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Why You Need to Be Disorganised to Be Creative

Magnetic Poetry

Photo by Mami

I ruffled a few feathers over on Business of Design Online when I wrote about Why You Need to Be Organised to Be Creative. In the comments I was accused of writing ‘LIES!!! ALL LIES!!’ and ‘rubbish!’ because ‘Organisation and routine destroy creativity’ and ‘if you are organized you are probably not very creative’. It’s true that organisation and discipline are probably not the first thing that spring to mind when we think of creativity, but if you look at the actual working habits of highly creative people you’ll usually find these qualities in abundance. Hugh MacLeod puts it more pithily (and poetically) than I can:

Like making a fire from rubbing sticks together, creativity’s heat comes from work. Work requires dedication.

So I wrote that post (which became the first chapter of my e-book on Time Management for Creative People) to highlight the often-overlooked factor of organisation in the creative process – and I stand by it. But now I’m going to follow Roger von Oech’s advice to look at things in reverse and argue the opposite point of view.

Inspiration – the magic 1%

It’s all very well being organised and disciplined, but there comes a point where you have to let go of your carefully crafted structures. Creativity may be 99% perspiration, but without the magic 1% of inspiration, all your hard work will count for nothing. Just ask Salieri. And by definition it comes as a surprise, even a shock – we’re working away on a project or problem, and something unexpected pops into our minds: a line of poetry; a vivid image; a new idea; a catchy riff or rhythm.

Creativity is difficult, unpredictable and often frustrating – but once you’ve experience that ‘Eureka!’ moment of inspiration, it’s hard to imagine why you would devote yourself to anything else. That 1% makes the other 99% a worthwhile investment of effort.

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What Writer’s Block and Stage Fright Have In Common

Crumpled paper Stage light
Photo by pascalgenest

Photo by givepeasachance

From the outside, the writer pottering around the house while the laptop gathers dust, and the performer shaking with fear backstage might look very different. But having personally experienced both writer’s block and stage nerves, as well as coaching many writers and performers through them, I’ve come to the conclusion that they are basically the same thing.

To see what I mean, let’s take the idea of a block literally, and look at the phenomenon of board breaking by martial artists.

To see someone break a board, brick or concrete block with bare hands or feet looks amazing, but the evidence suggests that it’s a question of technique rather than magical powers. Given the proper training, anyone can learn to do it. In the Kung Fu Science project, kung fu expert Chris Crudelli teamed up with physicist Michelle Cain to investigate the physical forces at work.

On the Kung Fu Science website, Crudelli explains the key points of the technique of breaking boards, one of which is particularly relevant to creative blocks:

Speed and Point of Focus

‘The most important thing is to make sure the hand is moving fast enough when it hits the wood. Advice often given is to imagine that what you’re hitting is actually well behind the board. This ensures the hand doesn’t slow down before the point of impact. Confidence is also important here; you have to believe that your hand is going straight through the board, or you will naturally slow down to avoid hurting yourself.’ [Read more…]

6 Tips for Dealing with Feedback on Your Creative Work

Critics page

There’s an art to listening to criticism or praise of your work without getting carried away by elation or despair – and let’s face it, without stomping off in a huff. Having looked at How not to give feedback on creative work, 5 tips for giving feedback on creative work and what Seamus Heaney taught me about giving feedback, it’s time to look at what it’s like to be on the receiving end of all this constructive criticism.

This has been a hot topic for me this year, as I’ve been attending Mimi Khalvati‘s advanced poetry workshop at the Poetry School. Feedback is my main motivation for doing the class – not only is Mimi one of the most sensitive and helpful readers of a poem I’ve ever come across, but the class is full of talented and experienced poets, who always offer insightful critiques of the poems on offer. And the thing is, it’s usually much easier to appreciate this while we’re discussing other people’s poems. As long as we’re looking at someone else’s words, it’s easy to see the aptness of the comments and the usefulness of the suggestions.

But when it’s my poem on the table, it’s a different matter.

