Dorothea Brand says, ‘the first step towards being a writer is to hitch your unconscious mind to your writing arm,’ but this can be an unfamiliar and sometimes elusive process. Jamie Catto is not only a past master at accessing his own creativity, but is also great at helping others to access theirs.
Jamie Catto, thanks for agreeing to chat to me about creativity. You’re a Creator, Producer / Director of the multi-award winning 1 Giant Leap films and albums, and founder member of British electronica band, Faithless. You’re an avid reader, blogger, poet and writer and your first non-fiction book Insanely Gifted was published in 2016. You make fun of yourself constantly, talk about astral anuses in polite company and swear a lot. You also run workshops around the world which help people ‘ignite their creative rocket fuel’ and we’ve been friends since I attended one of these workshops around six years ago. The ideas and practices I’ve learnt from you have been invaluable, and are part of the reason I’m now back at University studying something I love.
So to dive straight in, what’s your understanding of the way in which we access creativity?
For me, creativity is found in the receptive side of our nature, not the overly-trained, thinking-up and doing side of our nature. Our whole lives we’ve been trained to solve the problem, do the thing, think it through, take action. But creativity doesn’t respond to that kind of masculine energy, it needs us to be softer, to allow space for the inspiration. When the work’s going well we say ‘yeah, it’s really coming through’ like you’re being directed. That’s where the great genius is. So you need to get into the love of the creation, the excitement of the colours or the writing or the words, just the pure excitement and attraction and immersion of it. Our job is just to be in that place and let the genius come through the enjoyment. When you have the desire in your heart to say something to somebody, you don’t plan the words you’re going to use; the genius puts them all together in a row and communicates your heart. It’s just the same with creativity.
Allowing yourself to be fully open can feel quite vulnerable though can’t it?
One of the reasons people are so blocked around their creativity is that it comes with the risk of vulnerability. When the creative muse speaks through you or guides you or directs you, when you really go deep into your excitement and listening, it doesn’t only stream the genius stuff, it’s just where the genius is found. This open channel will also deliver all kinds of gobbledegook and gibberish and some bits come out better than others.
And if we are so totally addicted to everyone’s approval, addicted to never looking like a failure and never looking edgy, we’re going to pre-edit that stream so quickly that we’ll prune out the possibility of any genius coming through. The genius doesn’t care about how cool you look doing it, or whether it’s sometimes crap and sometimes good. If you’re saddling your creativity like a donkey to take your self-esteem issues up the hill, then that’s not creativity.
So you would advise creatives to drop that whole ‘approval addiction’ as you call it and be brave?
Yes, not just for ourselves but for others too. Creatives go to the edge for the rest of us. They provide us with watered down experiences of our shadows and our emotional edges. The writers and artists and actors and musicians and film makers go to the edge and bring us back their real experience, so we can sit in dark rows in the cinema having a little cry. And when you see an artist on stage or on the page embodying a certain edge, one that you yourself would like to express, just seeing them do it gives you freedom. They give you permission to think that it’s on the menu, that it’s acceptable, and it begins to feel less risky. But deeper than that, we need to let go of the risk altogether, realise the risk is an illusion. Of course when you get up on stage or you present your work, people will like some things and not others. You take that as a given. Sharing your work with others is only a risk if you’re looking at the world in a way that says, ‘I must never look stupid, I must never look like a failure, I must always produce perfect work, people must always be wowed by what I do otherwise I don’t want to do it.’ Drop that whole trip, be more fallible, be more foolish, be more authentic.
Can I shift perspective a little and ask you about your take on the dreaded Writer’s Block?
Yeah, ok. Let’s say you have to write that chapter or that article or that thing today – deadline approaching. If you don’t have time for a change of scene, you have to do the work but you can’t seem to connect to the muse, what I would say is take a total left turn into the content. Don’t stop working, just stop doing it the way you were doing. Stop banging on the same door of ‘I want to write a story about this woman’s dream she had but I’m stuck.’ Start doing another thing; like maybe the dream is suddenly talking to her. Trick your mind into thinking that it’s doing something totally fresh. There’s no point running at the same brick wall.
It’s easy to get stuck in a loop of over-thinking to the point of paralysis. How would you suggest overcoming this?
If over-thinking is making you feel uncomfortable, the problem is not that you’re overthinking. The problem is that you feel uncomfortable. The overthinking is just a symptom of trying not to feel uncomfortable. So I would suggest, when you find yourself overthinking, ask yourself this question – literally write it on a post-it note and stick it up in front of you: ‘What feeling am I avoiding, what am I trying to think myself out of feeling?’ Go internal, actually allow and feel that feeling. Say ‘hello feeling, what do you need?’ And the feeling might even start writing a poem. Often, those times when you’re overthinking and feeling creatively constipated are actually just poems coming through. When something’s coming through your heart, it can often feel like suddenly you’re going to poo your pants. And it’s vulnerable because what happens if what comes out isn’t good and Mummy doesn’t like it? It all comes back to potty training. So again, turn towards it and feel the feeling and let it write a paragraph or poem. That’s what a great artist is, someone who’s willing to feel all the dimensions of their feelings and sometimes writes it down.
How did you find writing your book Insanely Gifted?
I’d been running the workshops for around four years by the time I wrote it all down in a book. Once I’d started it came together quite quickly. But to make a start is really hard! The ego doesn’t like letting go of control for one moment. It has its to-do lists, its distractions, its urgencies, the ego is busy busy busy being a person all day. In order to sit down and write you have to let go, become undistracted by the external world, switch off the phone, turn off the internet. You have to let the internal channel take you, and the ego really doesn’t like that. It’s like being sent to bed early when you’re a little kid. The kid doesn’t want to let go, it’s too busy being alive and awake. The ego’s the same, it doesn’t want to let go into that certain type of sleep where your internal channel takes over. So it gives us writer’s block, it gives us distractions, it gives us a feeling of heaviness and resistance to get started. I think 99% of writers’ block is the ego not wanting to let go. So on those days I say, ‘ok, I’m just going to do ten minutes of writing.’ I don’t even pretend I’m going to do an hour. It’s just to trick myself into starting. I’ll agree to do three sentences, that’s it. But of course after three sentences you’ve started now and having removed the pressure, the chances are you can sit for hours. But you don’t have to. Just start gently expanding on the concept and see how far the energy takes you.
And finally Jamie, can you share with us some of the books you’ve enjoyed reading lately?
In no particular order I have loved:
- Winter’s Tale by Mark Helprin
- A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving
- Letters from my Windmill by Alfonse Daudet
- The Player of Games by Iain M. Banks
- The Nix by Nathan Hill
- The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss
- Moonglow by Michael Chabon
- Perdido Street Station by China Mieville
The books I plan to read next are:
- The Three Body Problem by Liu Cixin
- The Ghost Bride by Yangze Choo
- Light by M. John Harrison
Georgina Lippiett is studying the Writing for Children MA at the University of Winchester @McSquorge