In an April appearance on “The Colbert Report,” Jonah Lehrer talked with host Stephen Colbert about creativity, the subject of his new book, “Imagine.” Editions of the book are now being pulled by the publisher, after Tablet Magazine contributor Michael Moynihan revealed that quotations by Bob Dylan were fabricated by Lehrer. In a statement in which he announced his resignation from The New Yorker, where he had self-plagiarized several pieces in June, Lehrer said “The lies are over now. I understand the gravity of my position. I want to apologize to everyone I have let down, especially my editors and readers. I also owe a sincere apology to Mr. Moynihan.”
Here’s what Lehrer told Colbert about creativity:
Colbert: First of all, you stole your title from John Lennon. So, who are you to speak on creativity? … You say that new ideas come from old ideas. What do you mean by that?
Lehrer: When you look at the history of innovation, even some of the most radical breakthroughs are really just combinations of old ideas. … The Gutenberg printing press really just a wine press applied to the written word. …
Colbert: So a creative act then would be seeing something that already exists and saying I want to use that in a different way.
Colbert: That’s also theft. “Hey, I like your car. I’d like to use that in a different way, like me driving it.” Is that an act of creativity?
Lehrer: It can sometimes be a fine line. Bob Dylan has this great line when someone asked him where his songs come from, he said, they begin with acts of love. You fall in love with something and then you steal it. That you make it your own, you reinvent it, you in a sense misremember it. And that’s an important part of creativity which is why it’s so important to create a culture where people can liberally borrow from the ideas of others. So William Shakespeare, a pretty creative guy I think we can agree, he stole most of his plots. He didn’t like coming up with his own stories. But he had access to a publishing industry that gave him lots of stories to steal, and nobody stopped him. And so you see this again and again among very creative people. They have very open minds, they read everything, they’re incredibly curious, and they steal a lot.
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Also in April, Lehrer was interviewed by PandoDaily’s Hamish McKenzie, who asked him whether stealing gets a “bad rap when it comes to creativity.” Lehrer again turned to Dylan: “My favorite lines on that come from Bob Dylan – he always describes his creative process as one of love and theft. You fall in love and then you steal it. Of course, you have to make it your own, or else that’s just straight-up theft – that’s just straight-up copyright violation – but that’s really what the creative process is all about.”