Three Keys to Creativity: Wisdom from John Cleese, Ian McCaig and Amanda Palmer



Español: Versión recortada. Graffiti de John C...

Español: Versión recortada. Graffiti de John Cleese en Lisboa. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)



What are the keys to unlocking our creative potential?

For this post, my chosen allies in exploring some keys to creativity are John Cleese, Ian McCaig, and Amanda Palmer, whose talks provided me with lots of brain food on this topic. Each of these highly creative individuals is a writer, but not necessarily first or foremost such. I wasn’t setting out to include folks who were also performers, artists, musicians, but the fact that I ended up with them is instructive to me personally: at different times in my life I have been more into drawing and/or singing than I have been writing, but have not pursued these activities with any dedication because I suppose I have felt like I am just “adequate” at them, whereas I’ve come to think of writing as my creative forté. Yet I can, when I listen to these luminaries, see the folly in dropping these outlets from my life. I’m certain that having multiple media to work with, and perspectives to work from can only enhance one’s writing. In fact, I’m guessing that engaging in multiple disciplines may be rather like cross-training for one’s creative muscles.

To begin pondering the core aspects or principles of creativity, which I think are ultimately more important than particular techniques, let’s look at John Cleese’s 1991 lecture on the matter.

The Key to Creativity is Openness

The core of John Cleese’s lecture is the idea of the “open mode” versus the “closed mode” of thinking and operating. And the key here is that the open mode rests on an attitude of play: authentic play, not the half-assed, messing around wasting time sort of occupation that tries to pass for it, nor the mode in which you might relax an iota, enough to “think outside the box” for a few minutes to show how right-brained you can be on cue. He means the sort of dive-into-it play that children engage in with an utter lack of self-consciousness or concrete purpose, i.e. expansive thinking infused with curiosity, abandon, and delight. True play, he says, is experimenting, with no fear of making mistakes: “You’re either free to play or you’re not . . . any drivel might lead to the breakthrough.” Confidence, for Cleese, is exercising this freedom, that is, being completely unconcerned with getting it right and happy to entertain any and all ideas.

Besides confidence, he offers us four other elements that increase the likelihood of entering the open mode: Space, Time, (Pondering) Time, and Humor. The first two are basically the standard advice about creating a boundary between everyday life and activities and creative free play: you ideally want a designated place and allotted time (he recommends 1 1/2 hour chunks) to be openly creative. Why do we need this boundary? He reminds:

As we all know it’s easier to do trivial things that are urgent, than it is to do important things that are not urgent, like thinking, and it’s also easier to do little things we know we can do than to start on big things that we’re not so sure about.

The second aspect of time involves deferring creative decisions, sticking with the problem for a longer period, as long as you can. In his experience (and according to research on the matter) this leads to more inspired, higher quality work in the long run. Interestingly, I just watched a YouTube video about the Myers-Briggs functions of perceiving/judging that seems to align with Cleese’s open and closed modes. In this video, the presenter explains that the judging function is about planning, whereas the perceiving function is about receptivity. For Cleese, it should be noted, you do need the closed mode to follow through on what you came up with in the open mode. But first you need to play!

What exactly are we doing when we take our playful time? Keep bringing your mind to rest against the subject at hand when in open mode, he advises. In this way he says you’ll be rewarded by the unconscious, “if you’ve put in the pondering time first.”

Not surprisingly humor is also critical to Cleese. He is emphatic about humor not being the antithesis of seriousness; in fact, in its ability to create meaning by connecting different frames of reference in novel ways, humor is actually a quite serious tool for creative people. The enemy of humor for Cleese is solemnity, which he is downright allergic to!

There is much more to this brilliant and riveting lecture, including an abundance of light bulb jokes that underline what he’s saying about the value of humor and irreverence. Watch John Cleese’s “Lecture on Creativity”:






By the way, I was once attending a James Hillman talk in Santa Barbara and whispered to my friend and classmate: “That guy looks like John Cleese!” Guess why it looked so much like him? Yep, it was him. Seems he was a fan of the late Hillman, a complex thinker who originated archetypal psychology. I’d love to ask him what appeals to him in Hillman’s opus.