Now, I’ve worked with hundreds of artists and creatives on how to deal with feedback and respond to it constructively. I know I shouldn’t take it too personally and remember that the comments are about the work, not about me. Obviously.

But that doesn’t stop my heart being in my mouth when I stop reading and wait for the first response.

And it doesn’t stop that little voice that sometimes starts up in my head, that wonders “Why did you read out such a load of rubbish, no wonder they’re sitting they’re in silence they’re embarrassed at how bad it is and wouldn’t you be I mean what can you say about a poem that etc etc”.

It really feels like a lottery. Sometimes I’m pretty sure there’s at least one good stanza in the poem, and it’s almost comical how often that turns out to be the utter rubbish, while the one bit I was on the verge of cutting at the last minute turns out to be the best thing in it, the bit that’s crying out to be centre stage and needs to be given more space.

Occasionally, a poem comes through unscathed, apart from a few minor tweaks – and I feel like Buster Keaton when the house has fallen on top of him, leaving him standing with a window-frame around his feet.

The thing is, it’s phenomenally hard to get enough distance on your own work to assess it anything like objectively, and to make meaningful judgments on how to develop it into the finished article. Arguably that’s the difference between a real artist and an amateur. Writing looks a pretty solitary activity, at least in comparison to making things like feature films or computer games, but it’s interesting to note how many successful writers have been members of a tightly knit group of fellow-writers, who were fiercely supportive of each other and fiercely critical of each other’s work.

And arguably, we writers have it easy compared to creatives in an agency or studio. At least we have the luxury of deciding where we get our feedback. We don’t have clients who have never written a word in their lives tearing our work to shreds. We’ve never been asked to “make the logo bigger” or heard the magic words “I’ll know it when I see it”.

So if you’re ever faced with unexpected or unwelcome feedback, here are a few tips for deciding what to do with it:

1. Don’t just dismiss it!

One of my pet hates in writing classes is when someone reads their work, scowls through the (usually) well-intentioned and insightful comments, and then shrugs and says “I guess I just write for myself”. When obviously they don’t, or they wouldn’t have shown it to the rest of us. You might not like the feedback – but being purely selfish about it, you owe it to yourself to consider whether there is anything in it. You can dismiss the feedback, but don’t dismiss it without considering it.

2. Remember who is speaking

Different people are qualified to give different kinds of feedback. Always bear in mind who they are, and what perspective they are coming from. Are these the kind of people you are trying to reach with your work? If so, you should be all ears for what they have to say. If not, you may decide their viewpoint is irrelevant.

In some ways it’s easier to accept criticism from a fellow professional, and it’s tempting to value their praise more than that of others. But a ‘naive’ reader or observer can often show you something the experts might miss. And most of us aren’t just creating for our peers – we want our work to make an impression on everyone who encounters it. If we’re happy to accept praise from any quarter, we should be prepared for the catcalls from the cheap seats.

3. Listen for the criteria

Disagreements often arise because of different criteria for judgment. The classic example is the creative team who want to produce something edgy and remarkable, while the client wants something safer and more predictable. If they can’t agree on the criteria, they will never agree on the work, so the first thing is to establish the criteria people are using to judge your work. Once you have done that, you can decided (a) do I consider these valid criteria? and (b) if so, are they right in their assessment of whether the work meets these criteria?

If you’re lucky they will make their criteria for judgment clear. If not, you might have to infer them or have a conversation to establish them. “Make the logo bigger” might mean “I’m not sure how this will help my company – will people really get the message by looking at this image?”. “I’ll know it when I see it” means “I don’t have any criteria” – so you need to define some quickly or (if possible) walk away.

4. Be honest with yourself

Whether or not they express the feedback well, ask yourself whether there’s something in it or not. You don’t have to be graceful about it, or even acknowledge it publicly. But deep inside, there’s a part of you that knows whether there’s something not right with the work – check in with that part and see what feeling you get from it.

