I worked with BBC Light Entertainment for six weeks in 2015 on Vote Now Show during the 2015 election.
The work culminated in an all-nighter as the results came in and half a dozen sleep-deprived writers attempted to get our heads around a Tory landslide, and then make jokes about it.
There weren’t enough biscuits.
One meeting stuck with me from this time. Various comedians were being discussed with a view to casting them to write monologues on various topics for the show. An exec producer described an act as having ‘found her voice’ recently.
I was immediately fascinated by this idea.
What is a voice, and how do I get one?
This morning, reading Maria Popova on voice, “the waveform of the soul in writing”, I found this from poet Jane Hirshfield:
Voice … is the body language of a poem — the part that cannot help but reveal what it is.
Everything that has gone into making us who we are is held there. Yet we also speak of writers “finding their voice.” The phrase is both meaningful and odd, a perennial puzzle: how can we “find” what we already use?
The answer lies, paradoxically, in the quality of listening that accompanies self-aware speech: singers, to stay in tune, must hear not only the orchestral music they sing with, but also themselves.
Similarly, writers who have “found a voice” are those whose ears turn at once inward and outward, both toward their own nature, thought patterns, and rhythms, and toward those of the culture at large.”
– Jane Hirshfield
So the good news is you have it already. It’s just a case of listening, paying attention to yourself and the world, and of course practice, dedication and discipline.
This American Life’s Ira Glass has a soothing explanation for why the first few years of making creative work is so frustrating:
“Nobody tells this to people who are beginners, I wish someone told me. All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not.
But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase, they quit. Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this.
We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this. And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know its normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work.
Put yourself on a deadline so that every week you will finish one story. It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions. And I took longer to figure out how to do this than anyone I’ve ever met. It’s gonna take awhile. It’s normal to take awhile. You’ve just gotta fight your way through.”
― Ira Glass
And when he says the first ‘couple years’ he means 10.
He would look at the patient, he would hardly allow the patient to open his mouth, but he would make his diagnosis of the disease, also, very often, of the patient’s nationality and occupation and other points, entirely by his power of observation.
So naturally, I thought to myself, well, if a scientific man like Bell was to come into the detective business, he wouldn’t do these things by chance, he’d get the thing by building it up, scientifically.”
– Arthur Conan Doyle
Doyle became obsessed with Spiritualism as he got older, travelling the world to visit mediums and psychics, searching for ‘positive proof.’
The conclusion, then, of my long search after truth, is that in spite of occasional fraud… there remains a great solid core in this movement which is infinitely nearer to positive proof than any other religious development with which I am acquainted.”
– Arthur Conan Doyle, The New Revelation, 1918
Connecting Sherlock Holmes and spiritualism gives us Dirk Gently, Douglas Adams’ ‘holistic’ detective.
Gently is a creative extrapolation of Holmes’s technique of eliminating the impossible to reveal the truth.
What if the famous detective had embraced the impossible?
Sherlock Holmes observed that once you have eliminated the impossible, then whatever remains, however improbable, must be the answer. I, however, do not like to eliminate the impossible.”
Your lifestyle and approach have a huge effect on your creative ability.
And time away from the problem may be the key to a breakthrough.
Be open to new things
If your thought processes are rigid and inflexible, you risk rejecting ideas too quickly.
If Galileo saw the world as his parents, teachers and spiritual leaders taught him, he would never have championed heliocentrism, moving us towards a better (not correct, better) understanding of the universe.
The same goes for most scientific breakthroughs. These academics were able to immerse themself in the problem, paying very little attention to how everyone was telling them the world works.
“One prerequisite for originality is… that a person shall not be inclined to impose his preconceptions on the fact as he sees it.
Rather, he must be able to learn something new, even if this means that the ideas and notions that are comfortable or dear… may be overturned.”
– David Bohm.
To come up with new ideas, remain open to new things and ways to look at the world.
“Never trust a man who, when left alone in a room with a tea cozy, doesn’t try it on. ” – Billy Connolly
Keep your brain healthy
Neuroplasticity is the brain’s ability to build new connections and repair itself.
If we maintain good levels of neuroplasticity throughout life, our brains can adapt to new environments, come up with new stuff, and thrive in difficult circumstances.
