John Cleese: The Top 5 Things You Need For Creativity
By Jacob Krueger
As part of one of his lectures on creativity (video here), John Cleese, of Monty Python fame, spoke about what it takes to get into “the open mode” required for creativity, and why that’s so vital for creating your best work. In many ways, this relates to what I talk about with my students, when I discuss the problems with the formulaic way screenwriting is all-too-commonly taught: with all the education directed toward the conscious editing brain and very little toward the subconscious creative brain, where all the real magic happens.
This induces what Cleese refers to as getting stuck in “the closed mode” in which creativity, and great writing, is impossible.
In the closed mode, the pressure is so great, and the need to do things properly so strong, that you end up cut off from all your best instincts, and more importantly, from the fun of creating. That doesn’t mean that you just get to play around all day, sing Kumbayah, and pretend that it’s going to lead you to a writing career. It does mean that if you want to succeed, you need to find a way to balance the two modes of thinking: and to switch effortlessly them, at the right time, and in the right way.
John Cleese’s top 5 things you need for creativity.
John Cleese lists these five conditions as the five things most likely to help you get into the open mode, where creativity is possible:
5. A 22 Inch Waist
And though he may be joking about at least one of them, the way he defines these things is quite fascinating. What follows is a short summary of his points about each, as well as some of my own perspectives on his ideas.
Cleese defines space as “an oasis of quiet”. A sacred, undisturbed space that is set aside exclusively for your writing. This may be your local coffee shop, a writer’s room, an office or even a special area of your apartment. But what’s important is that this be a special, separate space from the rest of your life. A space that you keep holy. This is not the space where you check Facebook, return text messages, clip your toenails, or flirt with the sexy person to your left. This is the space where you go to write.
As Cleese points out, it’s easier to do trivial things that are urgent, than big things (like writing) that are truly important. When you set a special place aside and use it exclusively for one purpose, you allow your mind to settle, to escape all the trivialities that distract you from your most important task, and focus entirely on your writing. Return repeatedly to the same space, in the same way, with the same focus, and you will begin to induce a Pavlovian response in your mind. You’ll sit down, and instantly your mind will know that it’s time to write. It will take you less and less time to get focused, quiet your mind, and find yourself in the open mode.
Cleese defines time in two different ways, and lists it twice for a reason: not just to amplify how important it is to make time for your writing, but to point out the different kinds of time writers need in order to induce the open mode. The first kind of time relates to the nature of creativity, and the nature of play. As I discuss in my article series Breaking The Chain of Writer’s Block, all children instinctively know how to play, which means that as children, we all know how to tap effortlessly into our creativity.
But as we get older, it gets harder and harder to get into the open mode. That creativity, and that ability to play, still resides inside us. But getting access to it means that we need to first recreate the conditions of play that made it possible for us as children. As adults, and even as children, we can’t play freely all the time. There are chores to be done, teeth to be brushed, and now that we’re grown up, day jobs to be slogged through. And even with our writing, we can’t just play endlessly and forever. Eventually, we’ve got to shape our play into something that can be shared with others.
Play, by its very nature, is different from life. Which means, in order to drop our defenses and give ourselves the permission to play freely, we also need to know that our play has both a beginning and an end. That it is a limited, special time, when you can allow your creativity to run the show, without thought for the concerns of normal life, just like you did when you were a child. For this reason, a short time set aside for writing on a consistent basis can often be more productive than a full day set aside for writing on an inconsistent basis!
Cleese recommends 1 ½ hours as the perfect amount of time to play as a writer. His belief is that it takes most of us (at least at the beginning) at least 30 minutes just to settle our minds, free ourselves from the litany of our own thoughts, and enter the open mode where play is possible.
This means that you’ll be left with an hour to play, to explore creatively, to follow your characters (in short, to write) after which you’ll probably need a break. Whether that takes the form of a return to the normal world, or a switch into the closed mode of your editing brain, with which you can begin to revise and bring order to the chaos.
If you don’t have an hour-and-a-half hours to write on a consistent basis, there’s also another way to approach this. Try giving yourself 15 minutes every day to write, first thing in the morning, just as you’re exiting your dream state, and you’ll probably notice that the consistency, and the speed with which you need to write just to get anything down in that time, start to propel you quickly into the open mode, and set your mind thinking about your screenplay for the rest of the day.
The second kind of time that Cleese discusses is the time we need to explore as many solutions as possible.
As Cleese points out, what distinguishes successful creative artists from less successful creative artists usually has a lot less to do with talent than it does with the fact that successful artists tend to “stick with the problem longer” before they attempt to solve it. As uncomfortable as it is to be in a state of not knowing, the longer you can allow yourself to sit in your scenes, and experiment with different solutions, the more likely you are to come up with something that is truly original.
So, rather than racing to “solve your script,” instead, focus on exploring it for as long as possible, allowing it to reveal itself to you, taking your character in different directions, without concern for whether or not any particular solution is going to work. Then, when you’re ready to make the real decisions, you’ll know you’re building on solid ground, because you’ve given yourself the chance you need to explore the full spectrum of what your story is, and what your story is not. You can learn more about this approach to screenwriting in my article about “sketching” for screenwriters: What Picasso Can Teach You As A Screenwriter.
When John Cleese talks about confidence, he’s not talking about the false confidence of people who always need to be right. He’s talking about the confidence to fail boldly, to take risks, to play with things the wrong way before you start trying to do them the right way.
Nothing stops creativity faster than the fear of making a mistake. That doesn’t mean you’re going to ignore the craft of writing. You’re going to learn it. But then you’re going to have the confidence to let go of it for as long as you can. To keep yourself in the open mode. To try things when you don’t know if they can work, and to push yourself past the easy solutions. Then, when you are ready to move back into the closed, editing brain mode, and make a decision, you can do so boldly and effectively, with the confidence of all your exploration behind you.
Allowing yourself the confidence to play now allows you the confidence you need later to stick by your decisions, and build your script around them, rather than reinventing everything every time you hit a road block. And more importantly, it gives you the experience to know when you do hit a road block that you have the power to find your way around it, even if it seems completely insurmountable at the time, simply by bringing yourself back into the creative mode, and allowing your mind to gently explore the problem, in an open, fun, creative, and playful way.
5. A 22 Inch Waist
This one, of course, is self-explanatory. Because, come on, who doesn’t want a 22 inch waist? But it also illustrates, by example, a much more serious point. That this writing stuff is supposed to be fun. And that means you have to have a sense of humor. Being serious about your writing does not require a stiff upper lip. In fact, it requires just the opposite.
When you allow yourself to play, to laugh at yourself (and your mistakes), to explore, to have fun, to follow your non-sequiturs, to write stuff just because it makes you smile, you not only open yourself up to find the open mode, you also allow yourself to stay there. And allowing yourself to maintain that sense of humor, even as you invite your editing brain back to the table, allows you to actually accomplish the very serious work of bringing the screenplay in your heart onto the page.
If you’d like to learn more about accessing the creative mode, and learning both the art and the craft of screenwriting, I invite you to check out one of my upcoming screenwriting courses.