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Hey, How'd You Tackle Writing About the Human Spirit for Your Latest Book, Sarah Lewis?

'There were personal journeys I had to go on to be able to write about this difficult topic.'

- May 22, 2014
Sarah Lewis' nonfiction debut The Rise: Creativity, the Gift of Failure, and the Search for Mastery is a keen interrogation of some of the most inexplicable aspects of the human experience: the pursuit of mastery, creativity, innovation and the surprising advantages that can come from failure. Lewis' lifelong fascination with how people "become" turns universal in The Rise as she explores the sometimes-precarious beginnings that can lead to a phoenixlike rise through the stories of a staggering range of subjects, including explorers, scientists, choreographers, entrepreneurs and many others. Her book engages intellectually and inspires wonder, giving equal weight to both scientific and artistic inquiry.

Soon to receive her PhD in art history from Yale University, Lewis is currently a faculty member in the MFA program at Yale's School of Art, has held curatorial positions at the Tate Modern and the Museum of Modern Art and has served on President Barack Obama's Arts Policy Committee. She is nearing the completion of yet another ambitious book project born from her PhD dissertation: an examination of the "fabrication and mythology of race," which she will finish during her Du Bois research fellowship at Harvard's Hutchins Center for African and African American Research.

Here, Lewis shares with Mediabistro the details of her writing process for The Rise.

For The Rise, you chose to write about very enigmatic material. Was there a moment when you felt overwhelmed by the immensity of the task? If so, how did you pull through it?
Well, there was no period in which I didn't feel the immensity of the topic I chose to write about, and I deliberately said 'no' to a number of things to give myself enough room to grow in the way I needed to in order to write. There was a moment when I was writing about the topic of surrender and how it is that people derive strength from it, whether it's Arctic explorer Ben Saunders or others [who refuse to give up]. Somehow, relaxing in the face of difficulty, they were able to tap into the inner resources that they needed to discern which way to go next. And it took me a long time to understand that idea, in part because it is enigmatic. It is the paradox about life. We have physical evidence and we know that trees are strong[er] when they're supple and they actually blow with the wind as opposed to cracking and bending over, but there are very few examples of this in sentient life and how we live as human beings.

So when I came to the point where I needed to write about surrender, I realized that I had to surrender myself as an author -- in order to be able to digest this -- to what I felt I was being called to say and write about. The surrendering process also meant coping with a lot of grief and letting go of a lot of things I felt were holding me back. So there were personal journeys I had to go on in order to free up enough psychic room to be able to write about this difficult topic.

You mentioned you had experienced six months of sheer terror before you actually dove into writing The Rise. What spurred you to really start the process?
That six-month period came after I received the contract. I wrote the proposal -- it was fairly extensive. I had a clear roadmap in my mind of what I thought I wanted to do. Oftentimes, I think what's marketable right now or fashionable are books that sort of teach you how to do things -- how to overcome failure. And I realized in that six-month period, I had no ambition to write a how-to book. I wanted to write a more soulful, probing investigation.

"I had no ambition to write a how-to book. I wanted to write a more soulful, probing investigation."

And the terror came in when I realized that I was going to have to go to some depths, and heights as well, that I hadn't fully anticipated when I set out to do it. I had decided to write a book that was on a topic that really hasn't been touched fully before. And I placed a lot of trust in the fact that if I felt called to write about a topic, then I must have somewhere within me the inner resources to be able to do it to the best of my ability. I realized that it was completely blue sky. The exhilaration that got me through it was in feeling that there was really nothing better than writing about the capacity of the human spirit, so what was I afraid of?

Can you describe the process of shaping The Rise and placing the chapters in order before publication?
I wrote the chapters as they came to me. And the first four chapters weren't written in order, but they were the earlier chapters that I wrote. The reordering happened because I looked at the different chapters and could just feel that the rhythm that I initially put them in was off, based on what I was sort of hearing was right for the book. I had this process when I wrote where I would walk by the Hudson River near where I lived [in New York], and I would meditate and kind of get into the rhythm of the flow of that river. And something about it helped me hear the flow of what the sentence structure and the chapters needed to be. It was mystical.

