Creativity: A Short and Cheerful Guide

by John Cleese

The central theme of this short book is tapping into your subconscious thoughts for ideas which you can then develop consciously and analytically. Cleese writes, “I began to realize that my unconscious was working on stuff all the time, without my being consciously aware of it.”

SLOW DOWN. Cleese cites a book titled Hare Brain, Tortoise Mind: How Intelligence Increases When You Think Less by Guy Claxton. The hare brain “relies on reason and logic, on deliberate conscious thinking.” With the tortoise mind, “we are ruminating or mulling things over.” Claxton says that scientific evidence “shows convincingly that the more patient, less deliberate modes of mind are particularly suited to making sense of situations that are intricate, shadowy, or ill-defined.”

PREVERBAL. “Put simply, you can’t ask your unconscious a question, and expect a direct answer—a neat, tidy little verbal message. This is because your unconscious communicates its knowledge to you solely through the language of the unconscious. And the language of the unconscious is not verbal. It’s like the language of dreams. It shows you images, it gives you feelings, it nudges you around without you immediately knowing what it’s getting at.”

This reminds me of Patrick Doorly’s description of the “preverbal” experience in The Truth About Art: Reclaiming Quality: “It operates prior to intellectualization.”

As a case in point, Cleese describes a psychology experiment. A group of volunteers were asked to view a set of Chinese characters on a screen. “The volunteers were then asked to return a few days later to look at a further batch. Some of the characters they viewed this time around they had seen the week before… They were asked to say which ones they recognized from the previous session.” Nobody could do so.

“Then the psychologists repeated the experiment with a different group. But this time, after the second session… they were simply asked to say which ones they liked best… And now for the mind-boggling fact. The ones they liked were the ones that they had seen before.”

“Think about this for a moment. Their unconscious recognized the Chinese characters from the previous week, but instead of prompting the volunteers to say, ‘Yes, we saw them last week,’ it simply generated a feeling of liking.

And that’s the problem with the unconscious… You have to coax it out in all sorts of strange and crafty ways. And be clever about interpreting what it does tell you.”

ARCHITECTS. A psychologist by the name of Donald MacKinnon “had a particular interest in architects, because he could see that they needed to be both creative and highly practical.” He concluded that there were two key attributes of the most creative architects.

  1. “The creative architects knew how to play… He means the ability to get enjoyably absorbed in a puzzle: not just to try to solve it so that you can get on to the next problem, but to become really curious about it for its own sake.” Cleese adds, “Playing keeps you ‘fresh.’”
  2. “The second was that the creative architects always deferred making decisions for as long as they were allowed… It simply means they are able to tolerate that vague sense of discomfort that we all feel, when some important decision is left open, because they know that an answer will eventually present itself.”

OVER-CONFIDENCE. In contrast, “when people become absolutely certain that they know what they’re doing, their creativity plummets. This is because they think they have nothing more to learn. Once they believe this, they naturally stop learning and fall back on established patterns.”

GETTING STARTED. “Think up different approaches, compare them, begin gathering key facts and research—it never does any harm to have a few quotes! And—in case you haven’t realized this yet—recognize that all this time you will be feeding your unconscious and it will be chewing everything over the moment you stop working. Which is why, if you now go for a walk, by the time you get back, you’ll have a couple more ideas to add to your notes.”

MISTAKES. “When you’re being creative there is no such thing as a mistake. The reason is very simple: you can’t possibly know if you are going down a wrong avenue until you’ve gone down it. So, if you have an idea, you must follow your line of thought to the end to see whether it’s likely to be useful or not. You must explore, without necessarily knowing where you’re going. As Einstein once pointed out, if we know what we’re doing when we’re investigating something, then it’s not research!”

INTERRUPTIONS. “The greatest killer of creativity is interruption… Research has shown that, after an interruption, it can take… up to twenty minutes to get back into a state of deep focus… In order to remove such interruptions, whether internal or external, so that you can enter your ‘Tortoise Mind,’ you have to create a safe place where you can play. This involves first creating boundaries of space, and then boundaries of time.”

WANDERING MIND. “As Hindus say, the mind is like a chattering, drunken monkey. On and on, and all completely trivial and uninvited. What can you do about this? Well, people who are stronger-minded than me seem to be able to just bat these thoughts away. Lucky sods. I can’t do that. Instead, I write them down straight away on a yellow sticky note on my desk. Then I can forget about them.

Once you start chasing away any distracting thoughts, you’ll discover, just like in meditation, that the longer you sit there, the more your mind slows and calms down and settles. Once that starts to happen you can begin to focus on the problem you’ve chosen to think about.”

“So you just sit there and eventually, as the mind quietens, odd ideas and notions relevant to your puzzle start popping in your mind. But they are… odd! … They don’t arrive in the form of words, in neatly typed sentences. Because they come from your unconscious, they speak the language of the unconscious.”

“It’s therefore really important that you don’t rush. Let these new notions of yours slowly become clearer, and clearer, and clearer. Real clarity will eventually emerge.”

ITERATION. “And so you go backwards and forwards between the creative mode of thinking and the analytical mode of thinking until, finally, you get to something that’s a bit special. This back-and-forth process is called iteration. It’s what creative people do all the time.”

“And it’s what I did when I was writing the screenplay for A Fish Called Wanda. I went through draft after draft, using my ‘Tortoise Mind’ to come up with ideas and resolve problems, and my ‘Hare Brain’ to clarify my thoughts and sort out logical inconsistencies.”

EDITING. “Remember… brevity is the soul of wit. It is also the soul of not boring people… So when you finish your first draft, cut anything that is not relevant (there will be more than you think).”

SETBACKS. “We came to understand that the blockages weren’t an interruption in the process, they were part of it… When the juices are not flowing, don’t beat yourself up and wonder if you should retrain as a priest. Just sit around and play, until your unconscious is ready to cough up some stuff. Getting discouraged is a total waste of your time.”

“Now, feeling creative isn’t exactly an emotion. It’s a frame of mind. But if you’re in the wrong frame of mind—if you’re distracted or worrying about something else—it follows that you’re not going to be creative.”

SEEKING OPINIONS. If you want feedback on your work in progress, Cleese suggests four focused questions:

  1. “Where were you bored?
  2. Where could you not understand what was going on?
  3. Where did you not find things credible?
  4. Was there anything that you found emotionally confusing?”

John Cleese is best is known as a co-writer and actor on the Monty Python’s Flying Circus television series and the films Monty Python and the Holy Grail,  The Life of Brian, and The Meaning of Life, as well as the sitcom Fawlty Towers. He is also the author of several other books including So Anyway… A Memoir and Professor at Large: The Cornell Years.


Cleese, John. Creativity: A Short and Cheerful Guide. Crown, 2020.  Buy from Amazon.com

Note: I have modified the spelling to appease my American spellchecker.

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