Matt Lewis

On creativity and blogging

English actor, writer, and comedian John Cleese knows a thing or two about creativity.

And over at Brain Pickings, Maria Popova went through some of his speeches and distilled Clees’s rules for being 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 the discomfort 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.”)

These lessons seem applicable to anyone interested in creativity. But I couldn’t help but think about how these rules specifically apply to blogging. After all, being tasked with producing daily content is an entirely different challenge than writing a book — or a screenplay, etc. (Ever notice that there seems to be an inverse relationship between quotidian journalism duties and writing a great work of art?)

Time, of course, is an obvious challenge (here, I’m talking about Cleese’s rule #3, not #2). Part of the reason of having a blog in the first place is to quickly post your musings and observations. If there are any newsworthy elements involved, the desire not to be “scooped” only provides additional incentive for speed.

But Cleese advocates an incubation period. He would suggest “sleeping on it” before posting an idea.

Whenever possible, this is wise. As Cleese notes, it seems our subconscious mind continues working on problems — even as we sleep. There is also a bit of serendipity involved. Quite often, after I file a story away in my head, I will inevitably — and almost immediately — stumble upon something which further buttresses my argument.

Sometimes, of course, you just can’t wait.

The good news is that the very nature of blogging is that a writer can revisit topics. Readers of this blog may recall several topics that have slowly developed over time from short posts into more coherent columns (immigration, evolution, the future direction of the GOP, the struggles of the working-class, etc.).

Aside from providing interesting content today, blog posts can also be a great way to flesh out ideas for tomorrow.

It is a mistake to assume that once you have written about a topic once, you should never revisit it again. First, this is narcissistic, since even your biggest fans won’t have read everything you’ve written — nor will they remember the things they have read. More importantly, however, is that this mentality deprives the writer of the joys of using the medium to massage ideas.

Reporters frequently talk about “advancing the story” — which means to take a story already in the news, and to reveal additional information. But bloggers should do this with their own intellectual scoops, too.

Like thinking out loud, “blogging out loud” can also be dangerous. The risk is that you will look silly. But it can also be rewarding. It can provide for a more intimate experience between the writer and the audience. And, quite often, someone reading my blog will send me something I did not know. This new information usually makes its way into future posts — or even a long-form column.

It is a catch-22, of course, that a reader would never know to send you the information you lacked had you not first decided to write on the topic in the first place. But learning requires a willingness to be vulnerable.

Speaking of user-feedback, it’s a double-edged sword. This bring’s me to Cleese’s fourth lesson, which is confidence.

Like anyone attempting to operate at a high level, writers need confidence. A loss of confidence often leads to writer’s block. But nothing stifles confidence more than instant and critical feedback. And it just so happens that this is one area where the blogosphere and the Twittersverse excels.

The second you hit “publish” on your post, and “Tweet,” you can expect negative feedback.

These are the unique 21st century challenges to the blogger hoping to be creative. These challenges can be overcome — especially if you’re aware they exist. I constantly struggle with creativity, and frequently experiment with ways to shake myself into having more good ideas.

Let me highly recommend watching John Cleese’s lectures — especially the second one.

H/t: Sean Malone