Self-esteem can be slippery. One minute you have it, the next the bubble bursts and it’s gone.
5 years ago I took up stand up comedy, perhaps because my self-esteem needed a boost.
It’s been a rollercoaster.
A gig goes well, and I’m Leonardo DiCaprio on the front of the Titanic.
A gig goes badly, and I’m Leonardo DiCaprio in all his other films.
Seriously unhelpful if you’re doing two gigs a night, in that order.
Social media dictates that I should be posting pictures of myself doing well, on and off stage.
It’s a lot of energy to spend trying to prove I’m good at what I do. It feels fraudulent. I’m not doing that well all the time.
This isn’t what comedians get into comedy for. Comedians get into comedy for external validation. And if they’re good, they get it.
The self-posting feels narcissistic, and without real ability and achievement, maybe it is.
Narcissism comes not out of self-love but out of self-hatred. – Audre Lorde
Stand up comedy aside, there are better ways to build lasting self-esteem than to post about ourselves on social media.
For example, the right kind of positive affirmations* and developing competencies that prove ability and achievement.
*Positive affirmations can make you feel worse when self-esteem is already a battle. “I will succeed!” doesn’t feel realistic. “I am bloody persistent and I’ll keep going until I succeed,” might just work.
If you run, enter races with beautiful medals, or record your runs online.
If you’re a comedian, write a joke you’re proud of. Practice it in front of audiences ’til it’s 80% perfect, then write some more and build it into a set. Then build the set into a show.
A lot can get in the way of these kinds of goals. Injury, coronavirus, not feeling very funny during a global pandemic…
But working towards goals is better for self-esteem than trying to prove ourselves on social media.
So where are we trying to get to as we build lasting self-esteem?
Ideas flow freely. Coffee, biscuits and emergent laughter.
Everyone is contributing.
How familiar does this feel?
Creative meetings can be great for the confident and extroverted.
But I’ve definitely been in ‘creative’ meetings where I’ve been the least experienced in the room.
There is ‘banter’ – people are laughing at one another, putting down ideas they don’t like, vying for status.
What do we want out of a creative meeting? LOTS of ideas.
‘Lots’ means good ideas + bad + terrible ideas.
And if this is the ‘creative’ atmosphere, what you get are the ideas of the socially high status people, and nothing from anyone else.
So how can we run successful creative meetings?
The rules must be clear: we want all the ideas. That old cliche, ‘There are no bad ideas,’ is obviously wrong, but that needs to be the vibe at the meeting.
It’s important to encourage everyone to contribute in order to capture everything and keep the ideas coming until we have exhausted every avenue.
Under no circumstances must any idea be assessed, judged or analysed at the ideas stage.
If in doubt, use the rules of improv with your team: affirm and build. Add to other people’s ideas, rather than judging them.
The four animals in the room
There are, according to One Minute Millionaire, four types of animal that you can have in your team. Not only is this much more adorable than Myers-Briggs personality profiling, it is easier to understand, doesn’t require an online quiz, and can be summed up with an easy acronym, HOTS:
The hare – has lots of ideas, likes to hop from one to another and is more interested in generation than execution.
The owl – is wise and measured. Best placed with the hare to catch ideas. Good at seeing the bigger picture and working out how to take ideas forward. Team leaders are often owls.
The turtle – troubleshoots hare-brained schemes. Turtles like to turn ideas into plans, so that they can work out the problems and suggest solutions.
The squirrel – loves getting things done, happier with a list of tasks than in a creative session.
Work out which animals you have in your team. Encourage everyone to understand their spirit animal, and to embody it during the creative process.
Let the owls and the hares generate ideas. Encourage turtles to resist the urge to problem spot at this stage, or ask them along once generation is complete.
Some of your team might be less happy speaking up. Some people come up with ideas hours after the meeting. Allow ideas to come in late and/or submitted in private.
Give it a bit of time.
Once the ideas have been generated, it’s time to work out which ones to proceed with.
This is where the turtles come into their own. In a separate session, the owl invites the turtles to interrogate ideas. We send the hares for lunch at this point so that they don’t get upset.
