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Take something off the shelf

How to deal with our “watcher at the gates” and write with spontaneity.

David Gane
David Gane
1 min read

In Impro, Keith Johnstone argues:

It’s possible to turn unimaginative people into imaginative people at a moment’s notice.

He believes people are naturally creative, but we are raised in a system to be ‘correct’ and ‘right.’ Anything outside of acceptable is a ‘problem.’

Many ‘well-adjusted’ adults are bitter, uncreative, frightened, unimaginative, and rather hostile people. Instead of assuming they were born that way, or that that’s what being an adult entails, we might consider them as people damaged by their education and upbringing.

To open ourselves to creativity, we mustn’t stand in the way of our ideas.

He quotes the German playwright Friedrich Schiller: the case of the creative mind ‘the intellect has withdrawn its watcher from the gates, and the ideas rush in pell-mell, and only then does it review and inspect the multitude.’

For Johnstone, our “watcher at the gates” is our education and upbringing. It is also anything within us that seeks to reject our creativity.

To illustrate this, he shares how he’ll ask a new group of students to mime taking something off a shelf:

I say that either they can put their hand out, and see what it closes on; or else they can think first, decide what they’ll pick up, and then do the mime. If they’re worried about failing, then they’ll have to think first; if they’re being playful, then they can allow their hand to make its own decision.

We often struggle with our writing because we think it is uncreative, unoriginal, embarrassing, or boring. But that is the watcher at the gates, impeding our flow of ideas.

Johnstone’s solution to this problem is to practice not thinking. Most writers will know this as free-writing or stream-of-consciousness writing.

Other things to consider:

  • Create a safe space where you can put all your thoughts on the page.
  • The longer you practice, the more likely you’ll stop overthinking.
  • Understand that what goes onto the page doesn’t define who you are.
  • Allow yourself to play with those early ideas before discarding them. Sometimes “an idea may be quite insignificant...but it may acquire importance from an idea that follows it.”
  • Don’t worry about having “ordinary” or “obvious” thoughts. The attempt to be “original” only makes you overthink and slows your writing.

David Gane Twitter

Co-writer of the Shepherd and Wolfe young adult mysteries, the internationally award-winning series, and teacher of storytelling and screenwriting.


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