5. Don’t take it personally

Yes I know, this is easier said than done. You put your heart and soul into your work, it’s hard to pretend you haven’t. As Flaubert said, “A book is essentially organic, part of ourselves. We tear a length of gut from our bellies and serve it up”. Yet if we are really serious about our work, we have to learn to step back from it and see it more objectively. Leonardo puts it better than I can:

We know very well that errors are better recognized in the works of others than in our own; and often by reproving little faults in others, we may ignore great ones in ourselves… I say that when you paint you should have a flat mirror and often look at your work as reflected in it, when you will see it reversed, and it will appear to you like some other painter’s work, so you will be better able to judge of its faults than in any other way.
(Leonardo da Vinci, Notebooks)

6. If you don’t get the feedback you need, look for it!

Note I said ‘need’ not ‘want’. If you’re only after praise, it doesn’t really matter where you look for it. But if you really want to get better at your art, you need to find someone who knows what they are talking about, who will give you an honest appraisal of your work. It could be a teacher, a mentor, a famous practitioner, your peers, an editor, an agent – or all of them. So if you’ve not found those people yet, keep looking.

Well, there it is.

How about you? How do you deal with feedback on your creative work? Has feedback ever helped you make a dramatic improvement?

What Seamus Heaney Taught Me About Giving Feedback

About 15 years ago I was lucky enough to have a one-to-one writing tutorial with the poet Seamus Heaney. This was before he won the Nobel Prize, but he was still an acknowledged superstar, someone whose poetry I had been reading and studying for years. So I felt pretty nervous as I sat waiting in the corridor with my manuscripts. When it was my turn, he ushered me in and patiently read through the three poems I had brought.

Obviously, my heart was in my mouth. It was so quiet I could hear him breathe.

Then he looked up with a smile on his face and picked up the first poem I had shown him. “If I were you,” he said, “I would have shown me this poem first as well”. He then went on to talk about what he liked about the first poem, enthusing about the promising bits and encouraging me as much as he could. Most of all, he got me to notice the points at which I was clearly enjoying myself, delighting in the words themselves, rather than hammering away at trying to get a ‘message’ across.

It was only gradually, through hints and asides, that he made it clear that the other two poems had virtually none of the redeeming features of the first one. But by that time I didn’t really mind, I was so pleased that he had found something he liked and was showing me how to improve it. He also mentioned in passing that he was currently accepting submissions for an anthology of student poetry.

Ever since then, whenever I’ve been asked to critique a poem (or other creative work) I’ve tried to follow his example: focus on what’s working and encourage the person to do more of that. The aim, of course, is to help the artist maintain their enthusiasm for the work while giving an honest judgment. If you’re lucky, they’ll take the hint. If not, you’ll need to be more direct about what doesn’t work.

Heaney made it easy for me. He was charming, tactful and funny, while making it very clear where my writing had some promise and where I was wasting my time. I left the room with renewed enthusiasm for writing and respect for the craft. Unfortunately, not everyone is so good at giving feedback. Whenever I think of this meeting, I also thank my lucky stars I wasn’t the young composer who asked the great Rossini to appraise his compositions. According to the story, after hearing the first piece Rossini said “You needn’t play any more. I prefer the other one”.

So what do you do when someone gives you ‘constructive criticism’ that sounds anything but? Or when you simply can’t see what they are talking about, and wonder whether you are both looking at the same work? Continuing the theme of at How not to give feedback on creative work and my 5 tips on giving feedback on creative work, my next post will look at how to deal with feedback constructively.

As for my poem, I took Heaney’s hint. I went back to my room and reworked it, addressing the (now glaring) weaknesses. By the time I had finished I was much happier with the poem and very grateful for his feedback. I was even more grateful when I received the letter saying he had accepted the poem for the anthology.

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Less Is More

Small but perfectly-formed thanks to Tim Siedell for introducing me to A Brief Message – a new blog about graphic design.

Less is more

A Brief Message features design opinions expressed in short form. Somewhere between critiques and manifestos, between wordy and skimpy, Brief Messages are viewpoints on design in the real world. They’re pithy, provocative and short 200 words or less.

