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.

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19 thoughts on “Inspiration: Creativity as Play

  1. I am able to play, and AGREE with this entire article, yet there remains a nagging sense of guilt, as if I need to be doing something else…and those times when we are “not writing” the same guilt. The older I get, the more I realize, we NEED “not writing” time to do great work, and we need writing time to be able to play with more abandon.

  2. I find it’s not enough to “write” at home, where the functions and rhythms of a day and week are distractions – personal appointments, work meetings, opening mail, preparing meals, taking calls, housework and endless reminders of the concerns of my life. So, once or twice a year I go to a writers retreat for a week at a time. The one I prefer has no cell coverage and sparse rooms, is not highly competitive (regarding an application) and is inexpensive. It’s Wellspring House in Massachusetts, USA. There, I am lost in a world with no boundaries and timeless minutes – as there is nothing pressing at the end of any minute. A writer’s time is totally his/her own. And being someplace less familiar piques the creative pathways in my mind. The week feels like a month and I am fully absorbed in writing. I always go prepared – all my files in order and a good sense of what I’ll be working on. I don’t want to waste any of my time there in administrative tasks, I want to only be creative and advance my writing. Night and day don’t particularly matter. Writing can happen whenever the energy strikes and for as long as it lasts. A bonus, I’ve met some wonderful people there!

  3. I think, too, that some people operate more effectively in one way and others in others when it comes to creativity. I may get germs of ideas away from the process, but they only take actual form when I sit down and actually write. That is when, too, they more often than not shoot off in directions I find quite astonishing.

  4. Great post!! and heartening words for those who never quite made it to adult-dom…. I’m afriad that would be me! Thank you so much for sharing this… such invaluable advice is always welcome.

  5. This is a great reminder! I always say I’m going to just let myself play…and then I set goals and immediately quit playing. Then get frustrated because my writing is dull.

  6. The Cleese words are correct! That’s exactly how I am creative with poetry and blogs. Exactly!
    I love to play, and I do it best in my own private playground, unril I’m ready to share it…

  7. So true. One of the most memorable take-homes I took from my playwriting class was that one of the true gifts of storytelling is that it allows both writer and reader to play again. That, and it lets us relive our childhoods. Nothing more magical than that :-D Thanks for liking my blog, btw.

  8. Sometimes an ability to disassociate from Reality helps too. (Just a wee bit different from play …)

    So put the world on hold, go get ’em Tiger!

  9. Hi, thanks for sharing this, I have a similar section in my upcoming book on creativity and mental health which I referenced to Anthony Storr and Canadian play therapist Mary Alice Long – this is a fantastic addition and I hope you won’t mind if I reference the Cleese book too? Fabulous inspiration on your blog here, thanks, and for stopping by mine : )

  10. Interesting! I’m a big Python fan. Cleese has it right when says that creatives “play for a long time with the problem before trying to solve it”.

    I see this all the time in the workplace (my day job is consulting) – people jump off and start ‘solutioning” before the problem statement has been defined to the point of universal understanding.

    Thanks for dropping by my blog. I hope to see you back there more often.

  11. Pingback: Flecks of Inspiration to Ring in the New Year | Lightning Droplets

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