Inspiration: Creativity as Play

Amidst a series of “How many … does it take to screw in a light bulb?’ jokes John Cleese brings up particularly poignant points about creativity.  He gives an actual recipe for its formation and hope to those of us suffering from creative block.

He asserts that “Creativity is not a talent. It is a way of operating.”  People are not born creative.  It is not a high IQ or a muse on your shoulder.  Instead, it is finding a mode of working that allows for the creative which sits inside each artist to come out.

He cites studies and research which define creativity as “an ability to play.”  Creatives are childlike and have the ability to explore and frolic with ideas for no specific purpose other than play itself.

As I try to be more disciplined and determined in my writing practice, I find that this is something that I am missing lately.  If I’m not producing, I feel that I am not writing.  There isn’t room for play when deadlines and due dates are looming.  And yet, this is exactly what is needed for creativity: time and space.

“Creativity is not possible in the closed mode,” Cleese asserts.  But he also shows that working in both ‘open’ modes and ‘closed’ modes are necessary.  When we are working with a problem, we must examine it in the open mode.  However, once we find a solution, we must work in the closed mode to be effective at bringing it about.

For me, I have been getting better at the closed mode.  I have been developing my discipline and ability to sit down and write as if it is work, as if it is necessary.  But I have forgotten how to play with my writing.  I have forgotten to give myself the time and space to sit and play with my ideas, to let them be silly and run free.

The most useful part of Cleese’s speech comes in his practical advice for creating the ‘open’ mode necessary for creativity.

“You need five things:

1. Space (Away from the ‘real world’ so you can play!)

2. Time (Time blocked off especially for play!)

3. Time (The more time you spend playing, the more creative your solutions are!)

4. Confidence (Play means not being frightened of failure!)

5. A 22-inch waist.. Sorry, humour.”

He asserts that your creative play needs to be distinct from your everyday life in both the time and the space that you give it so that you can be free from the pressures (and ‘closed’ mode) that we usually operate under.  “Otherwise, it’s not play.”

“The most creative professionals always play with the problem for much longer before they try to resolve it.”

“While you’re being creative, nothing is wrong and any drivel might lead to the breakthrough.”

Of course, as he says in the beginning, “Telling people how to be creative is easy. Being creative is difficult.”

Oh, and also…

How many psychiatrists does it take to change a light bulb?

Only one, but the light bulb has really got to want to change.