Could you recount the Iliad in less than 50 words to save your life? After the microfiction workshop at this year’s retreat, many participants reported that they were indeed confident they could, should a Sphinx accost them on Rue de la Loi.

During the session we crafted tiny stories about big things and enjoyed building narrative arcs that could be read in one breath. Microfiction means stories finished within a few minutes. Rarely do writers get to feel that level of dopamine.

For those who were emotionally blocked because their 400-pager was taking forever to finish, microfiction propelled their confidence to literary canon levels, or so the story went…

Here are a few of our microstories.

kid: “Is he still breathing?”
parent: “Mhm.”
kid: “I’m bored.”
parent: “Don’t say that – he might hear you!”
kid: “I AM BORED!”
grandparent: “Me too.”
by Mimi Kunz

I needed out. An eternity in this church was not my chosen afterlife. A young artist saw me floating above the altar, bade me close. I am in him now, outside the church, seeing the pine trees, painting the pine trees, seeing the men in white coats. Together forever, in a sanatorium. Damned. by Patrick ten Brink

He was everything she ever dreamed of; charming, funny and intelligent. What she didn’t know was that his admirable knife skills didn’t come from cutting turkeys. by Karmen Špiljak

David Graham, the first President of Earth did not hesitate to give the order to annihilate the demons’ spaceship, in full knowledge that he would also be killing the king and queen of demons, his parents.by C.S. Begu

It’s no surprise that Twitter is THE place for microfiction. There are lists and many microfiction accounts in different genres to follow, like Ciprian’s Truly Tiny Tales .


International writing competitions 2018 – part 2

If you have been sharpening your pencils and hitting that keyboard with fresh stories, then you’ll want to take a look at our selection of short stories and competition for the second half of 2018. Do check individual website for details. We will be updating this page.

Best of luck!

1/2 K Prize
Theme: Open
Word limit: 500 words
Entry fee: $20
Prize: 1st $1000
Deadline: August 15, 2018
Publication: Indiana Review

The End Of Our World short story contest
Theme: Destruction of environment (based on facts)
Word limit: 1,500 – 5,000 words
Entry fee: $25 per submission ($15 NCWN members)
Prize: 1st $1000, 2nd $300, 3rd $100
Deadline: August 31, 2018
Publication: Magazine

Manchester Fiction Prize
Theme: Open
Word limit: 2,500 words
Entry fee: £17.50
Prize: 1st prize £10,000
Deadline: September 14, 2018

Writers of the Future Contest
Theme: Sci-fi, fantasy, dark fantasy
Word limit: 17,000 words
Entry fee: n/a
Prize: 1st $1,500, 2nd $750, 3rd $500
Deadline: September 30, 2018

All-story short fiction competition
Theme: Open
Word limit: 5,000 words
Entry fee: U$30
Prize: 1st U$1,000, 2nd 500, 3rd $250
Deadline: October 1, 2018
Publication: Break Water Publication

Bath Flash Fiction Award
Theme: Open
Word limit: 300 words
Entry fee: £7.5 for one entry, £12 for two and £18 for three entries
Prize: 1st prize £1,000, 2nd prize £300, 3rd prize £100.
Deadline: October 14, 2018
Publication: Anthology

Troubadour International Poetry Prize
Theme: Open
Word limit: poems must be max 45 lines long
Entry fee: £6/€7/$7.50 for 1st poem (£4/€5/$5 for subsequent entries)
Prize: 1st prize £2,000, 2nd prize £1,000, 3rd prize a week long creative course.
Deadline: October 22, 2018

Fish Short Story Prize
Theme: Open
Word limit: 5,000 words
Entry fee: €20, (€10 subsequent entries)
Prize: 1st €5000 & 5 days short story workshop, 2nd €300 & a week at Anam Cara Writers’ Retreat, 3rd €300, honourable mentions €200.
Deadline: November 30, 2018
Publication: Fish Anthology

