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Sarah Lewis: Find Your Private Domain

About this talk

Much of modern creativity advice focuses on “getting your work out there” and networking with others. But great work often requires that we work in isolation. When writing her book The Rise, Sarah Lewis sent an early draft to her editor where she learned this lesson the hard way. “I wasn’t ready for his critique, and it ended up costing me six months of work,” she says.

In this talk, Lewis speaks to the importance of the private domain. Many of the greats, such as Susan Sontag, Albert Einstein, or Maya Angelou, made sure they carved out a special time and place for their craft. “Putting something out in the world,” says Lewis, “requires a temporary removal from it.” 

Sarah Lewis, Author & Cultural Historian

Sarah Lewis has served on President Barack Obama’s Arts Policy Committee, been selected for Oprah’s “Power List,” and is a faculty member at Yale University, School of Art in the MFA program. She received her bachelor’s degree from Harvard University, an M. Phil from Oxford University, and received her Ph.D. from Yale University in March 2014.

She is the author of The Rise: Creativity, the Gift of Failure, and the Search for Mastery. Her essays on contemporary art have been published widely in journals such as CallalooArtforum and Art in America, and in publications including Rizzoli, the Smithsonian, The Museum of Modern Art and the Studio Museum in Harlem. She has held positions at both the Tate Modern and the Museum of Modern Art, New York. She is currently a board member of The Andy Warhol for the Visual Arts, the CUNY Graduate Center, and The Brearley School. She lives in New York City.


Full Transcript

It’s a pleasure to be here today. As Scott mentioned, I just finished a book entitled “The Rise,” but I’m here to speak about something else. And it really has me beginning in a historic point. And it’s going to take us downtown in New York City and Washington Square about a century ago when a man, a painter, was spending a lot of time in his studio creating something that inevitably would change the world.

He had ambitions for himself as a painter, this man. He wanted to rival a Titian or a Raphael or a Michelangelo. He was NYU’s first painting professor, but like so many artists, he couldn’t find support for his work. He encountered every type of critique imaginable. He couldn’t support his family. He had them living in New Haven while he had resigned to live in poverty in New York, as he put it. And he felt in his 40s that it was time to give up. He felt, as he put it, jilted by his love, by his art. This man would go on to invent the telegraph. This is Samuel Morse. Having spent 26 years painting, he decided to take the stretcher bars of one of his failed attempts and convert that into the raw material that he used to create this device. We’re so used to technology. It’s probably hard to imagine how it astounded people when it was unveiled. When the Declaration of Independence was signed, it took two weeks for the news to go from Philadelphia to Virginia. After the telegraph, news traveled within minutes. He was dubbed the Lightning Man because for some people it seemed that he had chained the very lightning of heaven. When Morse was inventing the telegraph, he was shy about showing his work, embarrassed by it. He thought it was crude, and it looked so crude that he didn’t want to have it seen except by family and by trusted students.

