john cleese-creativity

Time, creativity, and a healthy remedial dose of John Cleese.

Recently, I listened to John Cleese talk about creativity (13 min highlights, or 36 min presentation, and the real beauty is the Norwegian subtitles which may or may not have something to do with moose).

Trying to create can make the most patient and determined among us go ARGH, and I don’t mean the castle. But I did a lot of head-nodding and a lot of being thankful for the things Cleese mentions, things which have increased my productivity and my overall happiness with the work process.

Who do you believe?

This is a very important question. Now, I do want to distinguish here between serious ideas and solemn people, because approaching ideas solemnly may not produce the most serious answers and results.

When you listen to advice on creativity and art, who do you believe? Those with the ability to generate great incense-laden clouds of liturgy on the subject? I give you the Cleesian wisdom:

But solemnity? It serves pomposity. And the self-important always know at some level of their consciousness that their egotism is going to be punctured by humour, and that’s why they see it as a threat, and so, dishonestly, pretend that their deficiency makes their views more substantial, when it only makes them feel bigger.


-John Cleese

A raspberry is hardly solemn, but in this case, it’s utterly serious.

The best technical books I can recommend on writing use a good dose of humour to achieve their point, because few remember what they read in a textbook, but everyone remembers a good joke. Laughter is how we internalize things best.

Solemnity is not the same thing as substance, and just because someone sounds very solemn does not excuse them from being totally wrong. In fact it might be a red flag in the other direction.

Just think of the overweening solemnity of any government communique. Now (I’m speaking to writers here, but the principle remains for us all) apply the same view to any bit of publishing advice.

Is print dead?

Is traditional publishing antagonistic to self-publishing?

Is this the end of the world as we know it?

Are you sure? Beware solemnity.

Who do you trust?

I’ve learned something over the past couple of years. When it comes to nonfiction writing, I can work for anyone as long as they pay me on time and I’m interested in their topic. When it comes to creative writing, I have stricter boundaries.

Most of all, I’ll tolerate far less interpersonal static. That’s because I don’t write informational nonfiction in the same mindset as fiction or creative nonfiction.

The structural mainbeam of a creative environment is trust, because as Cleese points out, if there’s someone in the mix who makes you feel “wrong” about the core nature of your creative vision — this is different from technical critique for artistic improvement — it all shuts down.

free to play-cleese

Having one good friend who doesn’t laugh at my writing mistakes makes all the difference. Well, okay: we laugh at (more accurately, with) each other. But we don’t mean it. The creative process isn’t solemn. It isn’t holy. And yet it must be safe. It must be “fail-safe” in a whole different sense than the word’s usual meaning.

Which is why the one thing that will turn me from a quiet and unassuming wallflower into a roaring lion is to see a creative person’s native passions get bludgeoned with pompous moral superiority. “Literary is better than that sci-fi pulp stuff.” “Faith-based fiction is an inherently inferior market sector.” Or whatever. I suppose there’s always someone who will drink kool-aid with utter solemnity.

Perfectionism, as one example, has no place in art. It amounts to gratuitous disrespect of an artist’s discovery process. It doesn’t encourage greater attainment. It leads to the destruction of playfulness.

Who dictates your time constraints?

Writing on spec (with no publication contract or payment ahead of time) kind of sucks. It involves no guarantees.

But it also involves no guarantees. When you haven’t promised anything to anyone yet, you’re actually more free to deliver great things, simply because there’s more time to wrestle with problem-solving in the creative process.

In the world of deadlines and prearranged commitments, it’s a whole separate art form to learn to use time in flexible ways, so as to squeeze the greatest juice from the muse moments.

john cleese-creativity

Cleese points out that the struggle of problem-solving, if alleviated too early, doesn’t produce as fantastic a result as wrangling things a little longer.

There’s a point of diminishing return on investment, of course, and knowing when to just plain cut it out is a key skill in a mature workman. But too often, we stop so very far short of that point that it never even heaves into view on the distant horizon.

