the role of intuition in the art of creative badassery




I was at an event where I had a conversation with a famous American director who said something that surprised me.

(I can’t blog about the event, except to say that it wasn’t in the States, and the master of ceremonies said things like: “You can take pictures, but you shall post them NOT! You shall tweet them NOT!” and would break out into spoken-word poetry.

It was also an excuse to buy a hot dress, especially when the airplane got me to one destination but left my luggage somewhere else. “It appears,” I sighed to my boyfriend, once my plight had revealed itself, “that I must go shopping.” The dress of course forced me to purchase appropriate footwear. Such is life.)

The director said, “I couldn’t find my act breaks or my plot points if my life depended on it.”

He said that when he wrote his scripts, he trusted himself to know in the moment of filming what the scene would require. When he filmed, he engaged directly with what was in front of him. If the script needed changing, he would change it. If the actor thought up something better, he would use it. He encouraged his actors to improvise. Auditioning them, he liked to throw surprises at them. He would push them in directions different from what they had prepared. He wanted to see what they had in them, what they could present in the spur of the moment.

Keep in mind, this isn’t some indie filmmaker who does impressionistic stream-of-consciousness vaguely European movies that people tend to talk about and give awards to but might not actually bother to see. His movies are the kind in which things tend to go BOOM. He pulls in big box office. He gets under the skin of the popular culture, and in return that culture adores him.

I couldn’t find my act breaks if my life depended on it.

“Other people can,” I told him, and it’s true. Books and websites on plotting, on storytelling, will break his screenplays down to teach eager readers about plot points. Yet – based on what the director told me – there’s an intuitive, gut-feeling, spontaneous approach – an in-the-moment approach – to his work that those books and blogs don’t indicate. That can’t be codified.

(He reminds me a little bit of Stephen King: because he works in genre, because some might dismiss him as formulaic, others think that they can imitate him and find big success of their own. And so they try. And fail miserably.)

I’m not saying this director wings it as he goes along; I think, through his obsession with movies and his own natural talent, he’s developed an instinctive sense for story structure. But what struck me about that conversation is how much he trusts his own voice. How much he trusts the process. He shows up with screenplay in hand, but if the process leads him in a different direction he won’t hesitate to follow.


A screenplay isn’t a finished movie but an outline for a movie. And I love to outline. I outline my novels, my blog posts, my life. But what I could never help but notice is how the process of actually creating will surface new ideas, surprising moments, that then need to be reckoned with. That work to change the outline: to reshape the very thing that’s shaping it.

An outline is a living, evolving document.

They say that life happens when you’re making other plans; sometimes creative work does as well.

As Patricia Ryan Madson says in her great little book IMPROV WISDOM, creativity builds on itself, link by link and moment by moment.

When we make a plan for something, we’re thinking about the future; when we operate from that plan, we’re looking to the past; creativity, however, happens in the present. Much like life itself.

The moment.

The right-now.

So we have to put the past and the future aside and pay attention to what’s right in front of us.


The outline doesn’t dictate creativity. It acts as a vessel to contain it and give the process a certain shape. But creativity is sly, it throws itself against limitations and looks for ways around or through or behind them; or it builds on them in unexpected ways.

Creativity thrives on limitations, as Brian Eno points out in this interview. He will stimulate his own creative process or that of others by introducing limits:

“…one of the biggest problems is that you’re in a world of endless possibilities. So I try to close down possibilities early on. I limit choices. I confine people to a small area of manoeuvre. There’s a reason that guitar players invariably produce more interesting music than synthesizer players: you can go through the options on a guitar in about a minute, after that you have to start making aesthetic and stylistic decisions. This computer can contain a thousand synths, each with a thousand sounds. I try to provide constraints for people.”

Take away the starting point, and you don’t know where to begin.

The outline is the starting point.

The outline is the box, and maybe creativity doesn’t happen outside of the box so much as against the box.

(My favorite example of this is a moment from Monty Python’s SEARCH FOR THE HOLY GRAIL. Two riders on horseback come into view, except they’re not really on horses. They’re skipping along and clopping coconuts together and exchanging dialogue as if there is nothing absurd about any of this. It’s hilarious. It also wasn’t in the script. The production didn’t have the money for horses. They had to think up a way to work around the limitations of the budget: to have horses without having horses. In other words, they had to get creative.)

Creativity builds on itself. It’s strange, in a way; it happens inside us, in the deep underworld of our brains, but also seems to be a force outside of us, operating from its own mysterious consciousness. It weaves things together, it invents relationships, it, as Steve Jobs so famously said, connects the dots. The danger about working from an outline is that we try and force the process when what we need to do is surrender. Flow with the go.

And this happens in our lives as well as our creative work — you can’t tease apart the two. Cheryl Strayed (one of my new favorite writers) writes about how disappointed she was when she reached the ancient age of 28 without having written a novel. Only to discover, several years and one finished manuscript later:

To get to the point I had to get to write my first book, I had to do everything I did in my twenties. I had to write a lot of sentences that never turned into anything and stories that never miraculously formed a novel. I had to read voraciously and compose exhaustive entries in my journals. I had to waste time and grieve my mother and come to terms with my childhood and have stupid and sweet and scandalous sexual relationships and grow up.

Creativity draws on so much more than the outline: it draws on all our levels of intelligence, our personal history, our accumulated knowledge and life experience. It happens in the moment. You think you have a plan: the moment teaches you otherwise. You show up for a big event but the airline loses your luggage. You think you have a novel in you but it turns out to be an epic poem. Or a documentary. You think you have the scene down cold but the director tells you to perform another role. You need horses in your movie only to find you can’t afford them.

What is creativity, in the end, but continuous problem-solving? And the nature of problems is that you can’t plan for them until they rise up and announce themselves, often by smacking you in the face. They are the unknown variable, the X factor, the monkey wrench thrown into the gears of your outline. They demand your focus and your humility. In return, they just might give you greatness.

photo credit: the|G|™ via photo pin cc

Aug 19, 2012

4 comments · Add Yours

Justine, you keep me on the true path . . . thanks.


Great post – again! Thanks for making me think. :)


You rock my world today by mentioning my book IMPROV WISDOM. I’m so pleased that you have found value. Great good sense about the creative process. Thanks for the post


@Patricia Ryan Madson Patricia, I love your book. I mentioned it in a post over a year or so ago — “there’s always something in the box” — and then Steven Pressfield got in touch with me saying would I mind if he used the same example in his book DO THE WORK. :)


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