The Key to Creativity is Devotion: Ian McCaig

The interview with Ian McCaig is much less structured than Cleese’s lecture, but I gleaned from what he said and more importantly the zeal with which he said it, that devotion is for him the key to creativity and productivity both. My favorite quote:

It’s all about serving the story. I love stories almost more than anything. A good story can change your life, can make you transform as a person. You can pack your entire moral code into a story and live by it and it reminds you . . . it’s like a piece of music: you listen to it, and you’re reset, you’re suddenly you again.

True, isn’t it? This attitude of devotion to and love of story (an attitude lacking in Hollywood’s big budget “fun park” movies, as he explains later) appears to inoculate him against the fear of failure that is the usurper of Cleese’s open mode, and the undoing of so many would-be creatives. When the interviewer asks him where he gets his “resilience to how life beats us around” through failure and rejection he winces and says:

It’s perception I guess because I don’t see life beating me. I don’t feel like I’m resilient to it. The many hundreds of drawings I did for the Darth Mauls that didn’t get approved are still my drawings. They’re still done. I judge whether they’re good or bad. George Lucas’ opinion of that will simply tell me which one was right for his film. But the other ones were all right in their own ways. And it doesn’t matter what other people think, it matters what you think. So life feels more like a giant candy store, and all this opportunity, all these things you can do . . . I can’t imagine getting tired of that, ever!

This sounds like a guy who knows how to play, right? In fact, play seems like his chief M.O., although at the start of the interview he describes learning to draw through tireless repetition. With McCaig, the energy for all this play and all this practice comes from this deep affection for story, character, image, music, and his flagrant love affair with possibility.

On the practical side, he describes some great techniques and tools that are designed to foster originality and depth. In particular I loved the discussion about physical theater, and how it can be used for character building–I can see this being totally applicable to fiction writing (non-fiction too, I suppose) where we want to show a character’s personality through posture, gesture, and movement.

I plan on re-watching this interview when I need a reviving shot of enthusiasm for the creative life, and a reminder about the point of working creatively: to serve the story, to devote oneself to it, and to have a boatload of fun while doing so. Watch Ian McCaig on “The Art of Visual Storytelling”:





The Key to Creativity is Connection: Amanda Palmer

Watching this TED talk by Amanda Palmer was for me like getting a swift kick in the mindset. I’ve been researching how to market self-published books online, immersing myself in instructions that are essentially about, as Palmer says, how to make people pay for creative products. For her this is the wrong approach: she now looks for ways to let people pay. Thus she uses crowd sourcing venues like Kickstarter to fund projects, and gives away a lot of stuff, of course getting flack for it from the traditionally-minded. But her rationale for her approach, I think, is both heart-centered and sensible: the change from make to let is a huge one, since making someone do something for you is inherently setting up an uneven, adversarial relationship between creator and consumer, while letting someone do something for you is just the opposite–it’s about real connection through equal exchange. I love this anecdote of Palmer’s about “just asking” for help:

I once tweeted where in Melbourne could I find a neti pot, and a nurse from a hospital drove one right at that moment to the café I was in and I bought her a smoothie and we sat there talking about nursing and death. I love this kind of random closeness.

Beyond or behind the desire to make money at making art, and alongside the devotion to make art for its own sake, which was so vividly championed in McCaig’s interview, I think most of us who are writing, making music, painting etc. want to touch other people and connect with them through our work. I remember reading a story of mine to a group of about fifteen other people at a workshop and having someone come up to me with tears in her eyes afterwards, thanking me for it because of how it had resonated with her. This made a profound impression on me, and I thought to myself that even if no one else in the world saw any value in it, the fact that my story was so meaningful to her meant it was worth writing and worth sharing. So it’s not, after all, about having a broad audience and appealing to everyone–touching one other person is enough for me!

What Palmer is talking about is an outward-focused openness and trust that is the counterpart to Cleese’s inward-focused receptivity to ideas. As a died-in-the-wool introvert, the outward connection piece feels tougher for me, even though I need it. I won’t be crashing at any strangers’ houses anytime soon! Nonetheless I do want to give serious thought about freely giving things away, and asking for help and support. I’m guessing a lot of what I write will have a fairly narrow audience, and I’m jazzed that as publishing and marketing paradigms radically shift, this may very well work out fine:

For most of human history, musicians, artists, they’ve been part of the community, connectors and openers, not untouchable stars. Celebrity is about a lot of people loving you from a distance, but the internet and the content we’re freely able to share on it are taking us back. It’s about a few people loving you up close, and about those people being enough.

