I’ve been a big fan of John Cleese ever since I first saw “Monty Python and the Holy Grail.” I don’t like just one of his works, I’ve been a fan of him both as a comic and a critic for more than forty years. So this weekend I listened to a few interviews he has done and wanted to pass on some of his insights.
On Creativity: John was once interviewing the Dalai Lama and noticed that he smiled a lot and laughed easily. He asked why the Dalai Lama liked to smile, and the His Holiness said, “When people smile, they can change their minds.”
That’s a brilliant insight. When you’re smiling, genuinely smiling, it puts you in a meditative state where you are open to new ideas.
Now, John Cleese uses this with comic writing. He says that you can’t write comedy until you get into a meditative state where you can laugh. Suddenly, the ideas that you have—no matter how absurd—begin to flow and comedy arises out of it.
You may know that I’ve been a longtime student of meditation. I began working at it when I was thirteen. In my course, “Writing Enchanting Prose,” I emphasize that you cannot write a scene until you as a writer go into a trance-like state where you use your full mind—accessing the left- and right-half of your brain, accessing memories in your visual and auditory cortex and in your limbic system—so that through your imagery you can create that deep meditative state in others.
John Cleese is saying the same thing, but he mentioned another gateway to get there: comedy.
You see, many writers find that if they listen to music, it will help put them in that meditative state. Others find that watching a favorite movie or reading passages from other great writers will do it. Many writers develop a routine that they follow before writing. But John Cleese noticed that comedy will also put you in that trance! In short, if you want to prepare yourself to write, listening or watching a comedy will help get you into the mood.
What a great eye opener!
On Pushing Your Limits: I loved another bit of advice that John had. He pointed out that when you’re working on something that is really great, you’ll know it when you look at your work and have this moment where you wonder, “My god, what am I doing? Will this even work?” In that moment, you should be heart-stoppingly terrified. As he put it, “That’s a sign that you are doing your best work, that you’re pushing your limits.”
The important thing here is that when you have that moment, you keep on pushing. You don’t retreat from it or foolishly just forge ahead, you actually write the work and then test it out on an audience.
For example, in his movie “A Fish Called Wanda,” John has a steamroller and the steamroller runs over a dog. Now there is a rule in Hollywood—never kill a dog on screen. It’s too heart-wrenching for an audience. But they did it.
Not only did they run over the dog, but the director pushed the scene into unexplored territory. He went to a butcher and got some innards, then squished them with the steamroller. John pointed out that the audience roared with laughter in the scene until the moment when the guts were shown, and suddenly the theater went dead silent. It was just too realistic, too painful. So the director re-shot the scene and used a little comic dog-shaped floor mat for the after-scene shot, and it worked great.
Unfortunately, I find a lot of writers are hesitant to test out their stories. Once they write a scene, it becomes “locked” in their imagination, and they can’t seem to alter it.
But you as an editor have a duty to change your mind from time to time. If a scene is a piece of crap, you need to recognize it, reengineer your story, and fix it.
Here is a quote from David Farland, rather than John Cleese:
“There are ten thousand right ways to write any story, but there are a million wrong ways. So when designing a scene, you need to look for the best of those ten thousand right ways.”
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