Put a Fish in the Percolator: What David Lynch Taught Me About Creativity

Five things I learned from the work of David Lynch

Neil Shurley
Sep 6, 2018 · 4 min read

Like most of mainstream America, my first exposure to the work of David Lynch came with the release of The Elephant Man, his first big time Hollywood production. Bankrolled by Mel Brooks, the film was striking and, except for the strange elephant-noise collage sequences, pretty straightforward in a narrative sense. It provoked a lot of discussion with my fellow high schoolers and I, for one, loved the use of black and white.

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Next up was Dune, a film that came with a crib sheet handed out at the box office. I again enjoyed a lot of the visuals in the film and really dug the atypical soundtrack music by the (unfamiliar to me then, because I am a nerd) rock band Toto. I’d tried to read the novel Dune several times in high school and never made it past, oh, 1/3 of the way through the book. I was therefore startled when nearly the entire film consisted of ideas and scenes that I’d read in the novel. I guess that’s why the SciFi Channel ended up doing a miniseries version years later.

Then came Blue Velvet. So disturbing. So strange. So wonderful. I loved it. And when I read (in Rolling Stone, trying to temper my nerdosity) a couple years later that Lynch was developing a TV series, I couldn’t wait to see it.

Twin Peaks absorbed my thoughts and attention in a way no other TV show had since I was a kid watching Star Trek reruns every day after school. And I couldn’t wait to see Wild at Heart upon its release. I’d become a Lynch junkie. I sought out his Industrial Symphony. I spent hours listening to Julee Cruise. I baked pies. I considered drinking 14 cups of coffee a day, as he reputedly did. I thought of ways to come up with images and scenes that were seemingly tangential to the main scope of a piece.

By the time Twin Peaks, well, peaked, I’d come down from my Lynch high and the Twin Peaks movie Fire Walk With Me didn’t help restore the luster. I saw and enjoyed (if it’s actually possible to say you “enjoyed”) Lost Highway but I haven’t seen any of his other, later films. And although I still haven’t seen the new season of Twin Peaks, I absolutely loved his memoir, Room to Dream.

But as I think back on those critical early years, I can pick out five things I learned from Lynch about the nature of creativity.

  1. Read the Art Spirit by Robert Henri. This book was mentioned by Lynch a couple of times in interviews, so I sought it out. It’s addressed primarily to visual artists, painters, but there is so much in there that applies to the creative process in general. I gave away my first copy to another writer I thought would appreciate it. The takeaway message I got from Henri was about focus, about paying attention to the moment, of fully investing yourself in the creation of a work. Be there, let it flow out and don’t second guess and rearrange and fret. Let it flow. I should probably read it again soon.
  2. Diversify. Lynch is a writer, director, painter, sculptor and musician. He works in film, television, stage and galleries. He hits and misses. He doesn’t put all his eggs in one basket. He lets his muse tell him which way a particular idea should be expressed. He lets it flow. Again with the flow.
  3. Put a fish in the percolator. One of the strangest and most wonderful moments in early Twin Peaks comes from Pete, the odd fellow who first discovers the body of Laura Palmer. Pete offers Agent Cooper some coffee and, just as Cooper takes a sip, Pete warns him not to drink it — “There was a fish in the percolator.” It’s an image that makes you laugh and then makes you try to figure out why there would be a fish in a percolator. It’s nonsensical and, quite possibly, the first time that phrase has ever been uttered anywhere in any language. Lynch creates unique moments that, with one line, can define a character. Doesn’t this say everything we might want to know about Pete? Stuck with a scene? Stick a fish in the percolator. Or find out what the log has to say.
  4. Damn good coffee — and hot! Yes, this is more Twin Peaks, but that whole coffee and pie thing helped reinforce that idea of living in the moment, of trying to fully appreciate where you are and what you are doing. Sip that coffee, smell it, spit it out if it’s too hot. And don’t just eat the pie, savor it. And don’t forget to thank the person who brought it to you.
  5. Go to extremes. Some of the creepiest moments in an already creepy film come when Willem Dafoe’s head separates from his body in Wild at Heart. And a dog walks off with a hand. And both these moments are actually funny. I remember laughing and laughing when I saw the film. It’s okay to go to absurd lengths very once in a while. Wrap a girl up in plastic. Go ahead and start your film by tunneling underground to see ants, thus making explicit the implicit idea of your film. Don’t be afraid. Go where you need to go.

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Originally published on neilshurley.com

Neil Shurley

Written by

Writer. Actor. Musician. Nerd. Thinks too much about Star Trek, Doctor Who, ukuleles, coffee, and donuts. Not necessarily in that order. neilshurley.com

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