are simply local connections between related ideas, or “old thoughts that occur at the exact same time [as new ones].” This is, as Lehrer points out, the difference between editing a poem and producing a new poetic form entirely.

And so, whenever I am asked how I write these days . . . I tell them. I picked it up from this defrocked journalist, this shameful fabricator, this unscrupulous scribe.
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Pavel Czerwinski via Unsplash

The brain is adept at determining which type of creativity you need at any given moment. Lehrer advises that “when you don’t feel…you’re getting closer to the answer—you’ve hit the wall, so to speak,” taking a break, allowing your mind to wander, and giving your right hemisphere space to pick up the slack is your best bet.

“However, when those feelings of knowing tell you that you’re getting closer,” Lehrer writes, “—when you feel the poetic meter slowly improve or sense that the graphic design is being unconcealed—then you need to keep on struggling. Continue to pay attention until it hurts; fill your working memory with problems. Before long, that feeling of knowing will become actual knowledge.”

Around the time I read this passage, I was thinking of my writer’s block. It occurred to me at that moment — call it an epiphany or just happy coincidence — that maybe I couldn’t write because I was thinking too hard. I was tripping over my own feet and thus frying my working memory, or “squandering…[my] prefrontal cortex.” What if, instead, I abandoned my inhibitors, settled into an alpha state — a game of ping-pong, a movie, a walk down the street maybe — and then came back later?

True to form, my “efforts” worked. It’s how I get my 750 words in every day. It’s how I know when to edit and when to write. It’s how I wrote this essay. And so, whenever I am asked how I write these days, the answer is always just a bit more technical than it used to be. It’s all about the hemispheres, I tell them. I picked it up from this defrocked journalist, this shameful fabricator, this unscrupulous scribe, who — it just occurred to me — did exactly what he promised.

Imagine that.



Anthony Karambelas is a recent graduate of Cal State LA, where he edited Statement Magazine and wrote for the campus newspaper. His chief passion lies in the written word, which runs the gamut from the claustrophobically academic to the deliriously creative. He is a current Pepperdine DC Policy Scholar and a Berlin Capital Program Fulbrighter. But at heart, he is still very much a child.