Catching the Big Fish by David Lynch

Creators whose work you admire, and who talk about the process of creation in an articulate, helpful, and inspiring way are quite rare. This is, I suppose, partly because creative people are not always prepared to turn round and face the mechanics of what they’re doing, particularly if it ain’t broke. (Alan Moore has that excellent comparison between himself and someone whose livelihood depends on the vehicle they drive: they would naturally want to understand how things work under the bonnet, so why shouldn’t he?) This makes those that can do this all the more valuable. I suppose it’s only natural that the most articulate creators should be those who are used to doing collaborative work where they have to explain their creative vision so that other people can understand it. So this would include comic creators such as the already-mentioned Alan Moore (the recent DVD of The Mindscape of Alan Moore being a prime example), and film directors such as Ridley Scott (whose DVD commentaries are always excellent) and Guillermo del Toro (ditto). I wouldn’t have ever expected David Lynch to fall into this category. In interviews about his films, he notoriously declines to analyse, comment or interpret his work, which always made me think he had a basically instinctive, rather than analytical, approach. (He says: “A film should stand on its own. It’s absurd if a filmmaker needs to say what a film means in words.”) So it was with great surprise that I discovered he’d written a book about the creative process, Catching the Big Fish, which was published in 2006.


It’s made up of a lot of short chapters. (Some chapters consist of a single sentence. Having just discussed the origins of Mulholland Drive, for instance, there’s a chapter called “The Box and the Key” — which are important elements in that film — which reads, simply, “I don’t have a clue what those are.”) Lynch writes in short, simple sentences which get straight to the point and leave out embellishment. He covers ideas and the creative process, film-making, anecdotes from his own life, but also there’s a lot about consciousness and meditation (the subtitle of the book is “Meditation, Consciousness, and Creativity”). There’s rather more about consciousness and meditation than about creativity, but as Lynch sees the three as inextricably linked, that’s understandable.

David Lynch practices Transcendental Meditation. He sees this “diving deep down into the Self” as key to not just successful creativity, but a happy life. He doesn’t proselytise, but he also doesn’t really explain the process of TM (as they charge for courses, I suppose he can’t), which is a bit frustrating for the reader. You can’t try it out for yourself without an outlay (of about $2,500, according to Wikipedia), but I’m inclined to think that any form of “diving deep down into the Self” should do just as well, so Zen meditation, which is free to learn (simply sit there and think of nothing — a remarkably difficult thing to achieve), is probably just as good.

Lynch’s remarks about creativity are incisive. There’s nothing especially new, but hearing these things simply stated, and coming from a creator I admire, is inspiring in itself. Or perhaps this is just because Lynch’s simple prose makes everything he says seem so commonsensical. (“If you want to get one hour of good painting in, you have to have four hours of uninterrupted time” — something he was told by Bushnell Keeler, the artist father of a childhood friend. Also: “It’s crucial to have a setup, so that, at any given moment, when you get an idea, you have the place and the tools to make it happen.”) Lynch’s basic metaphor is that ideas are like fish, and, as he says, “If you want to catch little fish, you can stay in the shallow water. But if you want to catch big fish, you’ve got to go deeper.” In one sentence he expresses a truth about creative ideas which I’ve long thought myself but have never managed to put so succinctly: an idea is “a thought that holds more than you think it does when you receive it.” This thought, this idea, for Lynch, is his touchstone throughout the rest of the creative process. He believes in being absolutely true to it, in always comparing what you’re doing to that initial thought or feeling, and correcting what you do if it strays too far. “If you stay true to the idea,” he says, “it tells you everything you need to know.” This can mean hard work, particularly in a commercial environment which, of all the arts, film is to the greatest extent. “Stay true to yourself,” he says. “Let your voice ring out, and don’t let anybody fiddle with it.” And if you do this? “You’ll glow in this peaceful way. Your friends will be very, very happy with you. Everyone will want to sit next to you. And people will give you money!”

Here’s to that last. Oh, and the others, I suppose. But can I have the last one sooner rather than later?

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