Wednesday, 10 January 2018

The Idiotic Hat Guide to Unleashing Your Creativity

My recent pontifications on the nature of creativity reminded me that, back in November 2010 (which, in blog years, is a very long time ago indeed), I had already posted some advice which, with a little revision, might still set a few people on the right path. You're welcome! So, here it comes again, pay attention this time [1]:

There is a minor industry in self-improvement books, encouraging you to get in touch with your frustrated inner artist, in order to unleash the creative dynamo that is the Real You. The underlying dodgy thesis (there's always an underlying dodgy thesis) is nearly always the same, and it's this:
All children are born creative and free, but this innate joy is squeezed out of them by a sequence of grim, grey tyrants, starting with their parents, but of whom the most egregious and grimly grey are the schoolteachers. "Hey, teacher, leave those kids alone!" But, rejoice, it's never too late to re-awaken your inner Kreative Kid. Have you considered one of our workshops?
Sound familiar? It should do. It's pretty much a default position, these days, and would deserve an entry under "creativity" in any contemporary equivalent of Flaubert's Dictionnaire des idées reçues. But this idea is such nonsense, it's hard to know where to begin. It's as if the writers of these books had never been to primary school, and had never encountered other children there. Worse, it seems they may have been cruelly denied those most enticing of creative toys – pencils, paints, and paper – both at home and in the classroom.

I suppose my counter-thesis would go like this:
It is my observation that most children are actually born vicious dullards who, without schooling, would torment each other into an early grave. The few exceptions – the bright, the creative, the open-minded, the talented – quickly learn to go to ground until it's safe to come out again later in life. Which the strongest and most motivated always do.
Trust me, I know. As a moderately talented child, I watched in horror as less wary contemporaries had their "show-off" tendencies relentlessly hacked down to playground level, not by our wonderful and encouraging teachers but by our predatory peers, whose "creativity" expressed itself in ensuring that everyone who was not normal was policed into dull, watchful conformity. Few of these playground vigilantes went on to become teachers – you really do have to be some kind of saint to be a teacher – but their poisonous legacy lives on in anyone who is afraid to deviate from a crowd-sourced norm.

So, here is a possible ten point path to fulfilment through creativity:

1. Stop being so dull. It's OK, you can come out now, it's safe. Take a walk on the wild side, and see whether it's for you. Ideally, why not try being gay, or left-handed? It seems to work for a lot of artists.

2. Stop worrying about what people might think about you. Instead, find out what they actually do think about you – probably nothing – then work at giving them gossip-worthy new things to think about you. See (1). As Oscar Wilde said, there's only one thing worse than being talked about, and that's losing control of your PR strategy.

3. Self-reinvention is the name of the game. Don't like the person you have become? Neither do we. So stop it. Become someone more interesting. It's easier than you think, see (2).

4. Wear an idiotic hat. Goes without saying, really. See any prominent jazz musician. Correlation or cause? It takes courage and self-belief to look that ridiculous, and it's a good way to see how seriously people are taking you: nobody laughed at Thelonious Monk.

5. Follow your dream. Find out where it goes during the day. Be there waiting for it next time, introduce yourself, and buy it a drink. Tell it to be clearer about what it really wants, or else to stop bothering you. Why should anyone be stalked by their own subconscious mind?

6. Think outside the box. Think inside the box. Think round the back of the box. Imagine you are a box. Make a box, and put it inside a box. Learn to box on Boxing Day. When the word "box" finally becomes absurd through repetition, you will have escaped the prison-house of language, and will briefly be outside the word "box", if not the actual box, whatever and wherever that is. Does that freedom feel good, or bad? If it feels bad, "creativity" is probably not for you.

7. Steal other people's work and ideas shamelessly. Go on, try them on for size. Art is not a museum with guards and alarms, it is a charity shop with a lax policy on shoplifting.

8. Be aware that it is easier to buy books about creativity, than it is actually to read those books. Worse, it is also easier to read a book about writing, than actually to write anything oneself. A writer is a person who writes. But preferably not a person who writes a book about how to write.

9. Encourage your kids, and give them plenty of paints, pencils and paper. Be unstinting in your praise of their efforts, no matter how dull. Then perhaps they'll stop bullying that other funny little kid in their class who is so much better at drawing, or dancing, or whatever it is than they are, and they realise just how awesome he or she really is.

Which brings us to the serious bit.

