Keith Johnstone Part 3

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Another selection of notes from a Keith Johnstone workshop I took in 2003. You can read the first part here and the second part here. All quotes in this article are from Keith Johnstone, commentary is mine.

If two improvisers are in trouble in a scene. (Trouble in the sense of being in a seemingly inescapable situation.) One of the improvisers should say, “I know just what to do” and then say whatever is in his head no matter how stupid. Audiences will love you for your courage.

This is one of the most important lessons in all of creativity. The phrase, “I know just what to do” is like a magic spell that releases your brain to start to try and make a solution when you are boxed in. Try it the next time you have no idea what to do next. Say the phrase and then follow through on what you say.

Audiences feel the tension of the creator who has painted themselves into a corner and they want you to get out. Even if that solution is, “I pull out magic tennis shoes and use their leaping powers to jump into the next room.”

The audience is on your side. They want you to finish your tightrope walk. In most cases, you aren’t even performing live when you create, so you can go back and edit. I find that the solutions you come up with in impossible situations are some of the best.

I ofen go back and change the earlier part of the story to make the solution less strange.

Every decision you make in a scene defines the circle that scene exists in. You should make choices from within that ever-tighter circle and rarely from outside it. Obvious is good.

Every creative endevor is its own world with its own rules. Once you’ve started it, stick to those rules. Use what is in the world you’ve created to tell the story in that world.

Nothing human beings do is accidental.

Instead of apologizing for an accident or mistake, look for reasons. Why did you do that? Were you sending yourself a message? Does it make more sense? Is there a logical reason you’re not seeing? And emotional reason?

Nothing YOU do is accidental. It’s just that you don’t know why you did it yet.

Click here to read the final part

Keith Johnstone Part 2


Another selection of notes from a Keith Johnstone workshop I took in 2003. You can read the first part here. All quotes in this article are from Keith Johnstone, commentary is mine.

Anyone trying to do their best is disconnected from everyone else. Trying to do your best makes you less fun to watch and less fun to perform with.

We’ve all received the advice “do your best.’ It’s supposed to release you from your fear of failure by saying that if you do your best work and still fail, no one can fault you for just plain not being good enough. Which is actually not very reassuring if you think about it.

Well, when it comes to creativity, trying to do your best will pull you out of the moment. It will disconnect you from the feedback of an audience and your natural impulses. You’ll be in your head trying to define what your “best” actually is instead of doing what naturally comes next.

It not only makes the work less fun, it makes working with you less fun.

Trying to do your best is an invitation to judgement and anxiety when it comes to creative work.

Scared people think verbally.

There is a lot packed into this simple sentence. Scared people are writing a story in their head. Scared people explain what they’re doing. Scared people review their own creations before anyone else can. Scared people justify the limited nature of what they’re presenting. Scared people feel like they need to repeat their story over and over again because they think you didn’t hear or understand it the first time.

Scared people don’t look around for tools to solve a problem, they’re up in their head talking about it. This is one of the cornerstones of “writer’s block.” Instead of doing something, we start talking about it.

The audience gets great pleasure from the obvious. If you run into a frog with a bible in the forest, he should be on his way to bible class not to go to an amusement park.

Audiences love being invited into what you’re doing. They want to move with you and be delighted by their own participation in your thought process. Even if you’re challenging them, they want what you’re doing to make sense. They want to have rules that they can follow.

If frogs can carry bibles in the world you’re creating, they should be able to go to church. Don’t try to outsmart your audience with surprises when you can be obvious and delight them.

Audiences love to watch people fail and then succeed. If you fail three times, when you finally succeed, the audience will be behind you with loud applause. All audiences want to be there on the night when everything goes wrong. If you can fail well enough and cheerfully enough.

Your audience, which is not everyone in the world, wants you to succeed. They are rooting for you. They admire your honest attempts. They’re with you in your struggles. When you finally achieve what you’re trying for, everyone will want to be there.

Audiences don’t want you to bitter or angry about your failures. They don’t want to watch you blame other people or sit and silently stew about how unfair everything is. They want you to smile, shrug and keep trying.

The process of failing well is actually part of the story of your eventual success. Reacting badly will only delay it or make you a villain when you actually achieve it.

Failing well attracts creativity, and audiences, like a magnet.

Click here to read part 3

Mingus on creativity: making the complicated simple

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Charles Mingus was one of the greatest jazz artists and composers of the 20th century. He was temperamental, opinionated and inarguably a genius. He said about creativity, “Creativity is more than just being different. Anybody can plan weird; that’s easy. What’s hard is to be as simple as Bach. Making the simple, awesomely simple, that’s creativity.”

This quote is a great reminder that just adding more ideas or flourish to a project doesn’t necessarily make it more creative, just different. Breaking something down to its base components and expressing it clearly and concisely is the best way to filter it through yourself.

