Creativity: Take a jump into the unknown

Creativity is in all of us, in one form or another. But how do you get that creativity out? This post spotlights some wise words on creativity from Neil Morrison and John Cleese.

What’s the best way to bring your creativity out?

Everyone has at least the potential to dream up a new idea. Creativity is about both the idea and its execution. The idea needs to be given some other form, to be made real. You not only have to have the idea, you must be able to see it through.

This post is the first in an occasional series in which I’m going to spotlight some great little pieces of wisdom I’ve come across over the years, which might help you free your creativity (whether it’s to get started on a creative project or make it through to the bitter end).

Why change?

Creativity starts with the idea.

First, inspiration must have the chance to strike. This is true in all environments. Let’s start in the world of work. Too many organisations make ultimately empty statements about the need to embrace creativity and innovation, argues Neil Morrison, in Get innovative, goddamit! He says that making the right noises about creativity and innovation is not enough; action must be taken to allow this to happen:

“Creating the environment for people to express and develop their ideas means creating the environment, not just artificial moments. If we want to unlock the innate skills and abilities that exist within our businesses, we’ve got to ask ourselves what closed them off in the first place.”

He floats a compelling theory on why organisations tend to espouse the virtues of creativity only when times are tough:

“The motivation for making the statement in the first place is that doing what has always been done is no longer providing what has always been got. Otherwise, why change?”

Take a jump into the unknown

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“Why change?” These two words can kill creativity stone dead.* John Cleese, in his October 2020 appearance on Chris Hardwick’s ID10T podcast** discusses both the appeal and the danger of the “Why change?” mindset. Cleese says:

“If we just copy what we did before, what we get is safe but completely unexciting. It’s safe. But you never come up with anything, because you’re copying. The moment you start not to copy, you’re taking a jump into the unknown. And that’s a little bit scary for us, because human beings basically like what’s familiar. That’s why we’re all fundamentally conservative. We don’t like too much change.”

The perils of perfectionism

Perfectionism can also be deadly to creativity. Perfectionism can derail the creative process at any point. Cleese expresses this brilliantly:

“You’re only ever moving towards perfection. Don’t think that you’re going to start with it, or that you’re going to get there. You just make it as good as you can. And there’s a point where you have to say to yourself: ‘I have to stop trying to improve this.'”

Cleese mentions some priceless feedback he received from a mentor in his early days on BBC radio:

“You’ve improved this so much it’s getting worse and worse.”

My heart sang out with joy to hear these words. You can be intimidated from ever embarking on a creative journey by thoughts of unattainable perfection. But equally, once you are in the flow of things, you must beware of the risks that can be involved in trying to attain perfection at all costs. That can lead to an endless loop of tinkering and reiteration. You can end up improving your work to death. You need to know when to stop.

Depicting Cleo

Trying to recognise the exact moment to stop is on my mind all the time when I’m drawing. There are no rules to tell you when a picture is done. Knowing precisely when to stop is difficult.***

Here’s an example from my October 2020 daily drawing challenge. I asked my friend Dr Steve Marshall if he might be so kind as to tweet a picture of his dog, Cleo, so that I could attempt to draw her. He sent me a beautiful photograph of Cleo. A few minutes later,  I sat down with pen and paper to try to draw the lovely Cleo. My heart sank to realise what I’d taken on: “I’ve never drawn a dog before in my life! What on earth am I going to do now?”

I decided to take a jump into the unknown. It was unlikely in the extreme that I could hope to achieve anything that resembled perfection. I wasn’t even sure I could achieve anything that actually resembled a dog. But at the same time, there was also nothing riding on this. I could always tear up whatever I drew.

4 Cleo_SCAN_CROPPED

For better or worse, I ended up with the picture above. Once I’d got started, I quickly got into the flow of things, not worrying about how it looked. The hardest part now became knowing when to stop. There is so much detail in Steve’s original photograph. So much life. I could have tried to capture every last detail. I could have spent days or weeks attempting to depict Cleo, and not have got any closer than I did in the picture above. After about an hour’s drawing, I lifted head from paper and forced myself to stop. For better or for worse, my first ever attempt at canine portraiture was done.

It’s all learning, learning, learning

The most important thing is to be open to going where your creativity might lead you (including trusting your instinct for when you can take the idea no further). This openness is everything. For Cleese, curiosity and openness to change should be guiding principles for any creative pursuit:

“It’s all learning, learning, learning. Like any art, you never know it all. And provided you stay curious… the moment you think you’ve really got it, that’s the moment you start going downhill, I think. I was very touched years ago to read that when Claude Monet used to go painting when he was 80, his hands used to shake at the beginning because he was anxious that he might not be able to do it today.”

It is oddly heartening to hear that Monet was (and that Cleese, we presume, is) beset by the same anxiety that I often feel when I sit down to write, to draw, to create.

This anxiety is often asking a simple question: “Why change?” There is a perfect answer: “Why not?”

Creativity is about both the idea and its execution.

Why not take a jump into the unknown?

Footnotes

* But not always, of course. Sometimes, “Why change?” is the perfect answer. Sometimes tried and true methods are just what the metaphorical doctor ordered. But at other times, they should be avoided like the plague. There are no hard and fast rules with creativity, and never can be.

** John Cleese was talking to Chris Hardwick about his wonderful and highly recommended new book, Creativity: A Short and Cheerful Guide. In this podcast, Cleese also alludes to the scintillating prospect of an abandoned Fawlty Towers plotline. in the episode in which a guest dies, said dearly departed guest originally had a twin. Cleese believes they could have got at least a minute just out of Basil’s facial expressions on encountering the surviving twin, as the penny slowly drops about what he is seeing. Unfortunately, he gets sidetracked from telling this tale to Hardwick and doesn’t say why this plotline was abandoned. If Mr Cleese (or anyone who knows him) should happen to read this, I would love to know what became of this plotline!

*** Personally, I tend to find huge inspiration in pictures where the artist is not afraid to leave a work “unfinished”. I love rough edges, areas that are blank or provide only the suggestion of additional detail. Art and one’s appreciation thereof is of course entirely subjective, entirely personal. I defend to the death the right of others to enjoy works of art that are maximalist and polished to a gleaming perfection. Why not?

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