art,  introspection,  writing

John Cleese on Creativity

A few months ago, I came across a lecture given by John Cleese on the nature of creativity that he gave as a training piece for corporate managers.  I’ve found myself thinking about several aspects of it, so I thought I would share it here.

I was never a Monty Python fan, mostly because their work was so well quoted that by the time I actually saw any of it that all of the surprise was gone, which is just death to comedy.  All the same, I have a huge respect for the originality of their material, which has a distinctive flavor to it.  It is hugely creative, so obviously Cleese knows a thing or two about how to do it.  In his lecture, Cleese discusses how to create a time and space for idea generation, which he believes can only happen when the brain is in what he calls “open” mode.  He has five important factors, which he lists as space, time, time, confidence and humor.  In a nutshell, to be creative, you must give yourself a space, a specific time duration in which to maintain focus — and you must allow yourself enough time to really think out the best solution to the problem rather than the fastest solution — and you must believe that you have the ability to be creative.  Humor feeds into that last concept a lot.

Really, you should go watch it, or if you haven’t time for that, read the annotated transcript at Poetry Genius.


In other words, no matter how serious the problem that you are trying to solve, you must allow yourself time and space to play in order to come up with fresh and creative solutions.  This is true, of course, for activities that we already associate with creativity, like art, writing, dance, etc., but it is also true for activities that we don’t associate this way.  It is true for any problem solving that a human mind could possibly want to get involved in.  Kids know this instinctively — if you want to solve a problem, you must give yourself permission to play around and try a few solutions, knowing that some of them are going to be ridiculous.

Human beings need creativity and play.  It is the thing that makes us human.

The part of Cleese’s speech that I have been ruminating on is the second time point– the idea that the most creative solution is unlikely to be the first answer.  I have a very full life, for which I am deeply grateful, but I haven’t left myself much time for just sitting around and mulling over things.  I’m the first person to jump to the page and start writing, instead of sitting over an outline until the path is clear.  In Nanowrimo, this is called seat-of-pantsing and it has led me to write a full novel’s worth of words painting me and my plot right into a corner.  Twice.

After all, the first thought is unlikely to be the most creative thought.  It’s also unlikely to be the best thought, though I’m glad to have had the experience of having done that to myself.  My characters have done so many things in all the pages I’ve thrown away that I know them better than I know myself.  And before I return to the sheep and waterfall covered tundra of my novel, I want to spend time giving myself enough time, because my characters deserve to know where they’re going.

When I was young, I used to spend hours and hours in walking around the neighborhood and telling myself stories.  I’ve found myself thinking about all that time that I used to give myself to solve puzzles and think, about how I used to intentionally miss the bus home so that I would have the long walk to myself.  It’s a habit that I should incorporate into my life again.

I will leave you tonight with an excerpt from a poem that has haunted me, a stanza from Wallace Steven’s 13 Ways of Looking at a Blackbird.

I know noble accents   
And lucid, inescapable rhythms;   
But I know, too,   
That the blackbird is involved   
In what I know.

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