The ideas the turtles like can now be given to the squirrels to execute.
Start your meeting with a simple traffic light guide.
Each person reports whether they are ‘red’, ‘yellow’ or ‘green.’ Find colours which represent a mix if three options are not enough.
‘Green’ is in a good, open and creative mood. We’re not stressed, the creative juices are flowing, good things are going to happen today.
‘Yellow’ is somewhat stressed, perhaps there’s a lot going on at work or personally, we might be a little distracted.
And ‘Red’, presumably is the day when it might be best to sack the whole thing off until tomorrow. Not in a creative mood, distracted, stressed beyond the point where anything useful is going to get done.
Now you know how everyone’s feeling, adjust the approach of your meeting accordingly. Today might not be the best day to push hard for a huge brainstorming session. Or to deliver some difficult feedback to a colleague.
“Humor can be dissected, as a frog can, but the thing dies in the process and the innards are discouraging to any but the purely scientific mind.”
– E.B. White and his wife, Katharine S. White
Rach: My driving instructor was a lovely Chinese man who grew increasingly frustrated with my questions about how exactly a clutch worked.
I couldn’t get my head around the biting point if I couldn’t see what I was biting.
How does the engine work, how does the clutch work, what are we doing here in a car park in Mitcham at 10 o’clock in the morning?
Mr. Yeo placed his head in his hands and sighed quietly.
Since learning how to perform stand up comedy, I’ve been struck with similar confusion about how jokes work. I need to know why something is funny to be able to write and perform it with confidence.
The frog is dying, but I can’t help myself.
Take the rule of three for example. Every comedy course in the world will tell you that the rule of three is funny.
And it is. There’s no question about that. The age-old mechanism of establish, reinforce, subvert is as tried and tested as ‘See it, Say it, Sorted’ isn’t.
But why are three things funnier than two? Why don’t four things work so well? And above all, why do some third-thing punchlines work better than others?
To help me with this, I consulted Clare Jonas from That Thinking Feeling.
Clare, why is a comedic triple funnier than a double or quadruple?
Clare: Good question! I don’t think anyone’s actually tried to figure out this exact thing with an experiment… so I cobbled together an answer from my psychology knowledge.
First, let’s tackle the number element. In order to make this kind of joke work, you need to establish a category and then flout or subvert it in some way.
It should be obvious why one item in the list won’t work: you usually can’t establish a clear category from just one thing, and you certainly can’t subvert the category. Because a lot of words have multiple meanings, you need the second item in the list to solidify the category, which means it also shouldn’t be the funny thing.
Here’s an example first item: boxers. This could belong to a number of categories…
Underwear: Boxers, Y-fronts
Sportspeople: Boxers, rowers
Dog breeds: Boxers, spaniels
Words that end in -oxers: Boxers, foxers
So, why not establish the category even more solidly with a third or fourth or fifth item before subverting? Because humans have limited attention spans. We usually use working memory (a sort of temporary store for information) to keep track of things that we need to keep in mind right now. When you’re reading or listening to someone tell a story, a lot of your working memory is taken up with what’s going on in the story – events, characters, how things relate to each other. If I ask you to remember a long list while you’re listening to a story, either you’ll forget the list or you’ll lose track of the story. A two-item list is a balance between the need to establish the category and the need to keep your audience’s attention.
A different use of this kind of three-part list is an age-old rhetorical device called hendiatris, which gave us such classics as friends, Romans, countrymen and reduce, reuse, recycle. We have a powerful cultural expectation that the third item in a list will complete it in an emotionally or aesthetically pleasing way. The subversion of that expectation is funny – but why?
I’ve written before about how humour works, and the honest answer is that there’s no one theory which can explain all of it. In many cases, it’s probably about mild tension being resolved. In something like stand-up comedy, this tension might come from a variety of sources, say the topic is mildly taboo or emotionally difficult, or the narrative is gripping and you don’t know what to expect, or even that you’re worried whether the comedian is going to land the joke. If the tension is resolved, you’re relieved – but add a silly or incongruous subversion to that and you are likely to express relief by laughing.
