How to Be Creative, with John Cleese

We all know what it’s like. You sit down to write something, but within seconds your mind has drifted. The badger needs feeding, the chandelier needs dusting, you need to call Frank to remind him about the quiche. No matter how trivial the things on your ‘to do’ list may be, somehow they are terribly distracting. You might even decide to reach for the box of Weasel Chow, the feather duster or the telephone before getting on with writing, on the supposed premise of ‘clearing your head’.

What is going on here? Why does this happen when you’re trying to be creative? And more importantly, how can you get past it?

In a not-so-recent but nonetheless useful talk given by John Cleese, Civil Servant at the Ministry of Silly Walks, we can find answers to all of these questions, along with a substantial amount of light-bulb jokes.

Sir Cleese (he’s not knighted, but he should be, so the title stays) suggests that being overcome by distractions indicates that you are simply trying to be creative in the wrong ‘mode’. Creativity, he says, is simply a ‘mode of operating’. More specifically, an ‘open’ mode of operating. It has nothing to do with talent or IQ.

No matter what kind of work you do, Sir Cleese explains, there are two different modes you can do it in: the ‘closed’ mode or the ‘open’ mode.

The ‘closed’ mode is the one we operate in most of the time when we’re working. It’s a mode in which we feel like we have a lot to do and not much time to do it in. It makes us slightly impatient with ourselves, and when we’re in this mode we can be quite serious and tense. It’s not all negative, of course: the ‘closed’ mode makes us more purposeful and goal-oriented, and adrenaline can help us to get a lot done.

The ‘open’ mode, in contrast, is less time-specific. In this mode we’re more contemplative, more inclined to humour, and consequently more playful. We can be curious and try things for the sake of it, because we’re not under any pressure to get things done.

Here’s the thing. To be at our most efficient we must be able to switch between the two modes, but to be at our most creative, we must be able to switch off the ‘closed’ mode entirely. Instead, we must spend time dancing and playing and crocheting strange ideas together in the ‘open’ mode.

Okay, so maybe you already knew that. Most of us are aware that playfulness and creativity go hand in hand. What you’re probably more interested in is how to get into that mode, how to suppress the badgery distractions that crowd in on you when you’re trying to write.

Sir Cleese can help you with that, too. It’s quite easy, really. Just get a tall glass, and fill it with:

–       Port
–       Banana syrup
–       Paprika
–       6 ½ egg whites
–       Monosodium glutamate
–       Chocolate coated peanuts
–       Red dye no. 2



Stir all the ingredients together with one of those long spoons, drink up, and then the open mode should come to you like a well-trained Labrador.  If it doesn’t, then you probably didn’t use enough banana syrup.

Alright, alright, that isn’t Sir Cleese’s recipe. In fact, there isn’t really a fail-safe way of getting into the open mode. But there are certain conditions you can set up which will make it more likely for the open mode to open. According to John, these are:

1. Space
2. Time
3. Time
4. Confidence
5. A 22-inch waist

Wait, that last one was his joke. That’s actually meant to be

5. Humour

So, let’s have a closer look at each of these areas (and yes, ‘Time’ is meant to be there twice):


This is a pretty straightforward one. You need to set up a quiet space for yourself away from your usual pressures. Coping with your usual pressures is something you do in the ‘closed’ mode, so to get into the ‘open’ mode you need to seal yourself off from them.


Set aside a specific amount of time for yourself in which to be creative. It can’t be too open-ended or your everyday concerns and pressures will start creeping in. The point is to have a starting point and an end point so that you know when your ‘normal life’ will begin again. You will also need to be patient, and wait for your ‘closed’ mode brain to quieten down with its seemingly urgent demands. As Sir Cleese says:

It’s easier to do trivial things that are urgent than it is to do important things that are not urgent, like thinking. It’s also easier to do little things we know we can do, than to start on big things that we’re not so sure about.


Something familiar to most writers (and creative people in general) is setting aside a particular amount of time and then feeling that you have to be immediately productive and decisive within that time. Sir Cleese says that this is all wrong, and that’s why he mentions ‘time’ twice. It’s not enough to set aside time; you also need to use it effectively, and this is not necessarily about being fast. He recommends that we give ourselves maximum pondering time. Although it might be slightly uncomfortable to leave problems unresolved, he says that if we’re too quick to solve them, we might not be coming up with the best solution. Rather, the more time you spend meandering around possible solutions, the more original you’re likely to be.


Nothing strangles creativity like the fear of making a mistake. Remember playing when you were a kid? You weren’t worried about whether things were right or wrong; you were just testing, and were open to all sorts of possibilities. Whatever happened, it would be okay, because you were just playing. Sir Cleese says that the best way to be confident is to remember that, when you’re being creative, nothing is wrong. Be silly, be illogical, be as wrong as you want. Sometimes it’s silliness that leads to breakthroughs.


Humour gets us into the open mode faster than anything else. Here’s Sir Cleese again:

I think we all know that laughter brings relaxation, and that humour makes us playful, yet how many times have important discussions been held where original and creative ideas were desperately needed to solve important problems, but where humour was taboo because the subject being discussed was “so serious”?

According to Sir Cleese, people too often confuse seriousness with solemnity. He says that it’s entirely possible to talk about serious topics and yet still laugh along the way. Being too ‘solemn’ about your creative work only serves pomposity: that what you’re doing is terribly important, and therefore nobody should be laughing about it.

No, humour is an essential part of spontaneity, of playfulness, of creativity, no matter how ‘serious’ the thing you’re working on may be. So in short, you can (and should) laugh all you want.

So there you have it. To get into the open mode, you need space, time, more time, confidence and humour. The last two in particular are things that creative people cannot be reminded of enough.

If we ceased thinking about our ideas or creative work as something we could feasibly get ‘wrong’, and remembered that even the most serious of topics can often benefit from an injection of humour, perhaps we’d be less distracted by our hungry badgers, our dust-bearded chandeliers or the razorblades we forgot to tell Frank that we hid in that quiche.

Thank you very much, Sir Cleese.


The crux of John Cleese’s talk has been outlined above, but if you’re interested in the frills and light-bulb jokes around the crux, you can see it all here:

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