Creative discomfort


“Creative discomfort.” I know the feeling well, and now I know what it’s called! If you have 36 minutes to spend watching John Cleese talk about creativity, click here. (As a multi-tasker, I did physio exercises whilst listening, but even without the exercises I would consider it time well-spent.)

Here are a few points that really clicked with me.

Be open. Be silly, be judgement-free, play. There is also a time to be closed and to apply your ideas, to bring them to fruition and into coherent shape. But without time to play freely there is no creativity. He advocates a beginning and an end to play. It’s exactly what we all hated as kids: being told that it’s time to come inside and wash up for supper; time to clean up the toys. Playtime isn’t all the time. There also needs to be time to build your invention.

But creativity is not just about playtime, and structured time. It’s also about sitting with a problem that has yet to be solved. It’s about passing by the easy or obvious solutions, and sitting with the problem/subject and giving your mind time to dig into its unconscious and come up with something original. This is a deeply uncomfortable process. I do it instinctively and not without pain — for me and for everyone around me. When I’m working out a problem, I’m irritable, agitated, distracted. (It’s one of the reasons I exercise.) But I can’t help myself. I can’t accept the easy solution. I have to keep looking until I find something else. I’ve sometimes thought of it as a kind of obsessive personality flaw. After listening to this talk, however, I think it might be the single-most important quality in my personal creative toolbox.

A few more points. When we play freely, we don’t worry about making mistakes; we risk being silly and wrong and ridiculous, because there is no silly or wrong or ridiculous. I think of this in my own parenting. I wonder. Am I too quick to point out problems or flaws? Successful collaboration and communal play comes from building on each other’s ideas, not knocking them down. That doesn’t mean you have to blanket every idea with “Wonderful!” but that you help build on the ideas that come. “Could you elaborate on that? Could you push it futher? What if …?” Maybe it’s also like riffing. When you’re in the middle of a good conversation and everyone is carrying everyone else along, not worrying about taking detours, or getting off-topic.

One final point. Cleese is very much against solemnity. He’s not against seriousness — we can talk deeply about serious subjects while laughing, after all. What gets his goat (and also squashes creativity) is self-important solemnity that refuses humour, that sees it as subversive (well, it is!); the ego that refuses to laugh at itself, that is defensive, that shuts down the house for the sake of propriety.

And on that note … I’m off to ponder and wonder and sit with some pretty grumpy-making creative discomfort. But with a light heart, friends. With a light heart.

Say it simple, say it best
On gift-giving

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