With contributors of the calibre of Steven Heller, the blog looks a seriously good investment of time for anyone involved in design. Personally I’m fascinated by the literary challenge inherent in the word limit. As a fan of haiku master Basho, I love seeing what writers can do in a small space.

Well, there it is. I won’t witter on about it.

Creative Links – 16 February 2007

Introducing the new, slimmed-down, weekly(ish) version of Creative Links

Hats off to A Consuming Experience for bringing to my attention a series of podcasts of business advice for artists and creatives, produced by the Enterprise Centre for the Creative Arts in London. They include How to Handle Clients and Commissions, How to Make a Name for Yourself and the irresistibly-titled How to Cook the Books.

I’m going to try to resist including Noisy Decent Graphics in every creative links post – basically you should read the whole thing if you’ve got any interest in design, creativity or the business of running a studio. But I’ll just draw your attention to Cruel to be kind? about how to give feedback on terrible creative work – plenty of good suggestions in the comments. And a thought-provoking series about Sustainability in graphic design, where lots of questions are asked and we learn that “wedes don’t really have complicated messages that need to be communicated across several territories”.

The same goes for Creating Passionate Users and Russell Davies – both consistently excellent, so I won’t post every week, just remember that Quantity equals quality and whatever you do Don’t ask employees to be passionate about the company.

I had the pleasure of coffee with Johnnie Moore yesterday – as engaging and inspiring in person as he is on his blog, which is hardly surprising from someone who has written 117 posts about authenticity. He writes about an eclectic mix of interesting things, including More Media and Less Stuff?, Alphabet and Goddess and The Popcorn of Therapy.

Bestseller Interviews has a collection of links entitled How to Conquer Writer’s Block – The Ultimate Guide. I know what you’re thinking – “How can it be the ultimate guide if it doesn’t include Mark’s 10 Tips for Overcoming Writer’s Block?” – but it’s a fantastic collection so let’s not split hairs.

And if you’ve ever wondered How TV shows get made, TV Grouting reveals all.

That’s all folks, have nice weekends. I’ve got a fascinating weekend ahead of me – will tell you about it next week.

Creative Links – January

OK I might have made a mistake by promising to do Creative Links on a monthly basis – there are simply too many good creativity posts. Or maybe it’s like buying a new car – as soon as you decide on the model you want, you see it everywhere. In the interests of keeping up and keeping things fresh I’ll have a go at doing Creative Links weekly from now on. But first here’s the edited highlights of what I found in January, sorted into categories to keep it manageable.

Where do ideas come from?
Scamp takes issue with a piece of research that claims Where Ideas Come From is other people. Beeker claims it’s ethical to Steal Well, and Faris, true to his motto that Talent Imitates, Genius Steals, Couldn’t Resist the joys of plagiarism. Neither could I – here’s the picture he doubtless nicked from someone else:


If you’re looking for a balanced view, Doc Searls weighs up the pros and cons of disclosing your ideas vs keeping them secret in his post 10 Ideas About Ideas (via Creative Generalist); while Brian Lee advocates a middle way between plagiarism and the pressure to be original, reminding us that Creativity Is A Communal Act.

Tortured Artists
It may just be wishful thinking but I don’t see why artists shouldn’t enjoy themselves (and their work) as much as anyone else. I’m glad to learn that at least Douglas Eby agrees with me, in this great post on Pain and Suffering and the Artist.

Creative Partners
The subject of torture brings us neatly to relationships. Scamp continued his excellent series of Tips for Creatives with Finding the Right Partner and How to Have a Good Relationship with Your Partner – useful advice interlarded with (for me) flashbacks to my days as a couples therapist.

As a fan of creative synaesthesia and inter-disciplinary creativity I was pleased to see Mark Hancock catch the synaesthesia bug when he ventured out of the advertising world and spent time with videogame creator Tetsuya Mizuguchi. Noisy Decent Graphics did a brilliant piece on What I see when I listen and Russell played around with Electroplankton, which looks a bit like an online, affordable version of the Reactable.