Aeon Award
Theme: fantasy, science fiction, horror or anything in-between or unclassifiable
Word limit: Max. 10,000 words
Entry fee: €8.5
Prize: 1st €1000, 2nd €200, 3rd €100
Deadline: November 30, 2018
Publication: Albedo One

Ink Tears Short Story Competition
Theme: Open
Word limit: 1,000 – 3,500 words
Entry fee: £7.50
Prize: 1st £1000, 2nd £100
Deadline: November 30, 2018
Publication: InkTears Readership

Peter Porter Poetry Prize
Theme: Open
Word limit: poems must be max 75 lines long
Entry fee: U$15 for subscribers/students, $25 for non-subscribers
Prize: 1st U$5,000, 2nd AU$2,000, thee other shortlisted $500
Deadline: December 3, 2018
Publication: InkTears Readership

The Breakwater Fiction Contest
Theme: Open
Word limit: 1,000 – 5,000 words
Entry fee: U$10
Prize: 1st U$1,000
Deadline: December 15, 2018
Publication: Break Water Publication

Magic Oxygen Literary Prize
Theme: Open
Word limit: 4,000 words for short stories and up to 50 lines for poems
Entry fee: £5
Prize: 1st prize £1,000, 2nd prize £300, 3rd prize £100
Deadline: December 31, 2018
Publication: Anthology

The Moth Poetry Prize
Theme: Open
Word limit: n/a
Entry fee: €12 per poem
Prize: 1st prize €10,000, 3 x €1,000
Deadline: December 31, 2018

Brussels Writers’ Circle Retreat 2018

What do you get if you take fifteen international writers and poets to a remote location? Either a good thriller or a comedy or even better, a writers’ retreat.

For the last weekend in May, we were lured to Tremelo with a promise of exciting writing workshop, cheese and wine evenings and pleasant company. What we got was even more than just that:  two and a half days of seriously creative fun.

Workshop on creative brain

You have the right to be un-focused.

With her inventive exercises Cynthia Huijgens took us out of our creative comfort zones and helped us to look at our writing with fresh eyes. We turned into poets, looked for structures within images and used them to create story structures. We visited brown town and played with words, but most of all, we put our writing brain to a good use. Cynthia’s workshop equipped us with all sorts of tools to help us flip things around and do them differently.

Though most of us have heard of micro fiction, it was Ciprian Begu’s workshop that showed us how useful it can be. Did you know for example that you can write a whole novel in micro chapters, no longer than 40 to 100 words? Or even better, use the micro fiction to pinpoint each chapter’s essentials. There’s more. Cross genres, make it into a mystery, play with the meanings. Once you start it’s hard to stop. Yes,  the dopamine kick created by writing micro fiction can be insanely addictive. For many of us, Ciprian’s workshop opened the doors to new forms.

Writers creating micro fiction

Making every word count

It’s fairly easy to laugh. However writing something funny is a whole different ball game. In his excellent workshop Kevin Dwyer helped us turn into comedy writers, at least for two hours. We created characters with amusing names, gave them funny tics, threw them far out of their comfort zones and watched them try to find their way back, tripping over their fears and discomfort. Though most of us probably won’t turn to comedy full time, we left the workshop with some valuable tools and even more interesting story ideas.

We all know when dialogue sucks, but when instructed to write as badly as possible, many struggled to do so. In her workshop Karmen Špiljak shared a few tools  from James Scott Bell’s book that can help write dazzling dialogue. By adding more tension and conflict, even flat dialogue came to life. To test new skills the workshop finished with a short competition where everyone chose one of the pre-defined expositions, turned it into a dialogue and weaved in a random dialogue line, defined by another writer. The competition was tough and brought great results. Finally it was Lida who won the prize.

Writers' workshop on dialogue

Add a pinch of drama

Online publishing was a game changer for many writers. On the last day Patrick ten Brink helped us learn about different marketing approaches to promoting our work. We examined the advantages and disadvantages of traditional and indie publishing, talked about methods that work (and those that don’t) and shared useful templates, resources and tools that can help us showcase our work, including our ‘The Circle’ anthology, which will come out on 15th October this year.