Let’s talk a bit more about incongruity, because you can’t just whack any old incongruous thing on the end of a list to make a funny. Returning to one of the earlier examples…
Boxers, Y-fronts, briefs -> Congruous, not funny
Boxers, Y-fronts, cathedrals -> Incongruous, not funny
I like to think of this as a series of concentric circles. The trick is to find something that’s slightly outside the category you’ve established, but not so far that you can’t see any connection between the first two items and the final one (Only Ross Noble and Eddie Izzard can make this funny – Rach.) Underwear and pubic wigs are reasonably closely related, underwear and large buildings not so much.
In this case, merkin is also good because it’s slightly rude (another type of subversion, this time about social norms of what we ‘should’ talk about in public) and it’s one of those words that sounds funny even if you don’t know what it means, like spatula.
Not every minor subversion is funny, of course. Some minor subversions might be offensive or confusing, in the general sense or in the specific context of what you are saying and who you are saying it to.
As with all comedy, the key is keeping in mind who you’re talking to.
Perhaps your audience is entirely comprised of Conservative women over the age of 80. Will they know what a merkin is? If they do know, will they think it’s too rude?
Perhaps your audience is made up of curators at the Amsterdam Sex Museum. Will they be so used to merkins that they find them boring? Is it not rude enough?
Rach: So, the category circles might change size, depending on your audience. If your ‘third thing’ is in the central established category circle, it won’t be a surprise, so it won’t be funny – though if you’re lucky you might have made a hendiatris. If it’s in the ‘TOO FAR’ circle, it doesn’t make any sense.
If it’s in the offensive section, it could be funny, but a stand-up audience might be nervous to laugh out loud. It’s certainly not going to get you booked for the Royal Variety Performance.
In conclusion, establish, reinforce, subvert by the correct amount and you have yourself a punchline.
Postscript: Rach eventually overcame her clutch based confusion, and nailed her driving test on the fourth attempt.
In The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, it is revealed that the Earth is a supercomputer designed by Deep Thought, the supercomputer that came before it.
“DEEP THOUGHT: I speak of none but the computer that is to come after me. A computer whose merest operational parameters I am not worthy to calculate – and yet I will design it for you. A computer which can calculate the question to the Ultimate answer, a computer of such infinite and subtle complexity that organic life itself will form part of its operational matrix. And it shall be called The Earth.”
Good is responding to the commonly held view that a machine could never be as intelligent as a human.
He argues that humans have limitations in intelligence. Ultimately, a machine could be constructed that would match or even exceed a human’s capability.
Good fundamentally believed that computers and their ultra-intelligent machine successors would deliver a benefit to humanity. The opening line of this seminal paper reads:
“The survival of man depends on the early construction of an ultra-intelligent machine.”
In it, he also originated the idea of an “intelligence explosion”:
“Let an ultra-intelligent machine be defined as a machine that can far surpass all the intellectual activities of any man, however clever.
Since the design of machines is one of these intellectual activities, an ultra-intelligent machine could design even better machines; there would then unquestionably be an ‘intelligence explosion,’ and the intelligence of man would be left far behind.
Thus the first ultra-intelligent machine is the last invention that man need ever make, provided that the machine is docile enough to tell us how to keep it under control.”
So is The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy supercomputer Earth docile? According to Ford Prefect it is, “Mostly Harmless.”
If you enjoyed this article, and know where your towel is, you might like this episode of The End of the World by Josh Clark:
If you’re a gardener, the best thing might be to just start writing. Don’t worry that you haven’t had an idea yet. Allow the idea to emerge as you write.
To know what you’re going to draw, you have to begin drawing…
When I find myself facing a blank page, that’s always going through my head.
What I capture in spite of myself interests me more than my own ideas.
6. Start by blocking distractions
Having Whatsapp messages, texts or carrier pigeons flying in through the window can be distracting.
Start by putting your phone on airplane mode. Or use an app like Flora to keep you on track. This is a lovely app. You plant a seed, the tree grows while you’re writing. If you close the app or wander off into other apps on your phone. THE TREE DIES. Brutal.
Above all, don’t panic! Writer’s block can be more to do with what else is going on in our lives than a lack of ideas.
If you can make space for it and try all these techniques, the ideas will start to flow.