Watch Amanda Palmer’s “The Art of Asking” video:





The Soul of Creativity

I think these three keys to creativity help to unlock the soul of creativity. Openness, devotion (or passion) and connection are all things we seek to make us feel more alive, more authentically ourselves. When we make use of these keys we are awake and aware observers and creators of meaning, not our usual sleepwalker selves going about our mindless routines. Trust is a big part of using these keys: Cleese teaches us to trust the inner creator of the unconscious, McCaig invites us to trust our judgment about the value of what we create, and Palmer gives us permission to trust the other people who make up our “audience” and, perhaps, to trust that the soul of creativity and the business of it may be brought into harmony.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this rather long post. In the spirit of just asking, I would love some feedback and discussion around it, so please comment!



To My Dream Animals: “Totem”


Engraving of a kit fox by J. G. Keulemans, in the public domain (see here)

I dream of animals frequently, and I dream of a lot of different kinds of animals. Some animals repeat over several dreams, forming discernible series. Some come along rarely. The following is some verse I composed to honor some of these visitors.



© Lisa E. Coté

Those who dream of foxes know the way
Between the world of shadow and of light,
And do not linger when they should not stay
But run, sure-footed, deftly, out of sight.

Those who dream of bears are old indeed:
They know the price of fury and conceit,
But will rise up if there should come a need
To stand against injustice and defeat.

Those who dream of serpents feel no shame
But revel in the earth whereon they move
And bask in pleasures, free of guilt and blame:
Content in life, no impulse they reprove.

Those who dream of crows may swiftly fly
Beyond the dim illusions that are made
When death arrives to blot the earthly sky:
They navigate the darkness unafraid.

Pursuit of Spirit in “The Golden Bird”


Image by znodden, a.k.a. Susanna. Visit her here.

For this month’s inspiration I’ve selected the fairy tale, “The Golden Bird,” (read it here, so I don’t have to summarize!) a story collected by the Grimm brothers and falling under the category of “supernatural helper” in the Aarne-Thompson classification system. The helper is not the golden bird of the title, but rather a speaking fox, who deserves the supernatural helper award of merit for his patience with the hero, who ignores his advice more often than he heeds it, and thereby gets himself into some very bad scrapes. Through the course of these predicaments, many other motifs arise as well, including the seeking of a princess and betrayal of the hero by his siblings.

One of the motifs I have focused on before in my post about “The Maiden Tsar” is falling asleep. In “The Golden Bird,” the youngest brother (son of the king’s gardener, not the king himself, which is interesting) is the only one of his siblings who can stay awake overnight to witness who is stealing the apples from the king’s “pleasure garden.” It turns out to be the radiant golden bird:

The gardener set his eldest son to watch; but about twelve o’clock he fell asleep, and in the morning another of the apples was missing. Then the second son was ordered to watch; and at midnight he too fell asleep, and in the morning another apple was gone. Then the third son offered to keep watch; but the gardener at first would not let him, for fear some harm should come to him: however, at last he consented, and the young man laid himself under the tree to watch. As the clock struck twelve he heard a rustling noise in the air, and a bird came flying that was of pure gold; and as it was snapping at one of the apples with its beak, the gardener’s son jumped up and shot an arrow at it. But the arrow did the bird no harm; only it dropped a golden feather from its tail, and then flew away. The golden feather was brought to the king in the morning, and all the council was called together. Everyone agreed that it was worth more than all the wealth of the kingdom: but the king said, ‘One feather is of no use to me, I must have the whole bird.’ (“The Golden Bird”)

Much later in the tale, when the hero is compelled to accomplish yet another impossible task, he must not stay awake and work to overcome the problem, but instead must sleep and let the trusty fox do the work. I would call this kind of helpful symbolic sleep, “the sleep of trust,” versus the harmful “sleep of carelessness” the hero avoided at the start of the tale. There is a time, suggests the story, for the ego-mind to be watchful, attentive and active, and a time for it to step aside and let another aspect of mind take charge. Creatively speaking, there is a time to stay sharp and do one’s work, however grueling it may seem, and a time to rest and incubate, secure in the fact that your inner storyteller, painter, poet, etc. is working with you and for you on the problem/project.