Between and after the workshop, there was delicious food, sunny weather, beautiful nature (that caused allergy attacks) and the company of people who love words and stories.

See you there next year?  You can subscribe to Brussels’ Writers Circle updates and find out about weekly meetings and our yearly writer’s retreat.

Self-publishing: the pros and pitfalls

Here at the BWC there are sure to be at least a handful of us tempted by the idea of self-publishing. In fact, there are at least a handful of us who have self-published already. So, if you’re thinking about going it alone to get your book out there, read on to see what our self-publishing members have to say about it.

Claire Handscombe: self-published Conquering Babel 41yRaeFaTzL

Why did you choose to self-publish?

I wrote an article for The Bulletin (the now, sadly, defunct magazine of the expat community in Brussels) about language learning. As I did so, I realised that over my years of teaching languages to adults in London and Brussels I had learned a fair amount of useful things about resources, learning styles, what works and what doesn’t. There weren’t, at the time, really any books out there with tips on learning a language, and in any case, since I am opinionated, I wanted to put my version out there.

I was querying my first novel at the time, and not having a lot of luck with agents. I honestly didn’t have the energy to do it for non-fiction as well, and I wasn’t optimistic about its chances of publication – not least because it’s short, though I suppose I could have “padded” it – but I knew people would find it a helpful resource. It also fed nicely into my language teaching business – I could offer discounts if people bought the book, for example, and was another way of getting my name and the name of my business out there, and of creating a “platform” for myself as someone knowledgeable about languages and language learning.

I also wanted to experiment a little with self-publication. I was hearing a lot about it at the time – it was still a new concept, and the marketplace was far less flooded than it is now. I enjoy the marketing side, and it’s fun watching numbers in real time on the Amazon marketplace.

What is your book about?

Conquering Babel: A Practical Guide to Learning a Language does what it says on the tin!

It includes sections on staying motivated, finding a language tutor, how to improve in the four key areas of writing, reading, speaking and listening, and the pros and cons of different ways of learning (one-to-one, group classes, self study, etc.).

It’s available as a Kindle book on all the Amazons (co.uk is here and .com is here) and also as a physical book.

What are the pros of self-publishing, in your experience?

The number one thing, and the thing that in the end might convince me to do it for my fiction too, is that you get your book into the hands of people who might find it helpful, instead of it just languishing in a drawer. I haven’t made much money from it – nor did I expect to – but it still adds up to a bit of extra pocket money. If and when I go back to language teaching, it will also be a good resource for my students and potential students.

Even back in 2011, when I self-published, the process was a relatively simple one. I can only imagine it’s got more user-friendly since then.

What are the downsides of self-publishing, in your experience?

In my experience so far, there aren’t really any, with non-fiction like this. I’m under no illusions as to the likelihood of the booklet being published and available in a bookstore. The disadvantage for fiction, and the reason I’m holding out for traditional publishing – so far – is that I really would like my book in bookstores, and I would like the kudos that comes from being traditionally published. Many readers don’t care, or even know, if a book is self-published, but in the literary community it is still looked down on. I do believe that publishers have a vital role to play in gatekeeping and, in theory at least, marketing. These days, too, it is harder to get an audience as more and more books are published and some of the useful tools that Amazon deployed in the early days are not available anymore or have been weakened. You have to be prepared to spend a lot of time marketing yourself – which for me is enjoyable, but still detracts from the main thing, which is the writing!

Klavs Skovsholm: self-published Golden Fields SKU-000952890

Why did you choose to self-publish?

I actually never really considered anything else than self-publishing Golden Fields. From what I can gather it is very much the way new writers get started these days. The beauty is that you decide when you want your book published.

What is your book about?