Why did you specifically select The Archer's Paradox to begin The Rise?
I love that decision. And it was actually there that way from the start. When I went to watch those women archers at Columbia's Baker Athletics Complex that was the day that I really understood why I was writing what I was writing. I think it's a mistake to lead by talking about failure when people want to talk about the topic of the book. Really, [the book] is looking at ultimately how it is that we achieve anything new, anything great and how it is that we see mastery instead of just success. And I love the image of seeing that with these women; women who were hitting the bull's-eye, perhaps, but then hitting an 8 and knowing that they had just hit a 10. What does it mean to sort of outdo yourself constantly and/or see that you are better than you were a second ago? What does that journey of mastery look like? And how is it that tenacity can come from a near win? Those are all things that I loved seeing in them.

I also chose them because it was harder to find stories of women whose rise began or was spurred on by some difficulty. And I think that's in part due to the fact that it's only in the past few decades that women have been expected to be successful and therefore have felt comfortable talking about the full arc of what it took to get us where we are.

What was the hardest story or section you had to leave out of The Rise and why?
I interviewed [Dr.] Ellen Langer, who is a professor at Harvard in psychology. She pioneered work on the mind-body connection before the term 'mindfulness' was even a term -- she coined the term. She's remarkable and has produced, and is [constantly] producing, some path-breaking work. I interviewed her for the chapter about the grit of the arts; the last full chapter in the book. And she's since become a friend. And I had to leave much of what I gleaned from that interview out of the chapter… and it was difficult to do.

"Really, [the book] is looking at ultimately how it is that we achieve anything new, anything great and how it is that we see mastery instead of just success."

But what she had to say and the insights that she gave me weren't quite right for the story that I was teasing out as it related to Samuel Morse's life; how he was nimble enough -- and mindful enough, really -- to shift from painting for 26 years to inventing the telegraph. Ellen Langer was revealing something else, also about herself, in these interviews that frankly deserve their own chapters, their own book.

At a recent talk at The Aspen Institute, you said that in writing The Rise you felt yourself becoming the person you didn't think you could become. Who is that person you became?
I mentioned that comment as it relates to critique. I think the person I am now is very different in terms of how much stock I put into how people see me. I don't mean to say that I don't care what people think about me. You're on the planet, you're alive, you care about your relationships with people. It's just to say that I now value what I think about myself just as much. And that shift, I think, means the world for anyone who creates, because once your roots are deep it doesn't matter how strong the winds are, in a sense. It's kind of deepened my own roots about my own sense of myself. I think that really has been the biggest gift.

Sarah Lewis on harnessing the power of the imagination:

1. Get exposed. "Put yourself in a position where you're letting yourself be exposed to, not just the arts, but really anything that allows you to feel wonder. Let yourself explore."

2. Embrace the element of surprise. "When you're young, you never know what's going to grip you. But once you get hit with that moment of wonder, you know exactly why you're here [and] what you're meant to do in this life, and will spend the rest of your life pursuing it."

3. Recognize that an experience is not one-size-fits-all. "That moment of wonder is so unique for everyone. For me, I was watching some choreography by Pina Bausch, and I was just moved to the point where I didn't even have the words. And I realized that I wanted to have my book talk about the capacity of the human spirit in a way that somehow her dance did."

Janday Wilson is a storyteller based in the greater New York City area. You can find more of her work at

NEXT >> Hey, How'd You Write A New York Times Nonfiction Bestseller, Isabel Wilkerson?

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This interview has been edited for length and clarity. The foregoing is the sole property of Mediabistro Inc. The opinions and views expressed in the interviews and/or commentaries are solely those of the participants and are not necessarily the views of Mediabistro Inc., its affiliates or subsidiary companies.

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