Let your art be what it is, don’t dress it up with unnecessary bits. Don’t try to hide your flaws with extraneous distractions. When you are at your best, everything that you do carries your stamp, no need to more than that.

In fact, I think Mingus thought that first quote was too complicated, because he simplified it later:

Anyone can make the simple complicated. Creativity is making the complicated simple. – Charles Mingus

“There is only make.” The art department rules of Sister Corita Kent

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These “Art Department Rules” by Sister Corita Kent are as true as they are charming. You can support art’s education by purchasing a poster of them. I might make myself a t-shirt that says “There is only make.”

RULE ONE: Find a place you trust, and then try trusting it for awhile.

RULE TWO: General duties of a student — pull everything out of your teacher; pull everything out of your fellow students.

RULE THREE: General duties of a teacher — pull everything out of your students.

RULE FOUR: Consider everything an experiment.

RULE FIVE: Be self-disciplined — this means finding someone wise or smart and choosing to follow them. To be disciplined is to follow in a good way. To be self-disciplined is to follow in a better way.

RULE SIX: Nothing is a mistake. There’s no win and no fail, there’s only make.

RULE SEVEN: The only rule is work. If you work it will lead to something. It’s the people who do all of the work all of the time who eventually catch on to things.

RULE EIGHT: Don’t try to create and analyze at the same time. They’re different processes.

RULE NINE: Be happy whenever you can manage it. Enjoy yourself. It’s lighter than you think.

RULE TEN: “We’re breaking all the rules. Even our own rules. And how do we do that? By leaving plenty of room for X quantities.” (John Cage)

HINTS: Always be around. Come or go to everything. Always go to classes. Read anything you can get your hands on. Look at movies carefully, often. Save everything — it might come in handy later.

There should be new rules next week.

While you’re on the Corita Art Center site, check out the gallery of her artwork for even more inspiration.


Don’t Wait For Inspiration


“The advice I like to give young artists, or really anybody who’ll listen to me, is not to wait around for inspiration. Inspiration is for amateurs; the rest of us just show up and get to work. If you wait around for the clouds to part and a bolt of lightning to strike you in the brain, you are not going to make an awful lot of work. All the best ideas come out of the process; they come out of the work itself. Things occur to you. If you’re sitting around trying to dream up a great art idea, you can sit there a long time before anything happens. But if you just get to work, something will occur to you and something else will occur to you and something else that you reject will push you in another direction. Inspiration is absolutely unnecessary and somehow deceptive. You feel like you need this great idea before you can get down to work, and I find that’s almost never the case.”

Chuck Close

Via Drawn

Jumping and Creativity


I have been noticing lately how often the word "jump" is used in conjunction with creativity. In improvisational acting it is held as a truism that if you jump, a net will appear. Jumping implies taking a risk and propelling yourself over normal limitations.

Here are a few quotes to consider:

“If we listened to our intellect, we'd never have a love affair. We'd never have a friendship. We'd never go into business, because we'd be cynical. Well, that's nonsense. Jump, and you will find out how to unfold your wings as you fall”

– Ray Bradbury

“To succeed, jump as quickly at opportunities as you do at conclusions.”

– Benjamin Franklin

“Look, I really don't want to wax philosophic, but I will say that if you're alive, you got to flap your arms and legs, you got to jump around a lot, you got to make a lot of noise, because life is the very opposite of death. And therefore, as I see it, if you're quiet, you're not living. You've got to be noisy, or at least your thoughts should be noisy and colorful and lively.”

-Mel Brooks

"You have to find something that you love enough to be able to take risks, jump over the hurdles and break through the brick walls that are always going to be placed in front of you. If you don't have that kind of feeling for what it is you are doing, you'll stop at the first giant hurdle.”

– George Lucas

“If you want to learn to swim jump into the water. On dry land no frame of mind is ever going to help you.”

– Bruce Lee

"It took me years to figure out that you don't fall into a tub of butter, you jump for it."

-Claudette Colbert

And who, other than the lactose intolerant, wouldn't want to jump in a tub of butter?

Picture from Dancers Among Us by Jordan Matter

Incomplete Manifesto for Growth


I’ve been reading CAD Monkeys, Dinosaur Babies, and T-Shaped People: Inside the World of Design Thinking and How It Can Spark Creativity and Innovation by Warren Berger. The basic idea of the book is to teach you to look at the world as a designer and then to show you how apply that to whatever your passion happens to be. I’ll write more about when I’m finished.

In passing, he mentioned Bruce Mau‘s Incomplete Manifesto for Growth and from the little bit he said about it I had to immediately put down the book and look it up. Bruce Mau is a very successful designer and he wanted to put down his thoughts on creativity in a manifesto. It’s 43 ways of changing your perspective and getting started. It’s 43 ways to move forward when you’re stuck. It’s a map out of the creative rut that you might find yourself in.

