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Keith Johnstone and obvious creativity

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In 2003 I took a two day improv workshop with Keith Johnstone. One of the first things he said to us was, “I have to warn you that this sweater is going on day 5 of being worn by me and I will probably be wearing it again tomorrow. The smell is quite strong.”

He was brilliant, strange, hilarious and grumpy. If you aren’t familiar with his work, he is one of the founding philosophers of improvisational theater and author of the life-changing book Impro. He believes most school and parenting is set up to destroy our natural creative state of being and he developed his methods to help to bring us back to that natural state.

I recently stumbled across my notes and wanted to share the best bits in a series of posts. This first post is just going to be one note, because I think it is so profound.

You should be as obvious as possible. At its heart, your obviousness is unique because it is only obvious to you. In Kafka’s story the Metamorphosis, it is obvious that the character would wake up as a cockroach, because that is how Kafka felt. But, that is not what is obvious to everyone, so it appears creative. You are the only one that thinks you are being obvious.

It seems so simple when you read it, but he’s right.

When we try to be creative, we try to surprise ourselves instead of just being ourselves. Our thoughts and perspectives are unique. What comes naturally to us is surprising to other people.

When you ask most people to be creative, they come up with the same boring things. For example, when I was doing improv and you asked for a suggestion the most common “creative” answer was cheese. When we start to be concerned about what other people think instead of creating something that reflects us, we try to think of something that will appeal to them.

We worry about whether or not people will understand us. We are afraid that if we offer what is obvious to us it will be found lacking. We worry that we are not enough and try to pretend our creative impulses come from outside sources. That muses and voices are whispering in our ear when really it is just the sound of our own voice.

Are you brave enough to be obvious and let that be enough? To let one thought follow the next in a way that makes complete sense only to you? To paint something exactly the way you see it?  To make an inside-joke that no one else might get?

All the best things are obvious to everyone, but they aren’t obvious until someone is brave enough to create them.

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