where the writers are
Bright Ideas Redux

I don’t suppose there’s a writer who doesn’t get stuck from time to time, other than Joyce Carol Oates, maybe. Stuck as in blocked, as in not sure what comes next. Stuck as in you spend the whole friggin’ day staring at that blank page and nothing comes and your stomach’s all tied up in knots and it’s all you can do not to toss your computer or notepad or typewriter—does any writer still write with a typewriter?—out the window. You know what I mean.

         And there are plenty of suggested remedies for getting the words going again, and I won’t belabor them here, except to say I’ve tried them all over the years. And who hasn’t?

         But there’s one remedy I don’t think I’ve ever come across before, and it’s this: Get up, walk down the hall toward the break room, and chat up anyone you see along the way.

         Oh, wait! That’s right…. You’re a writer. You don’t work in an office with a hallway and a break room and other people to chat up. You work alone. And maybe that’s why we get stuck from time to time….

         A writer, or any other “creative type” trying to make something from nothing, needs community as well as solitude, and the key to not getting stuck in the first place, or to getting unstuck, could be community.

         A while back I wrote about the growing anxiety among those who fret about such things that our country’s losing its creative mojo. In that first piece, I referred to an article titled “True Innovation” that appeared in the February 26 Sunday Review section of The New York Times.

The article was about Bell Labs, and was written by Jon Gertner, author of the just-released The Idea Factory: Bell Labs and the Great Age of American Innovation. (The Penguin Press, 2012.)

         Gertner’s Times article is illustrated (in the print version) with a half-page, above-the-fold photograph of a long, straight hallway at the Bell Labs facility in Murray Hill, New Jersey, taken in 1966. The floor is shiny linoleum, the walls what appear to be white tiles. Lining either side of the hallway and vanishing into the far, far distance are men and women in white lab coats, each standing not-quite-at-attention before an open office door under harsh florescent light, each clean-cut, well-groomed, and looking very, very corporate, the way just about everyone seemed to look back then.

         It’s as sterile a setting as one could imagine, completely squaresville, man, at first glance just the sort of place from which only a lot of conformist group-think could possibly emerge.

         But that photo, I think, gives us valuable insights into the nature of the creative process, and how to keep the ideas flowing.

         Sterile as that hallway may appear, in fact, Bell Labs has been a seething hotbed of invention for decades (seven Nobel prizes and 29,000 patents, and counting). The first hifi sound recording was made there, for example, and the first fax, the first binary digital computer, the first transistor, the first solar cells, the first cellular phone network, and on and on, one transformative first after another.

         Gertner tells us that one man, Mervin Kelly, was most responsible for the “culture of creativity” at Bell Labs in the early days, and Kelly seemed to understand that the creative process is a dialogue—or perhaps tension is a better word—between the public and private, and that community matters.

         Kelly, who started at Bell Labs in 1925, helped design the building in Murray Hill, which opened in 1941, and its design was specifically intended to support a creative community. Kelly thought that to be successful, the lab needed a “critical mass” of talented individuals all in one place at one time, and no phone conferences, thank you very much, and certainly no teleconferencing or Skyping or e-mailing (which, come to think of it, are possible today thanks in no small part to innovations out of Bell Labs).

         For Kelly, close physical proximity was the key. The idea was for men and women from a variety of disciplines to easily exchange ideas, and the long hallways lined with offices were designed specifically to promote this exchange; Kelly figured that anyone walking down one of those long halls, on the way to the coffee room, perhaps, might encounter any number of colleagues along the way, each with his or her own thoughts and ideas and critiques, any one of which might spark a new insight or two.

         Years later, Steve Jobs would design the Pixar studios with the same idea in mind, thus the restrooms were located in a central atrium, so the various creative types at Pixar could stop to chat and exchange ideas and maybe have an insight or two on their way to take a leak.

         This notion of the importance of “creative community” is hardly limited to scientists and engineers, or to animators. As novelist Jane Smiley puts it in We Wanted to be Writers: Life, Love, and Literature at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, a series of conversations about writing and the writing life with Workshop classmates from the mid-‘70s, “most writers don’t succeed if they’re just sitting in a room writing but not getting out. If you look back at the history of the novel, nearly everyone who succeeded was part of some sort of literary group. There is hardly anyone who thrives on being solitary. Think of Virginia Woolf and her circle; they supported one another and talked to one another and talked about literature. Thackeray and his friends, the same. People do it in New York City as a matter of course….”

         One of the nice things about a writers’ workshop is that for two or three years, a young writer is part of just such a “creative community.” For many of us at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, our creative community, in fact, was at The Mill, a bar on the edge of campus, over pitchers of warm beer and pizza.

         But of course, after two years, it was over. And then what? We can’t all have a nice sterile florescent-lit, tile-lined hallway like they have at Bell Labs, or an atrium with restrooms like they have at Pixar. But you can still create your own creative community. I think the key is to “privilege” the communal aspects of writing as much as the solitary effort. View the communal as part of the creative process itself.

         And what if you don’t have a creative community? Well, of course if you’re reading this, you’re part of the Red Room community. Savor it. Nurture it. The Twittersphere is teeming with ready-made communities. Try the hash tags #writing, #amwriting, #writetip, #fiction, #poetry for starters. An Internet search for writer community will turn up plenty of other options.          Of course, Kelly at Bell Labs thought that close physical proximity was key, but then the Internet hadn’t been invented yet. I’ll bet these days he’d be tweeting with the best of them. Still, there is something to be said for face-to-face. Libraries, bookstores, college English departments, and adult ed programs often maintain directories of local writing groups and/or can offer other corporal contacts. Go to readings in your genre and chat up fellow audience members; you’re bound to find a few kindred spirits.

         Are you part of a creative community? How do you find and foster your own creative community? How does it help your writing? Please tell us more. 

 

Comments
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This is such good advice.  Like many writers who do not belong to a writers' group, I have a number of writer-friends and former university colleagues I trust for advice on works-in-progress.  But if I hit a wall on a project, I find it helpful to look for inspiration outside of my discipline to friends who are composers or artists or scientists.  Their perspective is often exactly what I need to move forward. 

Many thanks for your post!

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Perspective from outside your discipline? A great suggestion! I suppose, now that you mention it, this was part of what made Bell Labs so successful--lots of different disciplines along those long, straight, florescent-lit hallways.

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What a beautiful concept. Thrilling to picture. Bell Labs. Pixar. Inspiring.

Can't say I've ever had that ideal experience, but I read Writing with Power by Peter Elbow many years ago. He recommended writing for 10 minutes everyday--sensible stuff or senseless. And join a group that will give you feedback. I did both those things because I had something I really wanted to say.

I still attend the writers group I discovered then. It--they--made all the difference. I've credited the group in each book I've published.  

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I'd be curious to know if you have any advice about how to find a writers group, and better yet a simpatico writers group.