John Cleese on creativity and comments from a copywriter

John Cleese on creativity and copywriter commentsAs a copywriter, I’ve often wondered where creativity comes from, and even more so, how to tap into it and “package” it, for lack of a better term. After all, when you work professionally as a creative, clients are essentially paying you to be creative on demand. And on deadline.

Sure, some copywriters and art directors exist at the fringe where their work is good enough to warrant a creative director looking the other way for missed deadlines. At least, that can work for a time if the agency is hunting for awards. But clients expect delivery. So copywriters and creatives who run their own businesses, like I do, need to deliver.

Copywriters on the creativity spectrum

What John Cleese says about creativity may be a different kind of creative beast. At least, when he refers to giving yourself space and time to create something original. What he created was truly original. Of course, he and the Monty Python gang didn’t invent humor. They invented their own brand of it. They invented the content.

So, perhaps copywriting exists with all forms of creativity on a spectrum of originality. Meaning, as a copywriter, you don’t need to invent the product or service you’re writing about. You don’t even invent the key message—although it may feel like it at times, as you pull a key message out of a mediocre creative brief. Or guide a client who’s not a professional marketer into creating one.

Here’s a summary of what Cleese says you need to be creative:

  1. Space (“You can’t become playful, and therefore creative, if you’re under your usual pressures.”)
  2. Time (“It’s not enough to create space; you have to create your space for a specific period of time.”)
  3. Time (“Giving your mind as long as possible to come up with something original,” and learning to tolerate thediscomfort of pondering time and indecision.)
  4. Confidence (“Nothing will stop you being creative so effectively as the fear of making a mistake.”)
  5. Humor (“The main evolutionary significance of humor is that it gets us from the closed mode to the open mode quicker than anything else.”)

His model for creativity is the interplay of two modes of behaving — open, where we take a wide-angle view of the problem and allow our brains to think about potential solutions, and closed, where we focus on implementing the specific solution and exclude everything else. This makes sense. It’s left brain/right brain. Explore, then execute. Design, then deliver.

Here are some other choice quotes:

Creativity is not a talent. It is a way of operating.

We need to be in the open mode when pondering a problem — but! — once we come up with a solution, we must then switch to the closed mode to implement it. Because once we’ve made a decision, we are efficient only if we go through with it decisively, undistracted by doubts about its correctness.

This next quote is where us copywriters and other creatives can get stuck:

To be at our most efficient, we need to be able to switch backwards and forward between the two modes. But — here’s the problem — we too often get stuck in the closed mode. Under the pressures which are all too familiar to us, we tend to maintain tunnel vision at times when we really need to step back and contemplate the wider view.

Cleese suggests creating an “oasis” amidst the daily grind where your creative mind can have the freedom it needs.

“We get our ideas from what I’m going to call for a moment our unconscious — the part of our mind that goes on working, for example, when we’re asleep. So what I’m saying is that if you get into the right mood, then your mode of thinking will become much more creative. But if you’re racing around all day, ticking things off a list, looking at your watch, making phone calls and generally just keeping all the balls in the air, you are not going to have any creative ideas.”

From the copywriter’s perspective, though, this is my favorite quote:

“Telling people how to be creative is easy – being creative is difficult.”

So true…