Running For Creativity

I’m a runner. Nothing extreme or competitive. No marathons. But I do about 7km a day, most days, and have done since I was at university.

Over the years I’ve found it’s the greatest source of creativity – many ideas have come to me while I’ve been out in the greenery. It’s also deeply meditative, cleaning out the detritus of daily life.

Which brings me to the Tendai Buddhist monks in the mountains of Japan. In a practice started 1200 years ago, they run the Kaihogyo, a seven year ultramarathon which they see as the path to enlightenment.

During that time, a monk must run:

*25 miles a day for 100 days for the first three years

  • 25 miles a day for 200 days for years four and five
  • 37 miles a day for 100 days in year six
  • 52 miles a day for 100 days, then 25 miles a day for 100 days in the final year

That takes them a distance greater than the earth’s circumference and they do it in sandals made from woven rope.

Just in case you were looking for a new fitness challenge.

Billions

Endings are hard. Doesn’t matter if it’s a novel or short story, TV series or film. How the audience is left depends on whether the story will live on, whether the readers or viewers will pick up more of the creator’s work, often whether the project gets published/made in the first place. It’s critical.

There are a couple of simple rules. The payoff must be better/bigger/more surprising than the set up (so not The Village which did the opposite just to get a twist). And it’s not good enough for the end to be logically right or arrive at the right place. It has to be satisfying for those who’ve invested their time and money (so not Dexter which arrived at the right place but without earning it).

So no to House of Cards, no to Game of Thrones. Yes to The Sopranos, yes to Six Feet Under.

And yes to Billions, which has been a fantastic series from start to finish, even surviving the loss of a star for a season after the tragic death of his wife. Shakespearean in tone, it gets to the heart of today’s struggle between vast wealth and fairness and the law and all the messy compromises involved in that battle, including the personal toll.

Huge characters, twisty-turny plots, unashamedly clever and with two amazing performances among many from Damian Lewis and Paul Giamatti. The ending landed, was satisfying and stayed true to the themes. Such a success for Showtime, four spinoffs are in the works.

The First And Only Rule Of Creativity

There are some truly bad takes on what it takes to be a successful creative. On one of my Facebook posts someone suggested the worst: don’t say anything controversial if you want to “make fans” or sell work.

That view will kill any hope you have for a career.

Nobody buys anything bland. Nobody wants things that don’t leave any mark on the surface of humanity. If they stumble across one by accident, they won’t buy any more. Why would you want any grey in your life?

The creator’s character is infused into their work and that’s what people buy into. A voice. An opinion on the human condition. A stand. It will repel some people and that’s how it should be because no creative work is for everybody. But some people will connect and when they do they’ll stay with you forever because they sense a bond deeper than words or pictures.

A characterless work is for nobody.

So be authentic. Speak your mind. Kick over statues, upset people. Accept some are going to hate you, then ignore them – they’re not good enough for your work.

Be you.

That’s the only way to make something that lasts. And that’s the only way to live with yourself.

The New Age

Hamlet

Applicants per student place in 2023:

University of Cambridge 6
RADA (BA Acting) 121

This comes from a Financial Times piece on The Economics of Acting. You might think this merely points out how many dreamers there are. I think it shows something deeper.

The world is changing fast, as anyone can see. Values are changing, beliefs are altering. That’s leaving some, generally older, people bewildered.

One of the big transformations is in the world of work. People no longer feel they have to devote the precious years of their lives to becoming a cog in the great machine, existing in dull offices because that’s how things have always been done.

They want something better, some kind of fulfilment, and they don’t want to play the old game any more. Particularly when it benefits others and not them.

Economic necessity will always force some down hard roads. But they will still dream in the way they might not have done in the last century.

You can see it in the powerful work from home movement, with many under 35 refusing to take jobs that force them to grind unnecessarily in the office for five days a week.

They’re turning down higher pay, ignoring the fury of politicians and company bosses, demanding a new of operating that benefits them.

Recognising the creativity that burns inside and refusing to have it squashed is an act of rebellion against a broken system.

Change can’t come fast enough.

The Death Of Writing

The latest AI is on the brink of making writers obsolete.

A lot of people will snigger at that. How could a few lines of code replace the vast brilliance of a human mind? That response is just a failure of imagination.

Given enough time and enough resources the rate of advance of artificial intelligence shows it will eventually be capable of doing everything that humans do and do it better.

Medical dignostic software is already better than general practitioners. Architectural programs are now better than human architects. The rapid global rollout of 3-D printed houses is better than builders can do.

For writers, the AI can already produce passable non-fiction books, blog posts and journalism. It’s very close – perhaps only months away – from making the more formulaic genres – thrillers, romance, some others.

The important thing here is that the vast majority of readers are not discerning. They just want a story to fill an hour or two between their labours. They will already buy what objectively is very poorly written independent novels that are priced cheaply. AI can produce that level of writing now.

