Tell that watcher at the gates of your mind to eff off

by Suw on February 21, 2024

The watcher at the gates of your mind is just dying to rip your creative face off.

Creativity is about radical acceptance of your first ideas and resisting the urge to second-guess yourself.

I’ve been reading Impro: Improvisation and the Theatre by Keith Johnstone recently. First published in 1979, it shows its age not just in some of the language, which wouldn’t be acceptable now, but also in some very dated concepts. However, it was overall an interesting read and provided me with some really useful insights.

One of the things that struck me was Johnstone’s thoughts on self-censorship, although he doesn’t call it that.

I remember, years ago, having a conversation about how to approach solving a plot problem. The advice given was to toss out the first idea you have, because that will be the most obvious one. Toss out the second as well, because that will still be too obvious. Continue to toss out ideas until you find one that’s not obvious, something that’s surprising. The reasoning was that novelty and surprise are good; obvious is predictable and predictable is bad.

I found that advice, which somehow wormed its way inside my head for a good long while, very restrictive. It encourages the writer to second-guess themselves and to judge their thoughts as they are having them. If you’re a perfectionist, prone to self-criticism or lack confidence, it can make writing much harder than it needs to be.

Johnstone touches on this in his chapter on spontaneity:

[Friedrich] Schiller wrote of a ‘watcher at the gates of the mind’, who examines ideas too closely. He said that in the case of the creative mind ‘the intellect has withdrawn its watcher from the gates, and the ideas rush in pell-mell, and only then does it review and inspect the multitude.’ He said that uncreative people ‘are ashamed of the momentary passing madness which is found in all real creators . . . regarded in isolation, an idea may be quite insignificant, and venturesome in the extreme, but it may acquire importance from an idea that follows it; perhaps in collation with other ideas which seem equally absurd, it may be capable of furnishing a very serviceable link.’

My teachers had the opposite theory. They wanted me to reject and discriminate, believing that the best artist was the one who made the most elegant choices. They analysed poems to show how difficult ‘real’ writing was, and they taught that I should always know where the writing was taking me, and that I should search for better and better ideas. They spoke as if an image like ‘the multitudinous seas incarnadine’ could have been worked out like the clue to a crossword puzzle. Their idea of the ‘correct choice was the one anyone would have made if he had thought long enough.

I now feel that imagining should be as effortless as perceiving.

Improv, as I have learnt over the last four months, is about not judging your ideas as you have them. It’s about not striving for the original or the novel or the surprising, not trying to produce better and better ideas.

It’s about accepting your partner’s offer (ie the idea they share through their dialogue and action) and your own initial response. It’s about letting the words flow through you without your intellectual self getting in the way. If you have to judge each idea as you think of it, discarding the ‘bad’ ones and coming up with new ones, you will be visibly slower to respond, which will sap the energy out of a scene and bore the audience to tears. It will also make you feel inadequate and crap.

Instead, improv is about asking the watcher at the gates of your mind to just go away and do something else for a bit so you can get on with being creative.

Indeed, the people who do strive to be clever, who are scared of being judged (or who judge themselves, as the group really isn’t at all judgemental), who have hired reinforcements for those watchers at the gates of their minds, are also the ones whose attempts to be original, novel and surprising backfire. Creativity, and especially comedy, comes from the mundane, from saying the obvious, the thing that everyone’s thinking.

Schiller was right; Johnstone’s teachers and whoever it was that gave me that advice all those years ago was wrong.

In improv, improvement comes from observation and practice, from letting your barriers down and giving up on trying to be smart or funny or original. Let your subconscious do the work and see how it speaks to others without your interference.

Writing is the same. If you let yourself write your first draft without judgement, you’ll find it easier to finish.

The way to write better first drafts is not to let the doggy watcher at the gates of your mind rip your creative face off, it’s to hone your instincts. You do that through writing lots, reading good books on writing craft, reading widely, planning, plotting. character development work, world building, practicing your dialogue and all those other pre-writing tasks that can sometimes seem pointless. They’re not, of course, even if you ultimately don’t use any of your pre-writing material – the very act of working on them implanted ideas in your subconscious, which it then noodled over whilst you weren’t paying attention and all that pops out when you write.

The second draft is when discrimination comes in, when you can assess whether your first ideas were good enough, or whether they need honing or replacing completely. But rewriting is also another opportunity to sharpen up those instincts even more – noticing what doesn’t work and why, working out plot kinks or inconsistent characters, all that stuff that rewrites require. That all goes into your subconscious and stays there, ready to help you out with your next first draft.

At no point does second-guessing, judging, castigating or criticising yourself help. Imagining should be as effortless as perceiving, and it can only become effortless if we shed our self-judgement.

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