John Cleese on Creativity

A few years ago I heard a talk by John Cleese on creativity. Readers may remember him from Fawlty Towers and Monty Python, and the antic skits of the characters.

Cleese didn’t talk about the expected issues of creating characters or structuring story lines. His focus was on creativity broadly defined, and how each one of us can learn to be creative. One comment in particular stayed with me because it seemed simple but also hard. It wasn’t particularly profound but it was the kind of insight that came as the result of experience. He said one of his co-workers jumped on the first idea that came, he was sure it would work, and he insisted on going forward with that. I certainly understand the feeling of facing a problem in a story and having a solution fall into my brain that seems absolutely perfect because I want it to be perfect. Not knowing what to write next is extremely uncomfortable. Maybe other writers don’t feel that way, but I certainly do. My instinct is to grab the solution and run, grateful for having an answer to my problem pop up.

Cleese’s warning was this. The first idea to come isn’t the best. His co-worker, Cleese felt, invariably produced something far less successful or not at all successful than what he would have developed if he’d waited. Cleese’s point, put less elegantly, is to consider the first idea the clutter that is concealing the better ideas, which require more time to surface. As frustrating as this can be, he’s right. 

Living with uncertainty is hard especially when you want to maintain the forward motion of the narrative. You’ve set up your characters to act and now you’ve got them marking time, marching back and forth across the page, and you’re worried they’ll lose their mojo. 

My current WIP seemed finished—polished and well put together, the story arc complete. I had a quiet doubt that maybe one or two aspects weren’t quite right, but I was ready to attribute those to the usual insecurities of the writer. I was wrong to do so. I just got the ms back with comments that hit those passages, and they need work. (Thank Heavens for the honest reader.)

This feedback reminded me of an earlier experience when an academic colleague gave me a draft of an article to read and comment on. I pointed out the various spots where he hadn’t answered related questions. He insisted they didn’t matter, but I felt they did. “You have all these puzzle pieces that are part of the question, but you only resolve half of them. You have to resolve all of them,” I told him, “to justify your conclusion.”

In my mystery novel I’m dealing with creating steps in the logic based on facts I created. To solve the problems of the plot, I have to sit with it for several days, listening to the characters, and letting the desire to get things on paper fall away while I wait for my unconscious to work. I have to be patient and trust my own creative resources. I have no idea how long this will take, but it’s necessary. And once the hidden ideas come to light, things will start to make sense, and I can move forward.

If you want to learn more about John Cleese’s approach to creativity, you can explore his book Creativity: A Short and Cheerful Guide by John Cleese,

Writer’s Block

I recently read an article about writer’s block, and nodded as I read through the various suggestions to overcome it. The problem is, I don’t think I’ve ever had real writer’s block as it was described in that and several other articles. I’ve never felt the blank wall closing in on me, the paucity of the well of ideas, the cold empty feeling of not knowing what to do next, the inability to move forward in any way. I do, however, have moments when I don’t like the ideas I’ve come up with, I know they’re not going to work, and I can’t think of something better. I may not call it writer’s block, but I have something in my brain that’s not working.

Carl Jung believed in the all-powerful unconscious to create art in its many forms. 

“The creative process, so far as we are able to follow it at all, consists in the unconscious activation of an archetypal image, and in elaborating and shaping this image into the finished work. By giving it shape, the artist translates it into the language of the present, and so makes it possible for us to find our way back to the deepest springs of life.” (Collected Works 15, paragraph 115)

I don’t think of myself as a Jungian, but I do think that the unconscious plays a role. When the ideas that seem obvious to me also feel unsatisfactory, I set the work aside and do something else, such as write a blog post, outline a different story, read. I let the obvious and unworkable material evaporate and hope something better will come along. And eventually it does.

John Cleese, a man who seems to exude creativity in everything he does once said that he never takes the first idea. If you clap onto the first idea that comes to you, you miss something better. You have to be willing to wait until the dross fades and the pure rises to the surface.

Sometimes I try out the less perfect ideas and use them as a bridge to the next scene or chapter, which I’ve already sensed is a good piece. After a while, the problem with the “bridge” scene becomes obvious and I can rework or remove it. 

One of the best pieces of advice I ever got from another writer was to take my time, don’t rush it, let the story grow organically. If that means setting it aside for a few hours or a few days, do it. The mode of expression is different but the idea lines up with letting the unconscious do its work.

It doesn’t take much to spark a story idea, but it does take more thinking to get the feel of the entire story, who the characters are and how they will interact, the setting and how it affects the characters and the plot, and the tone or mood of the whole thing.

In my experience the writer’s block occurs when I push forward too hard, before I’ve let the story develop. When ideas start popping (yes, like the first signs of popcorn popping), then I settle down to write it out, knowing that I’ll have to stop at a later point and wait for the rest of it to show up. A moment of writer’s block is telling me something, and I’ve learned to listen.