after the idea
Mathematician Dan Rockmore, who, judging from all the bodybuilding and powerlifting in his essay in the New Yorker, must be a pretty “swole” for a mathematician—just Googled him, he’s not—uses exercise to spark ideas, as when he and his colleagues tackled a particular class of equations that describe waves:
We spent every day drawing on blackboards and chasing one wrong idea after another. After one afternoon spinning our wheels, I decided to take advantage of a beautiful day and threw on my running clothes. I had a regular route, which I varied by running it in reverse every other time. That day, I headed away from campus, on a tree-lined and leaf-filled ramble. As I crested the last hill, I saw it all at once: the key to modifying the algorithm we’d been puzzling over was to flip it around, to run it backward. My heart started racing as I pictured the computational elements strung out in the new, opposite order. I sprinted straight home to find a pencil and paper so that I could confirm it.
You’ve read about many similar eureka moments, tracing back to the original back in the 3rd century B.C., when Archimedes ran naked through the streets of Syracuse after a bath gave him the secret to calculating the density of an irregular object. (Syracuse in Sicily, of course. Running naked through Syracuse, New York, is entirely normal due to the proximity of the university and would never have made it into the history books.)
It’s a commonplace that insights arrive not when we’re actively grappling with a problem but afterward, when we’re lightly distracted: taking a walk, taking a bath. Reassured against the need for vigilance against external threats, the unconscious mind can relax and turn to the problem at hand. “All of a sudden,” you have a solution that your conscious mind could never have developed with a logical and linear approach alone.
But this narrative of creative problem-solving misses something crucial for writers: what happens next. This is where the parallels between many other forms of creativity and writing fall away. The real question for writers is less how to get ideas than what to do next. Meaning, in that moment. For a mathematician like Rockmore, a few sweaty minutes with a pencil can confirm his solution. Naturally, a proof must be written out, but the real work of locking the idea in is complete within a short timeframe.
For a writer, an “idea” might be the merest seed of a 5,000-word piece. Or something ten times that size. (Or something ten times that size.) Or, it might be the bare sketch of a character or plot outline or essay theme. For writers, it isn’t sufficient to simply have ideas. To capitalize on our insights, we have to rush new ideas into the operating room like a freshly donated heart and get to work NOW. Doing this successfully requires two things that are almost never readily available for most of us: uninterrupted time and the mental capacity for intense focus.
Carving out an hour or more to work through an exciting idea on the page is hard enough for anyone over the age of twenty. But even if we can claim the time, we rarely have the necessary mental acuity to stick the landing. In the moment, it often seems impossible to summon the necessary focus to execute on the simmering idea, to pick up and hold all the details of a complex piece of prose in the mind at once, rearrange them, and then put them back down in words again. At some times of day, the feat staggers the synapses, and the promising idea is set aside. By the time the necessary focus returns, we’ve lost all sense of what sparked our excitement in the first place. (“Like flaming globes, Sigmund!“)
To cross this gap, a truly stupendous percentage of great authors have used drugs. As Mason Currey writes in a recent newsletter, Anthony Burgess cranked out some of his novels in a matter of weeks, but only through a daily regimen of nicotine (80 cigarettes), caffeine (strong tea), alcohol (gin), and amphetamines (3 tablets of Dexedrine). Sure, Ayn Rand could crank out a 60-page monologue to close out a book in her sleep, but she wasn’t asleep because she was actually using amphetamineslotsandlotsofamphetamines…
Mathematicians like speed, too, of course. As Rockmore mentions in his essay, Paul Erdős lived on the stuff. (More like methematician, amirite? Heh heh.) But writers are a special case. I don’t think a mathematical notion goes stale the way our ideas can when left untended. Writers feel intense pressure to capitalize on a eureka moment or lose it for good. You can see why people turn to caffeine and—when that doesn’t work quickly or powerfully enough—more intense forms of stimulation.
Assuming you haven’t stopped reading this essay to go browse the Dark Web, what’s the alternative? Judging from the writers without serious drug addictions, it comes down to habits. A fixed routine trains the brain to deliver its insights on a schedule. For me and many other writers—including David Duchovny, apparently—that means reviewing the work the night before to prime the unconscious mind and then getting to work before reading email or otherwise letting that accumulated energy dissipate.
This way, if any ideas do arrive on your morning jog or during your shower, they strike at a moment of peak alertness and cognitive agility. For best results, you can enhance this period of intense concentration with caffeine, noise-canceling headphones, aromatherapy, binaural beats—whatever works. Hell, chew your damn coffee like Balzac if you must. Anything to avoid the amphetamine-related risks of teeth grinding, erectile dysfunction, and total war. It probably isn’t worth it, even for a really, really awesome newsletter.