Creative Flow
Speaking of altered states of consciousness, Steve Pavlina wrote a great description of My Experience of Creativity, prompting my inner Creativity Trainspotter to tick off Csikszentmihalyi’s Nine Elements of Creative Flow – can you spot them all? Steve followed up that post with 7 Rules for Maximizing Your Creativity.

Adliterate hosted a cracking debate on the question Is Blogging Killing Planning? I’m not a planner so I’m not qualified to answer the question, but reading through the comments on that post and judging from the general quality of blogs in the plannersphere, I have to say planning is doing wonders for blogging.

Creative Collaboration
Staying with planning for a moment, John Grant argues the case for Planning as Mediation – between the (potentially conflicting) interests of the client, creatives and customer. Simon Darwell-Taylor bemoans the lack of inter-disciplinary communication in ‘the typical ad agency’, as opposed to the more collaborative approach of TV production. Yet the grass is always greener – Richard Wilson has started a wonderfully dour blog called TV Grouting, where he says:

TV and the internet don’t seem to me to be natural partners. The internet is based on the principle of sharing information and ideas and making everything cheaper. TV is about owning and jealously guarding ideas and extracting as much money as possible from them

He contrasts this sad state of affairs with the world of advertising, where planners like Russell are ‘willing to share their ideas ‘with any number of people who might be prepared to nick them’. (As if they would…)

So what can we conclude about creative collaboration?

  • Creative people need to share to be creative
  • Creative people get scared of sharing because someone might steal their creativity
  • Creative people sometimes need someone around to get them to share a bit more
  • Creative sharing looks terrific fun from a distance, it’s a bit messier close up.

For the pitfalls of creative collaboration, see Kathy Sierra’s brilliant The Dumbness of Crowds.

Creative Think
It’s almost impossible to single out individual pieces by Roger von Oech, they are all so consistently and variously creative, you might as well pick some at random – which is exactly what you can do if you click his picture on the Creative Think homepage. A couple of blog posts that stood out for me in January were Set A Deadline to Goad Your Creative Juices, countering the received wisdom that creativity is all about freedom from constraints; and his invocation of the God Janus to usher in the New Year by thinking something different.

Enterprising Blogging
Hugh McLeod knows a fair bit about blogging and being an entrepreneur, his random thoughts on the subjects are more memorable than most people’s considered musings.


Making a Living as an Artist
The online opportunities for creative producers can be bewildering – Jonathan Bailey clarifies the strategic options available in an excellent post on The New Content Economy.

Delve into the voluminous archives of Liz Strauss’ blogs and you’ll see she’s no stranger to Unblanking the blank screen so it’s worth listening to what she’s got to say about it. She’s got loads more great posts on writing, but 10 Ways to Start a Blog Post should keep you going for a while.

For What Not to Write, look at Claudinho’s post about 20 Words Most Used in Press Conferences. ‘Best of breed’ anyone?

And just when you’re relieved that the words are finally starting to flow, up pops killjoy Brian Clark to tell you Why Creativity Can Kill Your Copy. Brian’s a master of the headline that draws you in – admit it, you’re itching to know what’s so bad about creativity, aren’t you?

New Year’s Resolution No.2 – Write More Poetry

Following on from my first New Year’s Resolution, here’s my second one. Once I’ve posted my resolutions, I’ll be writing about Why Most New Year’s Resolutions Fail – and what to do about it.

2. Write More Poetry

Magma 34In terms of creativity, writing poetry is my ‘first love’. Over the past couple of years however, it’s had to take a back seat for several reasons: firstly, most of my writing time has been taken up with the MA in Creative and Media Enterprises at Warwick University, for which I’ve been studying part-time. Secondly, I had a fantastic opportunity to join the editorial committee of Magma, one of the foremost poetry magazines in the UK. I was an offer I couldn’t turn down, and I’m having tremendous fun and learning a huge amount by working with my colleagues on the magazine. The most intensive time was last year when I read thousands of poems as editor of Magma 34, which I’m very proud of. Finally, there’s been the small matter of attending to my clients’ creativity and keeping Wishful Thinking going.