Coming back to the start, the psychological key to the story appears to be this golden feather, which is “worth more than all the wealth of the kingdom.” It represents, I think, a brush, a tickle of transcendence, a token of a psychic state or inner dimension of the psyche or soul that is unfettered, complete in itself, and indestructible. Those touched by this feather–for example, those who’ve had “near death experiences” or transcendent interludes during meditation, drug use, etc.–often value their experience, however fleeting, above all else. They too typically long for “the whole bird,” i.e. a way back to the experience, and a way to deepen it and integrate it into everyday life. In a bit of a different vein, taken as a metaphor for creativity, we might consider the feather as a glimpse of inspiration, with the golden bird representing a full-fledged gift of the muse. Whatever its precise meaning, as it is with spiritual things in general, the glorious bird is difficult to access and retain, and therefore its brief appearance precipitates a difficult quest involving many tests, for those who are willing.

Another theme in the story I’d like to highlight is the idea of shabbiness, that is, the quality of being well-worn, ordinary,  plain, mundane, cheap, perhaps even ugly. In the story the fox alerts the hero that he must enter the “shabby” inn rather than the bright and slick one, stick with the wooden cage for the golden bird (not the gold one), and the leather saddle for the golden horse (again, not the gold one). Inevitably the hero does not listen, and complications ensue.

This “embracing the shabby” instruction is, I would say, some good advice about grounding one’s spiritual impulses, aspirations or insights in the everyday, and not letting the gold one has found lead to pretentiousness, or becoming too “precious” for the actual lived world. Creatively, down-to-earth detail, disorder, and rough edges of different kinds are often what make a work of art sublimely interesting, rather than boringly perfect. Simply gilding the lily will not do, for as the alchemist Gerhard Dorn said, “our gold is not the ordinary gold.” It’s of a higher order, and conversely, it must have some muck in it. After all, what really begins our tale, if you think about it? It’s the earth from which the trees grew that bore the apples, which attracted the golden bird. And I’ll bet the gardener who dug in the earth and fathered the hero looked a bit shabby.

Finally, dismemberment figures in the tale, as it does in others, and often, as it is with the indispensable fox in our story, it is the supernatural helper who requests being slain and cut to pieces:

Then the fox came, and said, ‘Pray kill me, and cut off my head and my feet.’ But the young man refused to do it: so the fox said, ‘I will at any rate give you good counsel: beware of two things; ransom no one from the gallows, and sit down by the side of no river.’ (“The Golden Bird”)

It seems the hero’s refusal leads to the fox becoming more cryptic in his advice, which had previously been quite direct. For although it is repugnant to the hero, he must concede to dismembering his friend and companion. But why?

Dismemberment is a mythopoetic rendering of the process of fragmentation and dissolution, which may lead to differentiation and renewal . . . Surviving dismemberment  initiates one into the intimacy between sacrifice and creation, suffering and transformation. (The Book of Symbols, ed.s Ami Ronnberg & Kathleen Martin, 2010)

Putting things in psychological terms again, why would one consent to dissolve or fragment the very element of one’s psyche that has so enriched one’s life? The fairy tale’s answer is that it must be done to break a spell or curse, free the princess’ brother. Through dismemberment, the helper is not obliterated but humanized; what was before a wise, instinctive factor working mainly unconsciously or semi-consciously now enters full consciousness, in integrated fashion. Instead of lamenting and hoping the fox will show up to save the day, presumably our hero can now easily consult his brother-in-law before there is cause to lament. Psychologically speaking, with integration comes the possibility of consulting our own wisdom, or creative intuition, before taking action, rather than waiting for insight or inspiration to visit out of the blue.

Of course there are always those characters and animals running loose and wild in the forest of our stories and dreams who have no desire for full integration or humanizing, and it’s probably best to let them be, stay respectful, and heed their advice when it’s granted. Some of them may not be as patient as the helpful fox!