If I could choose any living person in this world to have dinner with—anyone—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 to first catch our attention and then to connect us to each other.
A writer is 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.
But in this hurry-up world of ours, we are not rewarded for pondering. We must come up with ideas quickly.
“Come on now. Spit it out!”
It has become unacceptable to stop and think first. 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.
For instance, in sketching out Mama’s character in my memoir, I am asking myself, “What is Mama’s worst nightmare?”
Then I put her in that situation and watch her react. That particular thing might not have even happened to her, and it won’t make it into the book, but its value is in getting the cause and effect right. It helps me to write her character true, to show just how she reacts to the world.
Self-Defense Against Fresh Fruit
Cleese also reminds us that characters with unexpected quirks are much more real—and enjoyable. In the classic 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.
This piece of modeled storytelling Cleese-style has helped me make my memoir’s characters more believable, more three-dimensional.
In one deleted scene in my memoir, Mama, who was always prim and proper and a little afraid to show the world her real self, is out of her element. She is trying to talk my 2-year-old brother into riding his new tricycle, which he is deathly afraid of. She picks him up and tries to put him on the seat, but he resists. She tells him how much fun it is to ride it. Nothing works.
In desperation, she gets on the tricycle herself, pedaling it around the living room with her knobby knees sticking up, almost to the level of her chin. She honks the little horn and says, “Wheee!” as she circles the room.
And just then, out of the corner of her eye, she sees the Fuller Brush Man peeking in through the front door’s window, mouth open and eyes wide. The last image left in Mama’s brain is that of the door-to-door salesman almost falling down the stairs in his attempt to get as far away as possible.
John Cleese’s 5 Requirements for Creative Storytelling
In his trademark, humor-laced way, Cleese offered a recipe for creative storytelling at the 2009 Creativity World Forum. (Can you imagine attending a lecture with John Cleese as your instructor?)
I cleared my desk to write this blog post. If John Cleese were here, I would say, “See? I made a space for creativity.”
Though some people claim they can write and create amid the chaos of noise, clutter and ringing telephones, Cleese tells us that we must have an undistracted space to 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 to start on big things we’re not so sure about. ”
Cleese says it’s not enough to create space. You have to 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 unconscious. In his words:
“Creative people put in more ‘pondering time.’ They are willing to tolerate this disconnect that comes with not solving a problem much longer.”
In typical Cleese fashion, he wakes us up with what seems to be a mistake. But what he is really telling us is that this one is so important, he is going to say it twice. This ‘time’ is about giving yourself the longest possible time to come up with something original. If the story or blog post is due on Monday at 8am, give yourself Monday, 7:30am as your final deadline.
Monty Python’s Dead Parrot Sketch is one of the most famous in the history of British television comedy. A disgruntled customer (played by Cleese) tries to return a dead Norwegian Blue parrot, which he has purchased “not quite half an hour ago.” The shopkeeper refuses to believe the bird is dead, claiming, “No, ‘e’s just restin’.”
It was the dead parrot that made this sketch so funny. But, as Cleese recalls, in the first draft of the sketch, it was a used car and later, a toaster. They kept pondering and tweaking and inventing until they came up with the one thing that would be the funniest to return: a dead bird.
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 that pieces of them will. Of having the confidence to know that not every word that comes out of us is going to be brilliant. At least not in its original form.
He thinks that these experiences better prepare you to handle the roadblocks when they come.
5. A 22-Inch Waist
“This one is self-explanatory,” he says. “Because come on, who doesn’t want a 22-inch waist?”
After 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 onto the editing mode.
What about you?
What’s your process with coming up with your most creative stuff?
What conditions—in or around you—must you absolutely have to write your best stuff?