Trillions of Stars: Five Lessons in Creativity from David Lynch
Over Christmas I read Room to Dream, the biography of David Lynch. Anyone who has watched Eraserhead, Twin Peaks, Blue Velvet or Mulholland Drive will know that defying formal conventions is one of the things that makes the director and artist so, well, Lynchian, and sure enough the book is a biography like no other.
Here’s how it was written … Lynch’s co-author Kristine McKenna would first write a chapter in keeping with the traditions of biography — dates, names, interviews — and then Lynch would read her work and produce his own lyrical chapter in response. As McKenna puts it, the process was ‘basically a person having a conversation with his own biography.’ This conceit of dual voices makes for a dynamic, vital book and underscores how there can never be a wholly truthful account of a person’s life, only competing perspectives.
And even if you’re already a fan of the boy from Idaho, there will be much for you to discover here about the life of a true auteur.
Aside from biographical nuggets like Lynch’s unlikely hatred of graffiti and fanatical dedication to smoking, there are inspirational passages on creativity and the process of making. Nobody thinks about ideas, where they come from and how to nurture them in quite the same way as David Keith Lynch.
If you yourself are a maker, no matter your medium, then I’m confident that there’s something in this book for you. As an encouragement to buy, borrow or steal Room to Dream just as soon as you can I’ve selected a few illuminating paragraphs …
On following the idea wherever it takes you
‘I don’t know how I got to that thing of not caring what other people think, but it’s a good thing. The thing is, you fall in love with ideas and it’s like falling in love with a girl. It could be a girl you wouldn’t want to take home to your parents, but you don’t care what anybody else thinks. You’re in love and it’s beautiful.’
For Lynch ideas are not evanescent properties conjured up somewhere inside our heads. Ideas are things: they exist in their own right, outside of ourselves. The trick is to put yourself in the right frame of mind first to be able to catch them and then, above else, to stay true to them, no matter how dark, disturbing or difficult the place they take you.
On being present
Most of us when we begin creating have an objective in mind: we know the image we want to paint or the story we wish to tell. We may even be following a script, a sketch or a storyboard.
Lynch, whose commitment to meditation is well known, practices what you could call ‘mindful creativity’, where he’s constantly alive to the possibilities of the moment and not afraid to deviate from what was planned. Here’s just one example described by the actor Richard Beymer during the shooting of Twin Peaks …
“I came in one day while they were shooting and I was standing in the back waiting, wearing a new pair of shoes that were kind of stiff. As a kid I’d learned to tap dance, so I was doing a little of that to loosen up the shoes, and he sees me and comes over and says, ‘Do you dance?’ I said, ‘I used to dance a little,’ and he said, ’Why don’t you dance in the next scene?’ I said, ‘David, in the next scene I’m talking about murdering someone,’ and he says ‘It will be great! In fact, you should dance on your desk.’”
And this love of the magic of accidents, the beautiful and unpredictable possibilities thrown up by fate, is why Lynch prefers to always shoot on location rather than on set …
‘It’s not necessarily true that I don’t know what the film is until I get there and shoot it. If that were true, then you wouldn’t be able to trust a person like me. You have a script and a definite idea of what you want, but sometimes when you get there you see things and possibilities and things can grow … and that’s why shooting on location is great. If you build a set based on your mind, then that’s what it will be, but when you go on location all kinds of stuff can happen. ‘
On lateral thinking, creative challenges & problem solving
By not being wedded to a given outcome Lynch is able to navigate the vicissitudes of a movie shoot with elegance and grace, as Deepak Nayar who began as Lynch’s driver and became his producer, explains …
“We’d taken over a big street and we had cars and there was a stunt sequence and everything was outside. On the evening of the shoot, I get a call … saying that it’s raining. We’d already shot the scenes that preceded and followed the scene we were shooting that night, and it wasn’t raining in them, so I called David and said, ‘This is one of our biggest days, the cost of running this thing is huge, and we need to carry on shooting tonight. Can we shoot this in doors?’ He immediately said, ‘Nope. We’re gonna shoot outside. Get me two hoses, too good-looking boys, too good-looking girls, and have them there when I get to the set.’ David came up with a brilliant idea of having these four kids playing with hoses and getting each other wet, so the water in the scene looked like it was coming from the hoses rather than from the sky.”
Even when Lynch is faced with a difficult situation he is unable to resolve at the time, he’s aware enough to recognise that what appears to be a negative today can lead to something positive tomorrow …
‘One day when I was casting Blue Velvet, I was working … with two actors, and Robert Loggia was waiting to test for Frank Booth. I was so long working with these two actors that we ran out of time, so somebody went and told Robert Loggia, “You’re not needed,” and he hit the fucking roof. He came in screaming at me, like so mad — it was scary. But I remembered that and that’s how he wound up playing Mr Eddie in Lost Highway. See, one thing leads to another, and when we worked together on Lost Highway we got along like Ike and Mike. We had so much fun.’
Early on in his career, after the unexpected critical and commercial success of The Elephant Man, Lynch experiences a commensurate failure as his first big budget project the sci-fi movie Dune bombs …
‘I learned about failure, and in a way failure is a beautiful thing because when the dust settles there is nowhere to go but up, and it’s a freedom. You can’t lose more, but you can gain. You’re down and everybody knows you’re down and that you fucked up and you’re a loser, and you just say, “Okay,” and you keep working.’
All of us who seek to make exceptional creative work must fail sooner or later. It’s the inevitable outcome of repeatedly taking risks. But to see it as a recalibration which means that everything you create from now on can only be better reframes the failure as an inspiration, rather than a disincentive.
Indeed for Lynch success itself can be counterproductive …
‘Success can screw you because you start worrying about failing, and you can’t ever stay in the same place. That’s just the way it is.’
More important to him than either the success or failure afforded a project, is the intention with which it was made …
‘There is this Vedic saying that goes, “Man has control of action alone, never the fruit of that action.” In other words, you do the best you can and how the thing goes into the world, you can’t control that. It’s lucky when it goes good and it’s gone good for me, and it’s horrible when it goes bad and it’s gone bad for me. Everybody’s had those experiences, but so what? You die two deaths if you’ve sold out and not done what you were supposed to do. And that was Dune. You die once because you sold out, and you die twice because it was a failure. Fire Walk with Me didn’t do anything out in the world, but I only died one time with that picture, because I felt good about it.’
He encapsulates this philosophy in one simple and profound sentence.
‘You can live with yourself perfectly fine if you stay true to what you love.’
A final thought
As you’ll have no doubt gleaned by now I am something of an evangelist for the silver haired auteur and his apparently boundless creativity. Yet no human is without flaws. And over the course of the 500 pages of Room to Dream we hear from some of Lynch’s ex-wives and children about how they often found themselves in competition with his devotion to his art.
On the whole though it is an inspiring life, and one well lived. Towards the end of the book its subject leaves us with a simple reminder: above all else, to take the time to look around.
‘Most people’s lives are filled with mystery, but things move super-fast nowadays and there’s not much time to sit and daydream and notice the mystery. There are fewer and fewer places in the world now where you can see the stars in the night sky … one time we were outside LA shooting a commercial and at two in the morning we turned off the lights and lay down on the desert floor and just looked up. Trillions of stars. Trillions. It’s so powerful. And because we’re not seeing those stars we’re forgetting how grand the whole show is.
‘Ultimately, each life is a mystery until we each solve the mystery, and that’s where we are all headed whether we know it or not.’
Room to Dream is published in paperback by Canongate. Discover more about the courses I run in creativity here.