I watched John Cleese's talk on creativity a couple of years ago, and it had a huge effect on me. Not because it’s an especially entertaining video (fans of the parrot sketch will be disappointed to find Cleese being relatively serious here), but because it permanently changed the way I approach my daily writing practice.
In the video, he recommends that creative folk set aside 1.5 hours (and no more) at a time to do their work – but, more importantly, that they should be fully prepared to waste the first half-hour, each and every time.
Why, John? Why can’t I just sit down at my computer and immediately start cranking out prose like a caffeine-fueled J.K. Rowling? Because I really want to. I want to open up my laptop, launch Word, and then – boom – creative genius.
But it doesn't usually happen like that. When I sit down to write, I’m almost immediately besieged by thoughts of other things I could be doing. Say, checking Facebook. Or doing my day job. Or vacuuming the living room. Vacuuming becomes inexplicably alluring when I am facing revisions.
But John says that this behavior, this sudden mania for vacuuming or any other non-writing activity, is textbook.
“Because,” he says, “as we all know, it’s easier to do trivial things that are urgent than it is to do important things that are not urgent. And it’s also easier to do little things we know we can do than to start on big things that we’re not so sure about.”
That experience of anxiousness and mind-racing, he says, is nothing to worry about. All you’ve got to do is wait it out.
“You’re just going to sit there for a bit, tolerating the mind-racing and the slight anxiety that comes with that. And after a time, your mind will quiet down again.”
This process takes about 30 minutes, he says, as your nervous system eases into a totally different mode. During that 30 minutes of just sitting, you’re allowed to be as unproductive as you want – you can doodle, listen to music, write limericks, eavesdrop on the people sitting next to you, etc. It's all pretty much kosher as long as you don't abandon your creative time.
Well, I liked the sound of this, but it also sounded like it could be complete bullshit. So I tried it out in my next writing session. I gave myself a 30-minute free pass. I had my novel open in front of me on my computer, but I didn’t work on it. Instead, I sipped from my cup of coffee. I watched the birds hopping around outside my window. I listened to my favorite song on repeat a few times.
And then something funny happened. After about fifteen minutes, I realized that my usual anxiety over starting to write was missing. And I could bear to look at my novel without immediately critiquing it. After about twenty minutes, my mind started to edge up on the scene I wanted to write that day. And at about 25 minutes in, I wrote down a paragraph that had suddenly come to me, and then I started writing for real.
John Cleese, you genius.
So, try this out the next time you sit down to write. Don’t stress. Simply wait out the awkward time when you can’t seem to settle into writing mode. Allow yourself to be unproductive, and then see if that actually frees up your brain a bit.
Then come back here and tell me how your experiment went.
Jaime deBlanc-Knowles is the founder of Fresh Ink Consulting, an Austin-based company offering personalized editing and writing services to authors and small businesses.