Golden Fields is a story of adventure, love and war in the lives of a few unusual people living in South Africa at the time of the Boer war until the First World War. During this time, many important historical events influence their lives. It also tells a beautiful love story between two elderly women, Theodora Villiers and Lily Wood, as well as about their relationship to Theodora’s grandson Antonius. It was published by the American firm Balboa and can among others be ordered via amazon.

What are the pros of self-publishing, in your experience?

The most positive aspect is that you decide where and when, so to speak.

What are the downsides of self-publishing, in your experience?

Well, the first downside is that it costs money. Although the production costs are fairly reasonable, a lot of things you will need to do for the people producing the book, like proofreading, deciding on layout issues (such as what text you want to have on the dust cover), giving directions as to how the cover design should look, and so on. Also, if you want a press release that will cost extra. However, prices do vary. I was happy with Balboa in many ways, but it was a bit cumbersome to work with people in a very different time zone.

Sarah Strange: self-published A Turn in the Road 10672186_10152828562474743_543491562084389503_n

Why did you choose to self-publish?

Actually I did not choose. My agent (a long term friend who usually promotes artists and painters) decided to widen her field so I am her first writer. She has followed my work for 30 years at least. She found me the printer and the literary critic who did my introduction. However, I found the artist who did my illustrations. We are both members of the SABAM. So all a bit serendipitous, really. I have always found people like my writing but did not realise it could have a wider appeal so we set up a blog last September and it soon became clear that it had widespread interest. I had 3000 hits the first month. That made my agent decide to go ahead.

My main reason for going ahead with it is not so much to make money as to be able to share my work, as I have been told it is uplifting and poignant and gets to the ‘nitty gritty’. Check out my blog and see for yourself.

What is your book about?

My book, A Turn in the Road, is a series of bereavement poems spanning 9 years. My husband, also a poet, died in 2005 and I wrote how I felt as the months went by. Bereavement is not a popular subject but it is a universal one and since I found a new partner last year the ‘journey’ now has a happier (and more palatable) ending. Lots of charity organisations are interested and I have been reading out my poems to Relay for Life (cancer org.) since 2011.

What are the pros of self-publishing, in your experience?

You can choose your own style, cover, number of copies (electronic publishing makes small print runs much more practical these days). You are your OWN publisher – any profits go to YOU.

What are the downsides of self-publishing, in your experience?

You have to find your own distribution outlets but with the internet this is becoming much easier. It is harder to get known when you cannot benefit from wide networks.

Sarah Harris: self-published A Sheep Called Skye ASheepCalledSkye-345x565

Why did you choose to self-publish?

I had a contract with a Belgian Publisher for the Dutch version of my children’s book but I thought it would be exciting to do the English version myself using a local illustrator from the Isle of Skye. I’d recently set up my own company together with my husband and we wanted this to be one of our projects.

What is your book about?

It’s about a sheep who feels different from the others because she never knew her mother and was brought up on a Bed and Breakfast, so she goes off to look for a place where she really belongs. I have since written three more stories in the series. The books are like fables and are for both primary school children and adults, and are often bought as gifts. You can find out more about these books on www.asheepcalledskye.com. I sell the books to shops in Scotland and also do various storytelling events to promote it. I have also done projects in schools both here in Brussels and in Scotland. I also sell it through the website and Skye the sheep has her own Facebook page and blog.

What are the pros of self-publishing, in your experience?

You have complete control over the selling, marketing, design, publication and price of your book. It is all your investment and your profit (or loss!). This enhances your motivation. You can change strategy, price and marketing techniques if they are not working and try something different. You can offer discounts and do special promotions. You are completely involved and know exactly how your book is doing. If it’s a success it can be more profitable than working with a traditional publisher.

What are the downsides of self-publishing, in your experience?

It is very hard work and requires great motivation and commitment because there is nobody else who is going to do anything for you. It’s all completely up to you. There are fewer and fewer independent bookshops and the big chains often do not want to take your books because it’s too much administration for them. They also take a considerable discount. You have to be prepared to sell your own book, which is not always what a writer likes to do. You have to find different ways to get your book out there but you cannot afford to offer the same sort of discounts that Amazon does. It is no use trying to compete with the big companies so you need to find your own particular niche and target the places where your book will sell. This is a big challenge but you learn a lot in the process.

Todd Arkenberg: self-published Final Decent and Jell-O and Jackie O 

Final Descent

Why did you choose to self-publish?

Several author friends back in Chicago self-published. But I was skeptical. That’s not how authors made it big in the movies! So I tried my luck with the traditional route. Submission guidelines can be daunting, and the attitude of the agents, arrogant to say the least. I sent out about twenty queries. I got a couple of nibbles but mostly terse rejections. Half didn’t reply at all. I had one offer, a small publishing house in Texas. The publisher wanted substantially more rights than I was willing to give. And, they had no promotional support.  I’d be doing most of the selling and distributing on my own. At about this same time, I attended a presentation by an author and self-publishing guru. She made it sound easy and gratifying. I was tired of wasting time. I was a writer and I had a second and third novel in the pipeline. It was time to get my first novel published and move on.

What are your books about?

My first novel, Final Descent (Outskirts Press, 2013), is a contemporary story set inside the airline industry. It’s a tale of corporate greed and the toll that the chase for the almighty dollar takes on an idealistic corporate soldier and his family. It’s really a modern day allegory of good vs evil inside the nuanced world of corporate America.

My second novel, Jell-O and Jackie O (Outskirts Press, 2014), is a coming of age story set amidst the glamour and calamity of 1960’s America. It’s the tale of a little boy who finds escape in the chic world of Jackie Onassis and the jet set. While the little boy dreams of Capri and Mykonos, that era’s clash between traditional and progressive values plays out between his mom and her ‘liberated’ sister in the boy’s family home.

What are the pros of self-publishing, in your experience?

Time and control are the things I find most valuable about self-publishing. I’m a writer; I want to write. I don’t want to waste time jumping through hoops to satisfy the whims of agents who seem to take sadistic joy in their complicated submission processes. One literary agency actually said on its website: “If you think we’re making you jump through hoops and testing you, we are. If you can’t follow instructions, we don’t want to work with you.” Another agency website explained their threat of throwing out imperfect submissions with this: “Do we risk pitching the next great American novel into the trash bin? Sure! But there’ll be another on our desks before long.” I have no patience for those types of attitudes. With self-publishing, you retain complete control of your work. With my publisher, I set my own pricing. I determine when my book will go to market. In addition to pricing, cover designs are based on my concept. I offer my books in hard and soft cover as well as Amazon’s Kindle version. That’s my choice. I plan to self publish a third novel in the fall of 2015.

What are the downsides of self-publishing, in your experience?

Of course, lack of established distribution channels is the biggest downside. Large publishing houses like Random House, Harper Collins and Viking get their books into stores where many people still shop before heading to the internet to do their purchasing.  The bigger houses also have promotional budgets that push works. While my book may sell well among my friends and their friends and so on, someone sitting in Omaha, Wichita or even London isn’t going to know T.D. Arkenberg.  But no one ever said that being an author would make you rich. Self-publishing allows me to do what I love most, write.  While self-publishing was an overwhelmingly positive experience and I am pleased with the quality of the published work, I can’t say the same for the marketing add-ons. I found every one of the add-ons offered by my publisher of little value.  They are primarily gimmicks, in my opinion.

One caveat to the above: if Scribner, Penguin or Viking came knocking, I certainly would run to answer the door.

Blog Plug

bloggingNot surprisingly for a writers’ group, the BWC has quite a few bloggers among its ranks. Here follows, in alphabetical (rather than preferential) order, and for your reading pleasure, a list of blogs penned by our members.

Carpathian Fog
Poems of the corporate age
By Ciprian Begu

Ceci n’est pas une cuisine
A blog about Books, Baking & Brussels
By Jeannette Cook

Claire in DC
Living, studying and writing in Washington
By Claire Handscombe

A Sheep Called Skye
The personal blog of Skype the Sheep, from Sarah’s children’s books. You can also buy the books online here.
By Sarah Harris

Drafts and stories with titles such as “When I Lit the Lawnmower on Fire”, “When I Swallowed a Straight Pin” and “The Yogurt Verisimilitudes”.
By Nathan Johnson

Mimi Kunz
Here you can find Mimi’s visual artworks – ink drawings (both abstract and figurative), photographs, installations, and performance-readings.
By Mimi Kunz

Claude Nougat’s Blog
A writer’s notes about books, art and life
By Claude Nougat

Living Room Philosophy
An interweaving of wisdom from diverse academic, popular and practical subject-matter with my personal stories, in the hopes of helping myself and others towards the good life.
By Gemma Rose

Poet in the Woods
Quirky, thought-provoking and nature poet
By Sarah Strange

Poetry and prose (in Spanish and French)
By Ocean Smets

Happy Plume
Writing workshops Sabine organises in her new hometown of Saarbrücken
By Sabine Sur

Posts about Art & Literature: Simply a blog about things I’ve seen, read and appreciated, and sometimes things I’ve done and hope others will appreciate.
By Patrick ten Brink

Stories to make you laugh, think and dream
By Norton Taylor

If you’re a BWC member and would like to add your personal blog to this list, just leave a comment here and we’ll pop it up for you.

Put Away the Hourglass

In a recent Radiolab podcast, I learned about how Oliver Sacks overcame his writer’s block back in 1968. He was struggling to complete his first book, Migraine, and eventually reached a point of such desperation that he decided to set himself a deadline. Okay, so that in itself is nothing unusual – most writers try this at some point or another when they’re feeling stuck – but what adds a dash of drama to this scenario is that his was a literal deadline. He told himself that if he didn’t finish the book in 10 days, he’d have to commit suicide.

You might sneer, but Sacks was apparently very serious about it. So serious that he ended up completing the book in 9 days.

It’s doubtful that Sacks was the first writer to use self-bribery as a way of getting the thing done, but considering that this was 44 years ago, it’s possible that he was before his time when it came to the ludicrously short timeframe he set for himself.

The podcast is really great (as Radiolab podcasts always are), and if you want to listen to the rest of it you can do so here. For now though, I’m going to leave Sacks’s rashness behind and dance with this idea of ludicrously short timeframes instead.

Now I’m not sure about you, but sometimes I feel a degree of pressure to write not only prolifically, but quickly. I get the impression that the old saying, ‘To be a writer you must write’ has been reinterpreted as, ‘To prove that you are a writer you must write as much as you can, as fast as you can.’

The pressure doesn’t come from other writers alone, either. It seems to come from everywhere. Friends ask what kind of writing schedule I set for myself, people have questions like, ‘How many words do you usually write per day/per week/per month?’ or ‘How many words have you written on your novel so far?’, as if quantity is everything.

I even found an article recently which talks about the proliferation of ‘productivity’ applications for writers. If you’ll allow me the slight diversion (it’ll slow us up, but hopefully you’ll see the point of it), I’ll describe some of them for you now:

Write or Die is a new iPad application that “forces you to write by providing consequences for distraction and procrastination”. You can set the application to three different levels of strictness. The ‘Normal Mode’ sounds harsh enough – if you stop writing, the application plays an ear-shattering noise until you start again – but in ‘Kamikaze Mode’, if you stop writing for a certain period of time, the despotic thing starts killing off the words you’ve already written.

Then there’s Pomodoro, an application that claims to help you focus and obliterate procrastination. You set a timer for yourself, writing in intervals of say, 25 minutes, with 5 minute breaks in between, sort of like what you might do at the gym.

The next one in line – Written? Kitten! – is a little softer than the others: you set a word goal for yourself, and every time you reach it, you are sent a picture of a kitten. If you’re lucky, you might even get two kittens in a barrel.

Apart from the applications, there’s also National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo for short), where participants bust a gut to complete a 50,000 word novel in 30 days. According to the website, “Because of the limited writing window, the ONLY thing that matters in NaNoWriMo is output. It’s all about quantity, not quality. This approach forces you to lower your expectations, take risks, and write on the fly.”

Now don’t get ahead of me. I’m not going to say that these things are evil, ridiculous (well, the kitten one is pretty silly) and don’t work for anybody. Of course different techniques work for different people, and you do need to write a lot so that you can sift out the good from the bad. It’s just that the development of these applications shows a sort of social expectation, or social understanding, that these days, writers are supposed to be fast.

I just think it’d be useful to pull back a bit and ask ourselves whether this drive to be prolific Road Runners will help us to produce our best work. As Jenny Diski, the writer of the article on productivity applications, put it, we should “consider the possibility that writing is not just about writing, it’s also (and maybe mainly) about the space in between the writing, when nothing seems to be happening, or random stuff is having an incoherent party inside your head.”

Writing is about daydreaming. It’s about taking a walk. It’s about listening to music. It’s about buying muffins. It’s about eating. It’s about hula-hooping and cleaning out your fridge and watching five X-Files episodes in a row.

“My ideas usually come not at my desk writing, but in the midst of living,” said the famous diarist, Anaïs Nin.

This isn’t about encouraging laziness, or lack of discipline. It’s simply about reminding ourselves to slow down once in a while. As the great Sir John Cleese said in his talk about creativity, giving yourself plenty of time to meander around different possibilities means that you’re more likely to come up with an original idea than if you had forced yourself to make a quick decision.

It’s an idea that would most definitely be shared by the Canadian journalist Carl Honoré. His book, In Praise of Slow, describes a growing resistance to this ‘Cult of Speed’ we seem to be living in, and tells us that we’d all do well to get in touch with our inner tortoise. Just as Carl began to get more enjoyment out of reading bedtime stories to his son by slowing down, perhaps we’d get more enjoyment out of writing if we weren’t always burdened by the sense of time running out.

In the end I think it’s one of those paradoxes, like how exercising actually gives you more energy rather than less. Maybe if we slow down we’d feel like we have more time rather than less. So instead of setting ourselves ludicrously short timeframes to work within like Sacks did, maybe we should be like the Grandpa in the slow lane of the swimming pool. He’s not in any hurry, he’s still doing a good job, and – most importantly – he gets there in the end.

By Sarah Wiecek

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:

The Genius of Writers

Published or unpublished, writers can all experience moments of fear. We can and frequently do have crises of confidence: moments where we wonder about the reaction people will have to our work, moments where we wonder if our writing is ‘good enough’, moments where we can’t write at all because the pressure to produce something brilliant squashes our self-belief. How can I write something brilliant when I don’t believe that I am brilliant?

In the TED talk below, Elizabeth Gilbert, author of the internationally successful memoir Eat, Pray, Love, talks about a possible way of ‘diverting’ our fears by re-thinking the concept of genius. Instead of putting so much pressure on ourselves to be a genius, she says, we should go back to the concept that existed in ancient Greece and Rome. The idea then was that people were not geniuses in themselves, but that they had a genius – a disembodied spirit or ‘daemon’ that fed the artist with ideas, wisdom or talent. This meant that any brilliant work that an artist produced was not through their own inherent genius, but a genius that came to them from a mystical source.

Gilbert gives examples of modern-day poets, songwriters and other creative individuals who describe a sensation of their work ‘coming to them’. Poems fly in across the landscape, new melodies pop into a singer’s head while he’s driving. The sensation is powerful, mysterious, and sometimes arrives with incredibly bad timing.

The author is not necessarily saying that we should all start believing in magical creative spirits again. Rather, she makes a compelling case for thinking about our creative work in another way – a way that distances us from being so personally implicated in our work – so that we can manage our expectations, egos and performance anxieties.

Well worth a look!