Bruce Mau wrote it in 1998 and unleashed it on the internet. It’s one of those things that just might change your life. I’m cutting and pasting a few bits of it below, but you should read the whole thing.

4. Love your experiments (as you would an ugly child).
Joy is the engine of growth. Exploit the liberty in casting your work as beautiful experiments, iterations, attempts, trials, and errors. Take the long view and allow yourself the fun of failure every day.

9. Begin anywhere.
John Cage tells us that not knowing where to begin is a common form of paralysis. His advice: begin anywhere.

31. Don’t borrow money.
Once again, Frank Gehry’s advice. By maintaining financial control, we maintain creative control. It’s not exactly rocket science, but it’s surprising how hard it is to maintain this discipline, and how many have failed.

37. Break it, stretch it, bend it, crush it, crack it, fold it.

43. Power to the people.
Play can only happen when people feel they have control over their lives. We can’t be free agents if we’re not free.

Read the rest

Massive Creative Recharge From Captain Beefheart


Captain Beefheart‘s music is not for everyone. That’s a good thing. I’ve seen this bit of his prose reprinted multiple times since his death, but I thought it would be useful to reprint it again. The advice isn’t for everyone, but it might be exactly what you need to hear at this exact moment. Don’t be put off because it says it’s about guitar playing. It isn’t. It’s a magic spell. It’s about whatever you’re doing right now.


Captain Beefheart’s 10 Commandments of Guitar Playing

1. Listen to the birds

That’s where all the music comes from. Birds know everything about how it should sound and where that sound should come from. And watch hummingbirds. They fly really fast, but a lot of times they aren’t going anywhere.

2. Your guitar is not really a guitar

Your guitar is a divining rod. Use it to find spirits in the other world and bring them over. A guitar is also a fishing rod. If you’re good, you’ll land a big one.

3. Practice in front of a bush

Wait until the moon is out, then go outside, eat a multi-grained bread and play your guitar to a bush. If the bush doesn’t shake, eat another piece of bread.

4. Walk with the devil

Old Delta blues players referred to guitar amplifiers as the “devil box.” And they were right. You have to be an equal opportunity employer in terms of who you’re bringing over from the other side. Electricity attracts devils and demons. Other instruments attract other spirits. An acoustic guitar attracts Casper. A mandolin attracts Wendy. But an electric guitar attracts Beelzebub.

5. If you’re guilty of thinking, you’re out

If your brain is part of the process, you’re missing it. You should play like a drowning man, struggling to reach shore. If you can trap that feeling, then you have something that is fur bearing.

6. Never point your guitar at anyone

Your instrument has more clout than lightning. Just hit a big chord then run outside to hear it. But make sure you are not standing in an open field.

7. Always carry a church key

That’s your key-man clause. Like One String Sam. He’s one. He was a Detroit street musician who played in the fifties on a homemade instrument. His song “I Need a Hundred Dollars” is warm pie. Another key to the church is Hubert Sumlin, Howlin’ Wolf’s guitar player. He just stands there like the Statue of Liberty — making you want to look up her dress the whole time to see how he’s doing it.

8. Don’t wipe the sweat off your instrument

You need that stink on there. Then you have to get that stink onto your music.

9. Keep your guitar in a dark place

When you’re not playing your guitar, cover it and keep it in a dark place. If you don’t play your guitar for more than a day, be sure you put a saucer of water in with it.

10. You gotta have a hood for your engine

Keep that hat on. A hat is a pressure cooker. If you have a roof on your house, the hot air can’t escape. Even a lima bean has to have a piece of wet paper around it to make it grow.

Taken from the Captain Beefheart Radar Station

Don’t be afraid and doors will open

If you do follow your bliss you put yourself on a kind of track that has been there all the while, waiting for you, and the life that you ought to be living is the one you are living. When you can see that, you begin to meet people who are in your field of bliss, and they open doors to you. I say, follow your bliss and don’t be afraid, and doors will open where you didn’t know they were going to be.

Joseph Campbell, The Power of Myth

Strategies for Overcoming a Creative Block

I wanted to point out this great post that has the opinion of 25 creative people on how to overcome a block. My favorite comes from Erik Spiekermann:

There are 6 strategies for this situation:

1. Avoid
Do something else, wash the car, back-up your data, do errands…
2. Think
Sit back and think about the issue, just let your mind go…
3. Research
Look up stuff, go through your old projects, but avoid Google — it takes too long to find anything useful…
4. Collect
We all have lots of stuff; there must be something in there that is waiting to be used…
5. Sketch
Drawing is great, even if you have no talent. Just visualising the simplest things makes them come alive…
6. Deconstruct
Take the problem apart, look at the parts and then put them back together…

Don’t forget to check out the comments, I found some interesting stuff there as well.

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