So why am I talking about Samuel Morse? I wrote in The Rise about many individuals like him, people who created breakthrough discoveries and achievements, and who did so on very uncommon foundations like the failed material of a painting enterprise for 26 years. After having some distance from writing the book, though, I started to notice that there were themes in common with these different men and women. The first theme I noticed was that these individuals were able to believe in something before it happened. It sounds very simple, but it’s actually not. To believe in something before it happens so much that it becomes a reality– what does that require? Well, it requires a second thing I often saw, which is that these individuals had what I might call private domains. Now these are not simply physical spaces, but interior lives, inner worlds that they held as dear as their network. So now you can see why I was a little bit nervous to come here today. As much as I love speaking about creativity, I was nervous because we’re in a moment where we’re really often advocating doing the exact opposite– not showing your work, but honoring the interior worlds that it takes to create it is a lot of what I do in terms of being a curator and a critic at Yale School of Art. We’re often in a moment where we’re being asked to consider how to get your work out there, how to use your network, how to show your process. But what I’m seeing is that it’s equally important to honor, not just these private worlds and what happens in them, but what it tells us about the creative process in general. I feel there’s a kind of urgency to speak about this, and so I decided to do so, even though it made me nervous to. Because I think there’s something at stake when we don’t honor this timeless part of the process. I think that when we value putting our work out there, it can connect us with an audience, but doing so prematurely can disconnect us from ourselves. I learned this the hard way when I was writing The Rise. I was speaking about this with my editor because I showed him an early chapter of The Rise prematurely. I had an idea for how I would write the book early on that really didn’t pan out in the end. My idea was to really look at themes instead of individuals, and I ended up shifting that kind of method entirely. And I showed it to my editor, and as kind as he is, as fantastic as he is– I wasn’t yet ready for his critique. And I lost about six months of work due to this innocent kind of revealing process. Thankfully, I was doing something slightly crazy at the same time. I was reading every single Paris Review interview with writers and artists. Now the Paris Review has been publishing these incredible interviews for decades. So I have this chart that I made of all the difference common themes I found in their creative processes, from Ray Bradbury to Maya Angelou. And I noticed that they all spoke about the importance of these private domains. Now some of them were speaking about physical spaces. Ray Bradbury found that, in UCLA he could rent the basement writing space for $0.50 for 30 minutes. And he decided to leave his home to do that. Maya Angelou revealed that she leaves her house when she wants to write a work and goes to a hotel with a bottle sherry and a dictionary. And then she says that she comes home, goes shopping, and pretends to be normal. Because these private domains do make us feel slightly odd. I was looking at another site that you will spend a lot of time on if you go there. You probably have. Maria Popova’s great site Brain Pickings, where I saw that Susan Sontag had a process that is sort of hidden in her description here, but you can probably see it. What does she do? She doesn’t allow herself to have lunch with anyone but one person, right? And she tells people not to call in the morning. I looked at that and thought, she’s creating, in that moment, a kind of private domain. I think one of the most famous examples, though, is the private domain of Albert Einstein. We’re looking at a shot of his study from the day that he died in 1955 at the Institute of Advanced study in Princeton. I love this photograph– the way that the chairs angle, as if any of us could put ourselves right in that spot. I love the messiness and the disorder. I love that there’s a willingness to have that all on display and the safety implied by it’s splay. But I mention Einstein because he had a sense of the importance and the paradox of these private domains that he expressed when he described why working in the patent office when he was at work on the 1905 paper on the special theory of relativity was so important. He said, “he hatched, from this worldly cloister, his most beautiful idea.” Now that term, worldly cloister, is interesting because it’s a paradox, isn’t it? But this is exactly why private domains are so important. Putting out something that’s new in the world requires a temporary removal from it. I started to realize that these private domains had nothing to do, in fact, with actual space. In fact, looking at private domains is a way to look at the space in ourselves, the space where we can shield ourselves from often overgrown critics. Now, our bodies remind us of the importance of these spaces even if we might not want to see their validity just in hearing it in a conversation like this. I was stunned to find out, when I looked at the study, that work done by Allen Braun and my colleague and friend Charles Limb at Johns Hopkins, show us that when we improvise, what’s going on in the mind is not just self expression, but the suppression of our ability to judge ourselves. Isn’t that incredible? What he did at the National Institutes of Health was ask jazz musicians to memorize a piece of music and to then also play music improvised against chord changes. And in an FMRI imaging scanner, he was able to see what was going on in these two different states of creativity. What he found when he looked at the state of improvisation is that it most closely approximated– the brain itself most closely approximated the way that our minds work when we are actually dreaming, when we have no internal censor whatsoever. It’s as if the body knows what Ray Bradbury and Maya Angelou and Einstein are stating that we need to be able to have a place where we’re not going to feel critique of any kind. Imagine if, as I’m speaking to you, I’ve just critiqued every single word that I’ve said. I think we would not be able to go on. We would not be able to create. So improvisation reminds us of the crucial importance of this, but why is it so important to be able to create in these private domains? Well, it gets to the thing that I really want to spend the second half of this talk speaking about, which is the importance of these permissive states of being in private domains that allow us to make truly iconoclastic decisions. Now, I think they’re especially important when we look at what it means to make an iconoclastic decision in the face of dissent in a crowd. You know, when people don’t understand your idea, as it relates to both creativity and justice. But to think about this more we’re first going to go to Hollywood. Now, many of these films that we’ve seen– Juno, and Slumdog Millionaire, Lars and the Real Girl, and the King’s Speech– would never have been brought to light if not for something called the black list. Some of you might know the blacklist. It’s not the communist blacklist or that of Timothy Greenfield Sanders on HBO. It is a different blacklist entirely. It was devised by a young executive who was working at Leonardo DiCaprio’s production company who wanted to find a better way to identify great scripts. He didn’t think he was seeing