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Produce First, Sharpen Second: What Dylan’s Vomit Teaches Us About Creativity

For Dylan, “Like a Rolling Stone” began as a long piece of vomit, at least that’s what he told two reporters back in 1965. As the story goes, Dylan, who was at the tail end of a grueling tour that took his pre-electric act across the United States and into Europe, decided to quit music and move to a small cabin in upstate New York to rethink his creative direction. He was sick of answering the same questions over and over again. He was sick of singing the same song over and over again. He wanted to liberate his mind.

This is why “Like a Rolling Stone” began as a twenty-page ramble. It was, as Dylan described it, a regurgitation of dissatisfactions and curiosities. What came next was Dylan’s true talent. Like a wood sculpture, he whittled at his rough draft. He cherry picked the good parts and threw away the bad parts. He began to dissect his words to try to understand what his message was. Eventually, Dylan headed to the studio with a clearer vision, and today, “Like a Rolling Stone” stands as one of the very best.

What’s interesting is how Dylan approached the writing process. The song started as a splattering of ideas. Dylan wasn’t even trying to write a song; initially, he didn’t care about verses or choruses. He compared the writing process to vomiting because he was trying to bring an idea that infected his thinking from the inside to the outside of his body.

His strategy isn’t unique. In fact, it resembles the approach of many other artists throughout history. For example, in the Fall 1975 issue of The Paris Review, the Pulitzer Prize winner and Nobel laureate John Steinbeck gave this piece of advice about writing: “Write freely and as rapidly as possible and throw the whole thing on paper. Never correct or rewrite until the whole thing is down. Rewrite in process is usually found to be an excuse for not going on. It also interferes with flow and rhythm which can only come from a kind of unconscious association with the material.” As the saying goes, perfection is achieved not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.

This principle doesn’t just show itself in art. Economies, too, succeed and fail by continuous innovation and wealth followed by unvaried ideas and bankruptcies. The Austrian economist Joseph Schumpeter popularized the term creative destruction to describe the simultaneous accumulation and annihilation of wealth under capitalism. As Schumpeter saw it, for every successful entrepreneur dozens of failures followed. But this was a good thing; capitalism was to be understood as an evolutionary process where good ideas prevailed over bad ones.

With these thoughts in mind, consider a study released this month conducted by Simone Ritter of the Radboud University in the Netherlands with help from Rick B. van Baaren and Ap Dijksterhuis. For the first experiment, the scientists recruited 112 university students and gave them two minutes to come up with creative ideas to solve relatively harmless problems (e.g., improving the experience of waiting in line at a supermarket). Next, the subjects were divided into two groups: the first went straight to work, while the second performed an unrelated task for two minutes to distract their conscious mind.

The first thing the psychologists found wasn’t too eye opening. Both groups – conscious and distracted – created the same amount of ideas. But the second finding was slightly more intriguing. Here’s Jonah Lehrer describing the results:

After writing down as many ideas as they could think of, both groups were asked to choose which of their ideas were the most creative. Although there was no difference in idea generation, giving the unconscious a few minutes now proved to be a big advantage, as those who had been distracted were much better at identifying their best ideas. (An independent panel of experts scored all of the ideas.) While those in the conscious condition only picked their most innovative concepts about 20 percent of the time — they confused their genius with their mediocrity — those who had been distracted located their best ideas about 55 percent of the time. In other words, they were twice as good at figuring out which concepts deserved more attention.

When it comes to writing an essay for college, pitching a business plan or creating a work of art we are hard wired to believe that our output is above average. As a result, we are blind to what needs improvement. It’s not just that we can’t see any holes and errors; we don’t think they exist. What’s interesting about Ritter’s findings is that they give us a strategy to overcome our overconfidence. The lesson from her research is that in order to recognize our imperfections we must step back and be dilettantes. In other words, get distracted and don’t marry the first draft.

And this brings me back to Dylan’s vomit and Steinbeck’s advice. The reason we should “never correct or rewrite until the whole thing is down” is because we initially don’t know which of our ideas are worthwhile. It’s only after we get everything down that we are able to recognize what works from what doesn’t. This is the lesson from Ritter’s research: we need to give the unconscious mind time to mull it over so it can convince the conscious mind to make adjustments. Or, as Nietzsche said in All Too Human: “The imagination of the good artist or thinker produces continuously good, mediocre or bad things, but his judgment, trained and sharpened to a fine point, rejects, selects, connects…. All great artists and thinkers are great workers, indefatigable not only in inventing, but also in rejecting, sifting, transforming, ordering.”

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