If I could choose anyone in this world to have dinner with, I think it would be the British actor John Cleese. As a writer, I am in awe of his understanding of the human condition, his willingness to push the envelope and his brilliant use of humor—first to catch our attention and then to connect us to each other.
As writers and bloggers, we are always in search of the original. We pick up existing ideas and hold them up to the light, looking for the glint of something new in them. We ponder: starting, stopping, thinking some more.
If you are like me, you may collect dozens of possible blog post topics, setting them aside to think about when you have time. But in this crazy hurry-up world of ours, we are not rewarded for pondering. We must come up with workable ideas quickly.
“Come on. Spit it out. Now!”
We know that our best posts usually come from a deeper place, from stopping and thinking before we hit “publish,” but who has time for that?
And yet Cleese’s whole take on creativity and storytelling is to give yourself the time and space to play with ideas, to ponder, to not go with the very first idea that comes to you.
Self-Defense Against Fresh Fruit: Classic Cleese
In Cleese’s skits, he shows us that details make the character and setting of a story—and, dare I say, a blog post—more believable and memorable.
In the Monty Python sketch, Self-Defense Against Fresh Fruit, we are introduced to an army sergeant who at first seems to be a tough brute. But soon we see a silly man who is hell bent on teaching his recruits how to defend themselves against someone who tries to attack them with loganberries and other assorted fruit.
It is the precise moment when one thing is expected and the opposite happens that funny is born. Of course, when a story or blog post takes an unexpected turn, the result is not always funny. Maybe you start with a commonly held belief and challenge it from your own personal perspective. Your readers were expecting one thing from your post and you have turned the light on, made something click in their brain when you put a new twist on the topic.
John Cleese’s 5 Requirements for Creative Storytelling (and Blogging)
In his trademark, humor-infused style, Cleese offered a recipe for creative storytelling at the 2009 Creativity World Forum. Here are his five simple guidelines for jumpstarting your creativity:
Make a space for creativity. Though some people insist that they can write and create amid the chaos of noise, clutter and ringing telephones, Cleese asks us to consider designating an undistracted space for play. He says:
“It’s easier to do little 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 start on big things we’re not so sure about.”
Lesson for Bloggers and Storytellers: Try it once. Clear your calendar, your desk and your outside interruptions to see if that makes a difference in diving deep into your post or story. If you tried it, how did it work?
Cleese says it’s not enough to create space. You must create that space for a specific period of time. His theory is that if we just keep our mind resting against the subject in a friendly but persistent way, sooner or later we will get a reward from our subconscious. In his words:
“Creative people put in more ‘pondering time.’ They are willing to tolerate the disconnect that comes with not solving a problem much longer.”
Lesson for Bloggers and Storytellers: Set aside some pondering time. Pour some coffee or tea and do nothing but think about your post. You may feel like it was wasted time, but then that brilliant idea (the one that has been marinating in your head since your thinking session) may just pop out of your brain that night at dinner. It’s worth a try.
In typical Cleese fashion, he wakes us up with what seems to be a mistake. But what he is really telling us here is that this one is so important, he is going to say it twice. This particular ‘time’ is about giving yourself the longest possible time to come up with something original.
Lesson for Bloggers and Storytellers: If your story or blog post is due on Monday at 8am, 7:30am is your final deadline. I cannot count the times when a refreshing new slant has hit my brain at the last minute. Stay flexible.
Cleese is a huge fan of allowing himself to fail miserably. Of taking all kinds of risks. Of trying things he knows won’t work and then finding pieces of them that will. Of having the confidence to know that every word that comes out of him is not going to be brilliant. At least not in its original form.
He thinks that these experiments in failing better prepare you to handle the roadblocks when they come.
Lessons for Bloggers and Storytellers: When you brainstorm a new post, let your mind go. Don’t censor anything that flies from your fingers to your keyboard. BobWP and I have gotten very good at that. We toss ideas back and forth, sometimes throwing out outrageous ideas, and often, amongst all the silliness, we find a glimmer, a piece that we can build upon.
5. A 22-Inch Waist (Also Known as Humor)
About this last rule, Cleese says, “This one is self-explanatory. Because come on, who doesn’t want a 22-inch waist?”
As the laughter subsides, he makes his point: that this writing thing is supposed to be fun. That we should allow ourselves to play, to laugh at ourselves and even keep that sense of humor as we go into editing mode.
Lesson for Bloggers and Storytellers: If you are prone to seeing humor in the mundane, in other people, in your business, in life itself, don’t hold back. Cleese has famously said that if we can get people to laugh with us, it creates connections with them and they become more open to our ideas.
What about you?
What is your process for coming up with your most creative stuff?
What conditions must you absolutely have to write your best blog post or story?
An audio version of this post: