Every Tuesday, Thursday and sometimes Saturday, I meet my friend and trusted cohort Zack Keller at a local coffee shop at the butt crack of dawn and we work for three hours before heading into the studio. Be it a novel, script, our web series, a collective short story, a poem or even just an idea for something. This dedicated schedule gives us the time we need to be truly creative, bounce ideas off a trusted mind, and especially to suggest terrible ideas and avenues that ultimately lead to the right solution – from pure process of elimination, if nothing else. It’s almost as important as coffee.
The more pots I have on the stove, the more I find myself researching and coming upon revelations for the craft itself. Often times, these revelations surface only after the “hard work” was accomplished. A few years back, I adopted the creative workflow of the great master comedic writer John Cleese, of Monty Python fame. It’s difficult accepting any sort of structural formula into what’s largely an open, creative thing. But I gotta say – this technique WORKS!
The basic philosophy is that creativity is NOT A TALENT. It is a way of operating.
It’s much like playing a game. A very specific game with rules and boundaries and time limits. This is very important. Creativity is Playtime. Period. And the best thing about play is that when you’re playing, you’re not afraid to make a mistake. You learn things from the unexpected and adapt on the fly, finding new opportunities and abilities you didn’t even know existed before.
Remember that first time you swung a bat and it finally hit the sweet spot and you scored the winning home run? That moment, that new skill, that “A-ha! Moment” was during a game. A game you likely played for quite a while before you earned the nickname ‘Slugger’. The problem now is repeating it. And just like that winning swing, it probably happened when you weren’t paying full attention and didn’t expect it at all.
According to Cleese, there are five steps to a productive creative work day. They won’t leave you burning the candle at both ends or suffering a creative block for days, weeks, months… These conditions help make it more likely to get into an open mode and make it more likely for something creative will happen. More likely. No guarantee. Sometimes nothing will happen at all. But without taking these steps, you’ll likely never get that revelation a few days later whilst driving to the store or the next morning in the shower:
- Space – An oasis of quiet, isolated space away from your daily demands.
- Time – A specific period of work time before you resume your normal life. Start time. Stop Time. But first, time to do nothing. Let your mind run through the mess of your life: I need to make sure to call back Ben. Oh and that shirt needs to be fitted. I think I’m out of coffee. I wonder what Stacy is going to think of the gift I got her. I should really reorganize my contact list … This continues for about an hour and half until your mind quiets down again.
- Time – Yes, Time again. Now it’s time to use the oasis. Take the other hour and a half you have left to concentrate on the problem at hand. Even if you abandon the puzzle when your work/play time is up, you ultimately put in more time thinking about your problem than those that literally sit down until 3am every night trying to solve it, exhausted and totally spent. Don’t just take a snap decision. Defer your decision until the last possible moment for maximum pondering time for the most creative solution. Give your mind as long as possible to come up with something original. Keep your mind gently around the subject. Daydream. Bring your mind back, just like meditation in a friendly but persistent way. Sooner or later you will get a reward from your unconscious IF you’re put in the pondering time first.
- Confidence – While you’re being creative, nothing is wrong. There are no mistakes. No fear of being wrong. When you play you’re comfortable. You’re sure of yourself because it’s just a game. What if it’s this? Or that? Or something completely different. Spontaneity. Risk illogical, silly, or things you might consider to be “wrong”. Anything could lead to the breakthrough.
- Humor – Laughter brings relaxation. Humor is playful. The easiest way to get yourself into a creative mind is through humor. Every time before I write or draw, I pull up a list of animated gifs on Reddit (a technique I adopted from Dick Figures creators Ed Skudder and Zack Keller), or tell some jokes with a friend, or make fun of something in the news that happened the day before. It’s the mental equivalent of stretching before you play. Humor is the most important thing, especially when your work is serious.
On that last point, I’d like to quote Cleese directly on the topic of Seriousness vs. Solemnity:
“How many times have important discussion been held where really original and creative ideas were desperately needed to solve important problems, but where humor was taboo because the subject being discussed was ‘so serious’? … I suggest to you that a group of us could be sitting around after dinner discussing matters that were extremely serious, like the education of our children, or our marriages, or the meaning of life — and we could be laughing and that would not make what we were discussing one bit less serious. Solemnity, on the other hand, I don’t know what it’s for. What is the point of it? The two most beautiful memorial services that I’ve ever attended both had a lot of humor, and it somehow freed us all and made the services inspiring and cathartic. But solemnity, it serves pomposity, and the self-important always know at some level of their consciousness that their egotism is going to be punctured by humor. That’s why they see it as a threat, and so dishonestly pretend that their deficiency makes their views more substantial, when it only makes them feel bigger.”
Full lecture here: