I have to start this review with a confession. I was never a big fan of the comedy juggernaut that was Monty Python and I'm afraid that Fawlty Towers did nothing for me either. However, I am a big fan of the notion of "creativity", whatever it is, and I had no problem at all, when I heard about this book, in accepting that John Cleese would know a thing or two about it.
To be honest, I was also attracted to the book because it says on the cover that it is ‘A Short and Cheerful Guide’ and as someone who now finds reading a whole book to be quite a challenge (Netflix has a lot to answer for), I decided to give it a go and much to my relief, War and Peace it is most definitely not.
Although Creativity seems mainly aimed at writers, which makes sense given the background which Cleese is coming from, as someone who works with "creativity" on a daily basis not just in writing but in art, design and crafting too, I’m pleased to say that it still made sense.
That’s not to say that the book will “teach” you to be creative though and neither does it waste any of its 103 pages going into depth about what creativity actually is, if indeed it can be defined. I would recommend the book Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert if that is more your thing.
Instead, it seems to me, that the book is actually about how to be more creative and in particular how to be better tuned in to the circumstances, over which you have some control, which will allow you to do this on a comparatively consistent basis.
The section that starts with the highlighted sentence “The greatest killer of creativity is interruption” is a good example of this. As someone who has worked from home for over twenty-five years, I was interested to hear how all the people who suddenly had to come out of their workplace and into their homes during the pandemic would fair. “Not very well” was what I heard a lot of the time and it appears that the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s nemesis, “the person from Porlock” who was apparently to blame for Coleridge failing to finish his famous poem Kubla Khan, is still active today in the form of the Amazon delivery driver.
I also found Cleese’s analogy of the ‘Tortoise Mind’ and the ‘Hare Brain’ particularly useful. As I’m writing this, I realise that I've been continually switching between my Tortoise Mind and my Hare Brain. The former has already been slowly ruminating and pondering this piece for several days now, gently pulling up ideas and phrases that I might use in it, but my Hare Brain is now hard at work reminding me that this is a book review and not my own version of War and Peace, so requires at least some keywords, taut phrases and SEO friendly links if anyone is ever actually going to read it.
Then we have the concept of ‘play’ which is clearly something the author feels strongly about as being an essential part of being creative. This is something I continually struggle with. Although I can grasp the concept of just being creative for the sake of being creative and getting “enjoyably absorbed” in something without worrying about where I’m headed, making a mistake or whether I’m going to earn any money, I find it really difficult to do. Maybe it’s my entrepreneurial background or that Protestant Work Ethic thing but even after reading this book, I still don’t know how to give myself “permission” to play.
So Creativity doesn’t provide all the answers but maybe that’s the point. Cleese has provided some useful creative tools and now it’s up to the reader to work with them to be more creative. And even if that doesn’t happen for you after you’ve read the book, I can guarantee that you will have spent considerably less time and been considerably more amused than if you’d chosen to read War and Peace instead.
Author: John Cleese
Publisher: Hutchinson 2020