So I took a conscious decision to put my own writing on the back burner temporarily – but I made a promise to myself that once the MA was over, I’d carve out some time for writing poetry again, hence this New Year’s Resolution.

The big danger of course, is that the poetry gets squeezed out by the pressures of business – what the Irish poet Louis MacNeice called “The perennial if unimportant problem / Of getting enough to eat”. So I’m making efforts to ensure that I keep my promise to myself. One of them is by posting the resolution up here – it’s amazing what a good reminder a public commitment can be!

And tomorrow I’m starting the Advanced Poetry Workshop run by Mimi Khalvati at the Poetry School. I’m really looking forward to it – as well as being an outstanding poet, Mimi is one of the best teachers I’ve ever had (for any subject) and her classes are invariably full of talented and interesting writers. So this feels like my creative ‘reward’ for all that time I spent studying strategy, marketing and intellectual property.

If you’re interested in poetry, you can follow my reading and writing on my poetry blog.

And if you’ve got any tips on finding space for creative pursuits in the midst of a pressing work schedule, please share them in the comments.

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Writers on Writers’ Block

If you’ve ever suffered from writer’s block you’ll find some inspiration and useful tips on National Public Radio’s Novel Ideas series – featuring professional authors talking about how they write and how they overcome writer’s block.

Having worked with many writers on writer’s block, I’ve noticed that one of the most helpful things for them to hear is that they aren’t alone in their frustration. All writers seem to experience blocks at some stage, and I notice clients visibly relaxing when I tell them how familiar their descriptions of being blocked are to me. I often say I wish I could get all my writing clients in a room together, so they could compare notes and realise how similar their situations are. Maybe I’ll do something like that in future, but in the meanwhile it can be encouraging to hear about the experience of the seasoned professionals in the NPR series.

Some of my favourite tips are Max Apple’s “Carry earplugs. Always.”; Neal Pollack’s “I look at my checking account balance”; and M. T. Anderson’s “random infusion of fact”:

I go read about a topic about which I know nothing (there are a lot of them) and see if anything floats to the surface. I don’t know what I’m looking for, but I know when I find it.

If you’re looking for more inspiration, you might like to read my post 10 Tips for Overcoming Writer’s Block, and the article I wrote for Magma, Poetry in Practice: Creative Flow, for which I interviewed poets Paul Farley, Myra Schneider, Matthew Sweeney and Susan Wicks about their writing process.

Thanks to Verna Wilder of Coachamatic where I found the NPR link.

Creative Synaesthesia – If You See What I’m Saying

I discovered the Reactable, a new music-making interface, via City of Sound and Peter Marsh.

Why do I find this so fascinating? I think it’s the way it opens up new creative possiblities via artificial synaesthesia.

According to the scientists, ‘true’ synaesthesia is a neurological condition in which one sense is involuntarily translated into another – e.g. colours are experienced as sounds or vice versa. It is popularly associated with psychedelic drugs, but can also result from a stroke, blindness or deafness. I encountered synaesthesia in my work as a hypnotherapist, as it’s a fairly common occurrence in trance subjects.

Synaesthesia and Creativity

Less extreme versions of synaesthesia, sometimes called ‘pseudo-synaesthesia’, are reported by many people as part of their normal thinking processes. This kind of everyday synaesthesia seems to be particularly common among artists and other creative types. Like a lot of poets, I experience a kind of grapheme-colour synaesthesia, whereby words (and numbers) are associated with particular colours. Louis MacNeice describes the phenomenon in his poem ‘When we were children’:

When we were children words were coloured
(Harlot and murder were dark purple)
And language was a prism, the light
A coloured inlay on the grass,

Another of my favourite examples of synaesthesia is the artist and writer Mervyn Peake. A brilliant draughtsman and illustrator, while writing his novel Titus Groan Peake made sketches of characters in the margin:

As I went along I made drawings from time to time which helped me to visualise the characters and to imagine what sort of things they would say. The drawings were never exactly as I imagined the people, but were near enough for me to know when their voices lost touch with their heads.
(Mervyn Peake, ‘How a Romantic Novel was Evolved’) [Read more…]