The AI learns fast. Within months it will be able to produce a novel in the style of Stephen King’s 1970s/80s novels or his 90s novels or his current writing simply by running through already published novels a million times in a second. You will be able to buy new Stephen King novels in perpetuity.

What about all the great ideas summoned up by the human mind, I hear you say?

Writers love to aggrandise themselves and the power of their creativity. Firstly we know those less-discerning time-passing readers don’t care about that and if they defect en masse to zero cost AI books there’s no need for publishers to pay writers for the relatively small number of readers who do care.

Secondly, any editor or film commissioner will tell you your idea is not truly unique. You think it is because it’s been birthed from your head, but they will already have seen five versions that week. A machine can arrange story elements in new forms much better and faster than you can imagine.

For me, it’s the flaws in writers’ work that makes them interesting – the quirks, the beauty spots on pristine skin. For a while, that alone will sustain creativity. But the machines will get there in the end.

Check out ChatGpt AI, which currently focuses on dialogue. It has flaws but it does a reasonable job and ones that are already significantly more advanced are going to be released in the New Year.

Feminine Power

Kali

Praise Kali, whose insatiable aggression destroys ignorance and leads her followers to enlightenment.

I took in the exhibition Feminine Power: From the Divine to the Demonic at the British Museum, an examination of female power in myth, religion and folklore with commentary by the likes of Mary Beard and Elizabeth Day. Excellent. Well worth a visit.

Here’s Hekate, who stands between life and death, here in her triple-faced form. Heralded by howling dogs.

Hekate

Or Ishtar, Queen of the Night and sexual power.

Ishtar

And Lilith, once decried for breaking the rules, now a symbol of women, who will not be chained.

Lilith

You’ll also find Medusa, Mary, Isis, others from African and Chinese belief systems…

The exhibition is on at the British Museum till September 26.

Where The Land Meets The Sea

In the old stories, magic happened on the edges of things. The liminal zones. Doorways to somewhere else.

Where the fields brushed up against the dark forests. On the top of hills where they touched the sky. Beside lakes, where Arthur gained his sword of power from the Otherworld of gods that existed through the surface.

And where the land meets the sea.

Research has shown that dreams are stronger there. The sound of the waves changes the brain’s rhythms, making it more receptive, meditative. Perhaps conjuring up the boom of the mother’s heart, through the amniotic fluid, perhaps not.

A 2015 study showed being beside the sea activated the parasympathetic nervous system, slowing the heart rate and lowering blood pressure. It cuts stress, reducing the amount of the hormone cortisol in the blood stream, just by watching waves.

Sea swimming delays the onset of dementia, according to a recent study. And at the same time, it boosts the ‘happy hormone’ dopamine by a whopping 250%, reducing depression and anxiety.

Research by Dr Jo Garrett of Exeter University showed people who lived by the sea had much better mental health than those who lived inland, and it reduced the requirement for antidepressants and other medication.

Dreams. Sea. Stars. The moon. A place where you can connect with a different reality and conjure up a different way of being.

Stories Change The World

Stories change the world around us. Sometimes the changes are small, sometimes huge and powerful. This is currently known as the Sideways Effect, which is widely studied by academics.

The novel Sideways – and the subsequent film featuring Paul Giamatti – included a tirade against Merlot. It changed the wine industry forever, reducing Merlot’s market share from 20% to just 6% while boosting Pinot Noir and creating an entire tourist industry in the valley where the book was set.

Small: there was never an NYPD choir until a Christmas song had them singing Galway Bay. Now there is.

Storytelling is a meme generator. A creator’s dreaming seeps into the mind of a reader or viewer and changes the way they think as if they’d been infected by a virus. And when their thoughts change, their actions in the world change, and that changes the world itself.

Storytelling is hugely powerful. It shouldn’t be treated lightly.

The Summer Of New Beginnings

I’ve written a piece for Medium about the massive changes that are coming for all of us, and why you should get the best out of them.

The psychic shock of the last 18 months has hit hard. People are re-thinking their lives and how they want to spend them. If you want to work from home, with all the benefits that come with it, it’s never been easier. If you want to work from home as a first step on a journey to an entirely new way of living, well, you can do that too. Because the power has shifted into your hands.

Chasing Stories

Package arrives – my annual upgrade of running shoes. As you can see, chosen brand for the moment is Adidas.

I run about 7km a day and have done since I was in my teens. It’s not just for health – though the benefits are well-documented. This is where I chase down stories.

You’ve got to be in the right place to create – especially if your livelihood relies on a constant stream of new ideas. There’s something meditative about the steady beat of feet on the ground that pulls up ideas from the unconscious.

The reward chemicals endorphins released during exercise have also been shown to activate creativity (and work similar to morphine, without the obvious downside).

And also particularly good for staying sunny, say during a time of restricted horizons.