the quality that he knew was out there. Because, as we know, are written per year, logged with the Writers’ Guild of America. And if you were to spend every day just reading them, But you can’t fully get your arms around what’s there. And we know there’s more out there than these pre-sold properties, the sort of sequels that we see over and over again. So he decided to do something unusual. He decided to solicit the input of his colleagues by sending around anonymous email asking them, essentially, three things. Please send me scripts that you love, whether or not you think they can really be produced and make money. Please send me scripts that haven’t been produced. And please me scripts that you know haven’t been produced and won’t be for the next 12 months. The reply from this email yielded something that he then dubbed the black list. And on this list were scripts of these screenplays that I’ve just shown you. And when he sent out this list from an anonymous email account to his colleagues, Hollywood development stopped that day. But he didn’t know it because he was actually in a private domain of his own. didn’t have his phone with him, so he didn’t know that people were sending this list to each other, asking, what is this? Why are we seeing that 24 mentions for Juno, in fact, are on this list. Why are we seeing Things We Lost in the Fire, a film by Allan Loeb that was gaining no traction, that no one thought had enough merit to really make it as a blockbuster? Why are we seeing that people actually like these scripts? And why have we not heard this before? So Franklin, in that moment, thought he was going to get fired, essentially. He thought that he had created a device that had so intrigued people, but yet revealed that he was doing something he shouldn’t have, which is just read scripts for Appian Way. The blacklist contributed to the success of these films for a very specific reason. It revealed that there’s something called the ash experiment taking place in Hollywood constantly– in any industry, constantly, where you have to adjudicate between properties to determine whether or not you’re going to support them financially. The ash experiment was something done in the 1950s, and it’s been repeated constantly. It’s a very simple test on its face. If I were to ask you which of the three lines look similar to the card on your left, it’s so obvious what the answer is. I don’t even need to ask. But wouldn’t you be surprised to know that when asked the same question in the context of a group that’s all been paid to give the wrong answer, either one or three, 65% of the time, you would go along with the group and say one or three. I find that shocking. I find it shocking especially because when you look at what actually is going on in the mind in that group process, what neuroeconomist Gregory Berns has found is that you don’t even know that you’re doing it. You don’t even know that you’re giving up your true thought for the sake of the group’s opinion. This is a way to think about why some of these films– Juno, Slumdog Millionaire, Lars and the Real Girl– weren’t gaining traction. As Franklin Leonard put it to me, I’m very confident in my taste, but I’d have a hard time saying to– he then went on to work for Will Smith’s production company– James Lassiter, I want you to take time over the weekend to watch Lars and the Real Girl, to read this script about a man who falls in love with a sex doll. It’s a very difficult thing to do. The same with all of these quirky, unusual scripts. What the blacklist allowed for executives to state was what they really believed out of the context of this decision throwing group scenario. And I think this is crucial to understand, as we think about the way that commerce can cauterize excellence when it comes to the creative process. Why it is that so many incredible productions don’t get their merit because they haven’t been given a safe space to actually be supported. So the blacklist has become a king maker, a kind of a queen maker. Every year this list comes out, and every year, people are surprised by the scripts that executives truly like. But it’s now become so popular that it no longer serves the same function in a sense. It’s now a list that sometimes people will wrangle to get on. But I think it’s truly important to recall. I was talking to the producer of the Batman film franchise, who remembers how difficult it was to get that supported because people only had in their minds the only other cartoon movie they could think of, and that was Annie. He said to me, can you imagine? That’s the only thing that they could compare it to. So the blacklist reminds us of why, cognitively, we will always need these private domains. Why we can’t just push past the technology of the mind and the heart, no matter how much this digital culture shifts our ways of doing work. In some way, it shouldn’t be so surprising when we will need these private domains when we think of the way in which something that arrests us, that has true aesthetic force, shifts our mode of thinking and catapults us inward. I love this quote by Thomas Jefferson. When he was describing to a friend what a painting had done to him. He said that it fixed me like a statue a quarter of an hour or half an hour– I do not know which– for I lost all ideas of time, even the consciousness of my existence. Private spaces develop in us so that we can summon the bravery to see the world differently. This has been crucial in a country that’s required that we go against majority opinion, oftentimes for the sake of social justice. Frederick Douglass knew this. During the Civil War, a couple of decades after Morse created the telegraph, he gave a speech that surprised his audience in which he argued that it would be these private spaces that occur when we are gripped by anything that might be produced in this audience. And this is what we need to honor. It is, in fact, what Charles Black tried to remind his audience of, his students of, when he would speak about the power of Louis Armstrong. Charles Black was a constitutional lawyer who went on to become one of lawyers on Brown versus Board of Education in 1954 because in 1931, he saw Louis Armstrong perform and knew in that moment that there was genius coming out of his horn. And he knew in that moment that segregation must be wrong, that there was a private domain that he had to go into and stay in for two decades before he could actually argue against the majority opinion about the importance of social justice in this country. So when it comes to a new idea, a collective idea, an idea that your company has, perhaps that you have– I think it’s about time that we honor these inner worlds as much as we do our networking and put our work– and the need to put our work out there. I think I mentioned I was a little nervous to give this talk, to mention this, and nervous even still before I came. But I got a sign that I knew it was the right thing to do when I received an email with this title– “oldest living surrealist tells all,” and I have to open it. And the subtitle of this article was, Dorothea Tanning, painter, sculptor, writer, and wife of Max Ernst, counsels young artists– keep your eye on your inner world and keep away from ads, idiots, and movie stars. I’ll leave that to her to discuss, but keep your eye on your inner world.

This is not merely a contrarian way of looking at the world or how new ideas are created or executed. It has, in many cases, been the only way we’ve created the world that we want to celebrate. Thank you. [MUSIC PLAYING]

Comments (2)
  • Monier

    Could you please put subtitles English or Arabic….?

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