This is one area where I weird out my writing partner quite a bit at times. From the outside, expressions of creative discomfort can look like nervous obsessive twitching behaviour. Or in his calmer and less verbose case, refusing the snap decision can look like a Merry Shrug of Non-Commitment.

For both of us, it’s neither. It’s just part of the process of generating better ideas. I get through it via a tizzy of obsessive muttering that camouflages itself as a risky degree of fuzzy-mindedness. He does it by setting things firmly aside until they come to him properly of their own accord. It’s a personality difference.

What will you do?

In closing, I’m circling back to Cleese’s opening remarks: Telling people how to be creative is the easy part. It’s only being creative that’s difficult.

And that, really, is why it’s so terribly important to filter out other creatives who don’t contribute in any serious way — it’s nothing personal, it’s that creativity is personal. Which means that the nature of serious contributions is also a personal and individual thing.

No amount of solemnity can overcome that. Do you know how I chose my writing partner, out of all the writers I know? Lots of people can give worthy feedback, but he’s one of the people who’s the most sheer, hilarious fun for me to associate with. There’s no way to predict or regulate that kind of thing.

The difficulty of creation is why it’s so important to guard that fundamental mainbeam of a trustworthy, play-friendly environment. That comes out in common phrases like “turn off the phone,” or “lock the study door,” or “get a new critique group.” Or even, “just don’t tell your aunt about it.” The environment of trust is, sadly but truly, fostered by what’s disallowed from getting inside it and dirtying up the floors.

And it’s why it matters to make time for the process. Time well wasted does exist.

Now go stare out a window. If anyone asks, tell them you’re working. Because it’s true.

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  1. I love this! We should all be free to be playful! I feel quite seriously about this . . . but not particularly solemn. ;)

  2. Cleese’s talk was wonderful (your post may be, too, but I need to re-read it again when I’m not feverish). I think I know now why my life is so blah at the moment: I’m stuck in closed mode. I get stuck at the multitude of distractions, the bombardment of my mind by all the little trivial things that I want/need to chase up, and never quite make it through that.

    For me, creativity is absolutely crucial for getting any satisfaction from my life (particularly my work), and for the past x months I just haven’t got there often enough.

    1. Uck, fever. Feel better soon.

      I found the holiday season really locked me into the “closed” state of mind, and I’m still not quite back to switching smoothly into a creating mode. It seems the biggest effort is the moving back and forth between mental frames.

      I love this article about artistic and life discipline. It reflects about the spirituality of creating as well, which is take-or-leave depending on one’s views, but nonetheless the human insights are something I’ve revisited often.

      And this one on the fallacy of self-scheduling was a more recent one that clicked for me. Scheduling advice has never worked in my world…

      1. Right, re-read the post. Good stuff! Although…

        “Perfectionism, as one example, has no place in art. It amounts to gratuitous disrespect of an artist’s discovery process. It doesn’t encourage greater attainment. It leads to the destruction of playfulness.”

        Are you talking about perfectionism in the artist or in their critics, here? If the latter, I’d agree, if the former I’m not sure I do. To me “perfection” in something I’ve created just means I’ve got it to a point where I’m happy with it; it doesn’t to be perfect according to anyone else or any (probably arbitrary) “objective” scale.

        *goes to read further links*

        1. Perfectionism — I’m thinking of the paralyzing inability to be content with the highest attainments of one’s current skillset. I’ve met a few writers and artists who want a certain abstract ideal so badly that it hamstrings them from doing what they actually can achieve.

          I’m very, very detailed in what I want from a project, but I have a cutoff point based on personal satisfaction as well. I agree, those externally-imposed scales are generally pretty arbitrary.

  3. John Cleese does a fabulous job showing us how to be creative by BEING creative. His use of jokes illustrates his point about solemn and serious. I do think that our tradition school settings and time-frames make “fostering an atmosphere of creativity” difficult.

    1. He is a fantastic example, isn’t he?

      Yep…I was one of those kids who drew cartoon in class and stayed up way too late in order to write stories, because school interfered. And yet there’s a lot of research correlating creative activity with overall learning and development.

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