John Cleese on Creativity

by Andy Polaine on February 24, 2009

in General

I hate being interrupted when I’m in the midst of writing a… sorry… hang on… Okay, I’m back. Now, what was I saying? Whatever, I forget.

If you Twitter or have other message checking tendencies and especially if you work from home, you’ll know what this is like.

For some tasks like entering my tax receipts, I can happily multitask, but for writing I find it terrible when I’m interrupted and get very grouchy towards whoever interrupts me.

This talk from John Cleese at the World Creativity Forum explains two simple rules for creativity: protected space and time. Don’t let yourself be interrupted in either sphere. It’s pretty simple.

There is more about the nature of creativity and people involved in making things. I noticed Lauren picked up on the same sentence that I did:

“Most people who have absolutely no idea what they are doing, have absolutely no idea they don’t know what they are doing.”

It explains many things, says Cleese, including Hollywood, social media ‘experts’ and bad service experiences.

Now it’s time to turn off Twitter and Mail.app and get to work.

(Via Lauren at redjotter)

{ 15 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Matt February 24, 2009 at 3:43 pm

Typical, I found this from your tweet – most welcome, andy. Cleese on flow and outliers. Refreshing how he jettisons the jargon, no doubt because he’s in his own ‘tortoise shell’.

2 Andy Polaine February 24, 2009 at 4:21 pm

Quite a few people mailed or Tweeted me about this post – more than any other for some time. There were two aspects of his talk that I really enjoyed, aside from the content. The first was that he didn’t lark around, but took what he had to say seriously. The second was that he is someone who really has been successful in his career actually being creative rather than just talking about it.

3 ana February 24, 2009 at 6:42 pm

Lucky for some – lose work and re-write better version of it from memory. If I have the intellectual capacity of John Cleese I would dare trying.

For now, it’s back to honest tool of backing up and staying up whole night ;)

ana’s last blog post..changing still #3

4 Andy Polaine February 24, 2009 at 7:04 pm

Ana – I’ve done the re-write from memory a few times. It’s a good thing to do sometimes. I re-wrote the second draft of my (unfinished) novel without looking at the first draft.

5 LoneWolf February 26, 2009 at 10:35 pm

I find the idea of closing off from all distractions is important but very difficult to do. I need to focus more on that. There are too many distractions both the online and offline worlds for me, not to mention too many tasks that I’m trying to do at once sometimes. I need to schedule things better.

6 Daphne February 27, 2009 at 12:56 am

Completely non-facetious question: How do you know when it’s time to stop telling everyone you are writing a novel, and admit you are assembling a rather large collection of words that, however enjoyable and satisfying they are to create, are never going to form themselves into a finished work?

7 Andy Polaine February 27, 2009 at 8:54 am

LoneWolf – I agree, it is hard. Working independently from home, I use Twitter to replace my ‘studio banter’, but have to kill it off from time to time. I never got into the whole Getting Things Done thing either – I tried it, but then spent my entire time tweaking the system to get things done instead of just getting things done.

Daphne – A not unreasonable question. I’m writing my PhD right now and should be presenting it at the end of June. I put the novel on hold whilst I did that because two large collections of words was just too much in one go. I’ll admit that the novel will never be finished once I’ve finished my PhD!

8 Matt February 27, 2009 at 11:10 am

There’s definitely a key to departmentalising and focusing, rather than multitasking which has rapidly diminishing returns for productivity.

I’ve been using techniques from the NOW habit, where you use an unschedule and commit to 30 minute attention chunks which is working well. It helps you find your ‘voice’ or work mode rapidly. And then stay in that flow without time pressure; this is important if you have to load a more complicated writing style. When Cleese speaks about getting into character being more difficult for writing dialogue that definitely chimes – the more characters you are dealing with the more you need to load and carry them in your head so they can interact and you can put that down on paper… Whether thats a script or a novel, its very different to composing for PhD, copywriting or journalism.

9 Andy Polaine February 27, 2009 at 11:37 am

Matt – Now of course I’m distracted enough to reply to your comment. Ha ha. I’ll have to spend more time reading about the NOW habit another time ;-)

The getting into character thing is true of the PhD writing too I think. It’s about holding many threads in your head in one go and I think any large block of writing requires that kind of immersion. I always have to re-read quite a bit of my PhD when I have had a break from writing it for a week or so. Shorter articles are very different in that regard.

10 LoneWolf February 27, 2009 at 2:46 pm

Now I’ve got more stuff to look into — more distractions 8=)

I know what you are talking about with the “large block of writing” since I find that working on computer programs is very similar. I find that I spend a good deal of time getting my head wrapped around where things are supposed to go before I can get traction with writing code.

I haven’t taken on any large writing projects yet, just smaller projects like my blogs and some children’s books, but I can imagine that a novel or screen play must be much harder to keep in focus. Maybe someday …

11 Andy Polaine February 27, 2009 at 3:28 pm

Yes, I agree about the similarity to coding. Again, large projects require keeping a lot in the head at once, or at least immersing yourself in it so that all the patterns and neural pathways start to interlink in your brain.

This post has generated the largest amount of comments for a long time. Do you think we’re all procrastinating?

12 Joann Sondy February 27, 2009 at 8:25 pm

Andy, thanks for posting this video. Great presentation.

I especially take to heart the “create an oasis for 1) creativity and 2) time.” The letting no one interrupt is more daunting.

Sure I have my own distractions like Twitter (trying to tame the beast) and email; but how do you keep your own family at arms length. My husband and children are also creative so it might be less challenging for me because they understand and respect the focus and concentration needed.

Creative time and focus for client projects is handled very easily. It’s the creative time for my personal expression that is the challenge right now and something I wish to overcome in the near future.

13 Andy Polaine February 28, 2009 at 1:49 pm

Joann – Creating that space amongst family and for personal creative projects is very hard. I think it starts with the very new age sounding “giving yourself permission”. Usually we’re our own worst enemies on that front in that we tend to give up our own project time all too easily for other chores, whereas we make our client time sacred.

Carving out and protecting time for personal projects takes effort, I think, because we undervalue play as a society and over value work (and make a false distinction between the two). I have heard different people use different methods – sometime it is about a regular time, sometimes it’s about having a separate, not at home, space. Others who have home offices have a door policy: door closed = do not disturb, half-open = you can disturb, but I’m working, open = not doing anything crucial that can’t be disturbed.

Julia Cameron’s Artist’s Way series is good for some tips on this. Also how to stop you doing it to yourself.

14 tim rudder March 4, 2009 at 9:18 am

Hey Andy, enjoyed this post and the recent ‘writing is design’ post (more please).

Thought you might like this blog if you haven’t seen it already: http://dailyroutines.typepad.com/daily_routines/

tim rudder’s last blog post..Another

15 Andy Polaine March 4, 2009 at 11:03 am

Thanks Tim – I shall try for more of this here. I’ve been neglecting Playpen in lieu of The Designer’s Review of Books recently.

That Daily Routines site is great. I liked the casual way the interviewer asks Simone de Beauvoir, “When do you see Sartre?”. And who would have thought W. H. Auden took speed?

Previous post:

Next post: