Creativity: natural gift or acquired skill?

An acquaintance recently sent a link to a 1991 presentation on creativity by actor/comedian John Cleese.  It’s a great presentation, not just because John Cleese is a very good comedic actor but also because he has a gift for saying very serious things in a very accessible way.

His message on creativity is no exception.  One of the things I’ve struggled with since beginning to work on a novel is whether I’m creative enough to really accomplish this.  I suspect that many others struggle with that same question themselves.  Cleese has very interesting things to say about creativity, particularly whether it’s a natural gift that only some people have (meaning the rest of us are just doomed to non-creative lives) or whether it’s something that one can cultivate (meaning there are things we can do to bring out our own natural creativity).  Here are some of his observations for you, with minute/second tags for where they appear in the video:

Creativity is not a talent; it’s a way of operating (4:00).  Creativity is not an ability that you either have or don’t have and is absolutely not related to one’s IQ (4:40).  This raises the question of how creative people are different (5:16).  Creative people have acquired the ability to get themselves into a certain mood and way of operating that allows their natural creativity to bloom.

People generally operate in two modes, open and closed, and both are necessary (7:00).  The closed mode is the one we’re in most of the time.  This is the mode we use at work, for example, or when there are things we need to get done.  Open mode, by contrast, is more relaxed, expansive, contemplative even (7:50).  It’s like play, which is when our creativity surfaces most.  But play should occur during a limited period of time; otherwise, it isn’t really play.

What can we do to get into that open mode?  We need five things: space, time, time, confidence, and humor (13:20).

Space is a real physical space, someplace where we can get away from the demands on us.

Time is a specific period of time that creates “an oasis of quiet” to separate us from everyday life and its duties for a while (15:30).  What often happens, however, is that we decide to set aside some time to think and be creative, and then suddenly we start thinking about all the other things we have to do.  (Cleese’s description of this at 16:00 is quite funny but spot on, at least for me!)  Then, boom, we decide we really don’t have time to work on (fill-in-the-blank name of creative project), and we go off and do other things.

This is because it is easier to do trivial things that are urgent than to do important things that are not urgent, like thinking (16:45).  And it is easier to do little things that we know we can do than to do big things that we’re not so sure we can do.  (Boy, is that ever true!)

Time is doubly important because we need enough time to come up with something original (22:10).  That means setting aside not 30 minutes, but perhaps more like 90 minutes and then being willing to work through some discomfort when ideas don’t readily come in order to get to a place where the ideas do come.

Confidence is a critical element and means being willing to play and experiment.  The thing that stops creativity the most is the fear of making a mistake (22:25).   (Again, very true!)

Humor and laughter bring relaxation and make us playful, and in so doing get us into that open mode of thinking (23:44).

In addition to these five things, Cleese recommends that we keep our minds on whatever subject or project we’ve been thinking about because sooner or later a new creative thought will pop up and surprise us (26:30).

I’ve been trying to do this since watching the video and this past week had a new idea pop up, just as he suggested would happen.  I was standing at the microwave at work, watching my lunchtime container of leftovers rotate on the microwave turntable, and then let my thoughts drift to the main character in Wait For Me and her motivations and goals.  This is something I’ve been working on for quite a while, making some progress but not entirely resolving the issue.  In a nutshell, I wanted to have some conflict between the character and her mother in law, but was uncomfortable in how I’d framed it because it seemed unnecessarily contentious and detracted from the main action plot of the story.

Suddenly, I had it — how to have two women with basically two different personal styles that lead to inadvertent misunderstandings that build up, but not in a mean or contentious way.  It was almost as if a tiny light bulb had flashed in my mind!  And it helped multiple other aspects of the plot then click into place:  the differences between mother-in-law and daughter-in-law that lead to some frustration between my character and her husband, how he handles it, and how being forced to decide what to do about the ghost in the house ultimately proves critical.  It is this moment of finally being decisive that helps her understand herself and her mother-in-law, and to move to a different level in their relationship.  (And guys, no, this is not a “girl” book at all.  This whole self-understanding thread is gentle and not ham-handed!)

At any rate, I’ll be trying Cleese’s techniques out with Wait For Me.  While I still have to finish the 2013 edition updates to the Handy Guide (which are almost done!), I want to get back into more regularly working on the novel, polishing up the character profiles and working to finish the first draft.  What I really liked about the video is that he offers some thoughts on why it can be so difficult to focus, which I hope will make it easier to be open and more creative.

And, if you watched the video, I hope you found something in it that spoke to you and where you are on your own creative path.



Filed under On Writing

2 responses to “Creativity: natural gift or acquired skill?

  1. You’re very welcome. I’m glad you liked it!


  2. Thank you for posting this – I really enjoyed reading it. I’ve bookmarked the John Cleese lecture and will watch it on my Win7 laptop later (for some stupid reason Flash isn’t supported on Windows Vista so I can’t watch it on our desktop computer …). I recognised so much of the truth of what he said and found myself nodding, Oh yes, I do that 🙂


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