Sadly, despite following this, or any other advice, it will probably turn out that you are not a fount of original creative genius after all. Why should you be? You're probably not much of a footballer or chef, either, judged by the highest standards, much as you might enjoy a kickabout or playing around in the kitchen. But that is not the point. This is the point:

10. Taking part. The artistic life of any community depends as much on a lively, informed audience, many of whom will themselves be enthusiastic amateurs, as it does on its stellar practitioners. We all need to get out of the house more, and get into the habit of going to exhibitions and concerts and the theatre; we simply need to keep showing up. Our physical presence and our ticket money is what keeps venues for live music or theatre or exhibitions open. Also, why not write a fan letter or two to the artists you admire? You'd be amazed at how pathetically grateful even prominent figures can be for a few words of encouragement. But buy their work, too, whether it be books, CDs, pictures, post-gig merch T-shirts, whatever; sales of work are what pay bills, as well as being the most sincere form of flattery.

Besides – and this is a harsh truth – nobody cares whether you unleash your creativity or not. If your novels, plays, or songs never get written, or your pictures never get painted, no-one will wonder what went wrong. David Bowie was silent for a whole decade, and did anyone really notice?

No, the real grim, grey tyrants are not the parents who told you not to get paint over your nice clean clothes, or the teachers who failed to notice your brilliance, or the friends who undermined your confidence, for the simple reason that the culture seems to get along just fine in the absence of any particular individual's input. Who does the real damage are people who try to shut off the free flow of creative output, by cutting funding for the arts, by putting property developers' interests above anyone else's, by introducing unhelpful by-laws and taxes on "entertainment", or simply by going along with the complacent, lowest-common-denominator philistinism that thinks markets, league-tables, and opinion-polls are the measure of everything.

So, probably the most creative thing that most of us can do is to speak up against (and not vote for) these small-minded political playground vigilantes whenever we can. Let's make the playground a safe place for everyone in 2018!

[1] For non-Brits: I'm very aware that the play of irony we enjoy so much in these islands ("Now I'm serious, now I'm not; now I'm saying what I mean, now I'm obviously saying the exact opposite of what I mean") can be confusing. It's like our weather, shifting and changing by the minute, and something you either learn to enjoy, or emigrate.


Paul Mc Cann said...

Very droll. Perhaps this is your true hidden genius. Forget the snaps and concentrate on the wit.

Also, treat this as a fan letter

Mike C. said...

Thanks, Paul, I'm suitably pathetically grateful for these words of encouragement...


Anonymous said...

Reminiscing especially my Art teachers at the Gymnasium (somewhat akin to a Grammar School?), there was only one who was actually inspiring in a way that I looked forward to his Art lessons. Interestingly, he later quit his employment as a teacher and became a freelance artist.
In the context with a particular unpleasant Art teacher I still remember an anecdote which took place when I was about 17. The latest project in her lesson was woodcutting; we were free to bring a template picture of our choice. I decided to bring a photograph I took, developed and printed myself. She wasn't happy with the finished woodcut, though. Her argument was that a particular part of the woodcut was not worked out well. Pointing at my picture, she told me that this region was what made the picture beautiful in the first place and that I was too ignorant to recognize this. For the record: This woman (who had the wit and charisma of an overturned turtle, by the way) explained my own picture to me since I was too ignorant. I remember that I found this so totally way off that I was virtually dumbstruck (in hindsight, when I consider the replies which crossed my mind later, this was a blessing).
Take-home-message for me: Ignore the opinion of negative people and just do your work. Or, as the British say: Keep calm and carry on!

Best, Thomas

amolitor said...

I have no problem with British irony. When you're saying something I agree with, you are obviously being deadly serious, and when you're saying something I disagree with (i.e. something wrong) I know you are joking.

Unless you are an idiot and also not pretty, then, the opposite.

Mike C. said...


You did *woodcuts* at Gymnasium?? Good God... At my grammar school, we had to choose between Art and German in the 3rd year, which was not a tough choice, as "art" had mostly consisted of sitting round a large table for 40 minutes using those awful tinned powder paints and brushes resembling chewed sticks. The British school system has always regarded anything involving actual hand-eye coordination (art, metalwork, woodwork, cookery, etc.) as suitable only for the less able pupils. Hence the global triumph that is the British car industry...


Mike C. said...


It always amazes me when people say, "Americans do not get irony". Have they never watched "Cheers", or "Friends", or "The Daily Show"? Or maybe most of our visitors are from those "flyover" states, where I believe a facade of earnest sincerity is a legal requirement, and public displays of irony incur a spot fine (but again, "Fargo"??).

What about us pretty idiots, though?


Anonymous said...


yes, the Art lessons were project-based at least for the older students (from 8th grade IIRC). I remember that the first print-related project was linocut and that they taught us to always use a cutting direction away from our body. That was actually good advice since still having all your fingers when you're 50 is nothing to sneeze at.

Best, Thomas

Mike C. said...


Incredible. I won't reply to this, as your previous comment has generated a new post which I'm going to start writing straight after I've eaten this evening...

I'm quite a practised wood/linocutter myself -- it was something I enjoyed doing for many years.