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creativity and play go hand in hand

Creativity and Play Go Hand in Hand

I am on a mission to start being creative again. When I saw John Cleese’s book on creativity, Creativity: A Short and Cheerful Guide, I picked it up. It was, as the title suggests, short. It took me under an hour to read. And one of the most important lessons I relearned was this: creativity and play go hand in hand.

John Cleese is one of the funniest and most off the wall creatives. I was curious about his take on creativity.

The Importance of Play in Creativity

One of the key messages is, Play! Creativity is about play. And you can’t play wrong. Imagine a child thinking there’s only one way to put together a random bucket of Lego. I’m sorry this random bucket of Lego is only for dinosaurs. You can’t build that castle here.

Interruptions Kill Creativity

Now imagine a child building this masterpiece castle with this Lego, but every few minutes, she is interrupted. According to Cleese, interruptions kill creativity. He posits that after every interruption, it takes up to eight minutes to get back into the flow. So, if you have 90 minutes to be creative and three people interrupt you for 5 minutes each, that’s 39 minutes. So, out of your 90 minutes, you only have 51 minutes to play. No wonder it feels like nothing gets done!

Creativity is about play. And you can’t play wrong

Setting Boundaries for Creative Time

This is where John Cleese suggests we need to set boundaries of both space and time. Lock yourself in a room or a closet, whatever works, and set a timer. Tell everyone to go away and leave you alone. Try a sign on your door that says, only interrupt if the house is on fire. I’ve tried that myself.

 Play for 90 minutes. (It doesn’t have to be 90 minutes, make it 30 or 60 if you wish.) Cleese suggests that when we first try this, it won’t work because we aren’t used to it yet. We will check our phones, peek out at the kids, decide we need a snack and so forth. But if we stick to it, we will train ourselves to sit our butts down and be creative. He’s not wrong.

Or Join a Meeting of Creative Minds

I host a 90-minute working session every Monday and my clients love it for just this reason. And that is the idea of it: this session sets up boundaries of time, my clients set up boundaries of space. Which is easier when you have an appointment because you can tell your family you are in a very important meeting, which you are. Why do people not respect when we have meetings with ourselves? But I digress.

Creativity Flows and Ebbs

Now what are you doing in these 90 minutes? Playing, of course. And only playing.

What if nothing comes? Don’t give up. Cleese uses the analogy of an empty fork. You don’t stop eating because your fork is empty. The creative process includes abundance and scarcity. Sometimes your ideas and words flow and sometimes they don’t. And creativity is a practice. I’ve been out of practice so this was a good reminder on how to become creative again.

Understanding the Tortoise Mind and Hare Mind

To help with this, Cleese refers to Guy Claxton who came up with the idea of a Hare Mind and a Tortoise Mind. Your Tortoise Mind wanders, is open to ideas, welcomes uncertainty. Your Hare Mind is analytical and purposeful. The hare mind does not like uncertainty. Both have their place in the creative process. First drafts are the domain of the Tortoise Mind. Editing is the domain of the Hare Mind. Both are important but don’t happen simultaneously. So, stop editing while you are writing.

The Tortoise Mind does not come up with brilliant ideas and word combinations every time. That is normal, so don’t be critical of or during playtime. The tortoise and the hare work as partners, iterating to generate ideas and words, and then refining them. Allow both to take their place in your creative process.

John Cleese's Personal Journey to Creativity

Cleese has written a short, and cheerful guide based on his experience. He started out as a science major who went to Cambridge to get a law degree. No one had ever suggested creativity was an option. But at Cambridge, while earning a degree in law, he found an alternative path that led him on a creative adventure that ended up giving us Monty Python, Fawlty Towers, and many more creative laughs.

Optimizing Your Author Journey

Implementing the ideas from this book can help you become creative again. Here are three quick action items you can do in just a few minutes each:

  1. Set Boundaries for Creative Time:
    • Take a moment to designate a specific time and space for your creative endeavors.
    • Put up a “Do Not Disturb” sign or communicate to others that you need uninterrupted creative time.
    • Set a timer for a short session, even just 15 minutes, to focus solely on your writing or creative project without distractions.
  2. Embrace Playful Exploration:
    • Reflect on the idea that “Creativity is about play. And you can’t play wrong.”
    • Take a playful approach to your writing or creative process by experimenting with different ideas or techniques.
    • Allow yourself to explore without judgment or pressure to produce a perfect outcome.
  3. Balance Tortoise Mind and Hare Mind:
    • Identify whether you’re in a Tortoise Mind or Hare Mind mode when working on your creative projects.
    • During your next writing session, focus solely on generating ideas without worrying about perfection (Tortoise Mind).
    • Save editing and refinement for a separate session, allowing yourself to switch to a more analytical and purposeful mindset (Hare Mind).

Creativity: A short and cheerful guide will take you about an hour to read and will give you insights from a creative master that you can apply to your own creative practice. If you are, like me, ready to play and become creative again, I’d recommend picking up your own copy.

If you would like some writing prompts to help you write freely, download Writing Prompts for Nonfiction Authors.

Keep writing and keep thriving,

Melody Ann

Author Nation is your go-to resource for becoming a successful nonfiction author, from planning to promotion and everything in between. 
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