Creativity and the Real Power of Saying ‘No’

One of the most persuasive kinds of mendacity occurs when a misleading statement is, at face value, true. There’s a reason why it’s not just ‘the truth’ we ask for, but also ‘the whole truth and nothing but the truth’.

An article I saw a while back (but have now lost*) argued that a key indicator for creative success is the ability to say ‘no’ in order to refuse distractions and focus on work. The particular trigger for this was that a researcher had approached a bunch of creative people to find out what made them tick and had been struck by how many of them either didn’t get back to him or refused on the basis that they were too busy being creative. The implication is that by refusing to get involved with other stuff you maximise your creative time and keep your focus, ergo saying ‘no’ is good for creativity. Well, kinda. You have to have a lot else going on besides saying ‘no’; you need decent ideas, high standards, tenacity and the rest.

Another fault with the argument is that the lack of responses to the researcher may not be because the creative professional was focused on their work but because in reality they were having to do additional jobs to make ends meet, as many in the creative sector do, or they’d said ‘yes’ too many times to other people or projects, or they just weren’t interested. So it’s an odd conclusion to draw. But there is, as I say, truth in it. The ability to say ‘no’ is a massive help. I know this for a fact because I’m bad at saying ‘no’ and it’s definitely reduced my creative output, although it’s helped a great many other people increase theirs. And that’s why I want to unpick this argument. Well, it’s one reason. The other is because I think it’s symptomatic of a wider tendency to claim that success is intrinsically deserved, a deeply flawed ideological position that colours our entire culture, from the demonisation of the poor to the cult of celebrity.

Now, before I go on I should point out that there is another kind of saying ‘no’ which is highly commendable. It’s saying ‘no’ to jobs that are exploitative, to behaviour that is abusive, to practices that are harmful or unhealthy, and so on. To be clear, I’m not talking about that kind of a ‘no’; I’m talking about the ability, described in the article, to say ‘no’ to anything that detracts from one’s personal creative practice. That said, even here there’s a matter of balance to be considered. Saying ‘no’ to protect yourself can mean other people being pressured to say ‘yes’ to fill in the gap, potentially harming themselves. Sometimes, rather than saying ‘no’, we need to say ‘How can we do this better?’ or even ‘Should we be doing this at all?’

But let’s get back to the people who are good at saying ‘no’ purely to defend their own creative time. What’s the problem? Well, it’s because success in the arts world is very much dependent on a large amount of other people saying ‘yes’. Just like in wider society where charities and the third sector provide essential services and pick up the pieces when the state fails, much of the infrastructure of the strange and fragile ecosystem of the creative sector (where the state is very small) relies on those who, sometimes paid but often voluntarily, or working way beyond the hours they’re paid for, help young talent, organise community projects, campaign for better working conditions, help out their colleagues… In the money-poor and time-poor world of the arts as it currently (dys)functions, such activity is essential. Even more so at the moment, in the context of the double blow dealt to the sector by the malign conjunction of Tory cuts and a pandemic. But, even in less strange times, this good work is almost impossible to do without neglecting one’s own creative output. 

This imbalance often has a seriously deleterious effect on well-being too, which, in turn further reduces creativity. Not being able to be creative when it’s your job, is also bad for mental heath, creating a vicious circle. So those who say ‘no’ are often benefiting from – but not contributing to – the huge web of linked activities which sustains their work. Denying this is awfully similar to the Tory strategy of spinning privilege and freeloading as fair competition and should I suggest, cast a more critical light on how we measure success in the sector. 

Of course I’m generalising. There are many exceptions. And of course a great many people say ‘no’ sometimes and ‘yes’ at other times. If there were some kind of giant yes-no Venn diagram for everyone in the sector, I have no idea how big that overlap would be, although it’s where we should all heading, weighing up each yes/no decision individually, to balance kindness towards oneself with kindness to others. But I do know that I’ve given up a lot of my own time, unpaid, for the general good of theatre design as a profession, because I see it as the right price for having a vaguely not-disastrous career as a theatre designer. (I’ve given a lot to environmentalism too, because I see that as the right price for being a human in general and a human with a decent standard of living in particular, but I’m going to stick with the creative sector for this blogpost.) I know that I have sacrificed time that I could have spent pursuing my own projects and building my own career, and while I don’t regret the giving per se, I do regret the consequential loss. Not because of what it is but because of how it’s distributed and the consequences that has had for my career. It can feel like a mug’s game, especially as, I think it’s fair to say, the relationship between success and talent in the creative sector is, shall we say, not always linear.

Helping other people gratis isn’t all about sacrifice, of course. It’s often rewarding. It’d be even more rewarding, however, if it wasn’t so direly needed, and if it didn’t feel like constant firefighting. Until we have fiscal and cultural policies that understand how the arts work (a topic for another time) our sector is, sadly, such that it would fall apart without this generosity. Because for one thing, that’s how society is, and, for another, we just don’t fit properly into the commercially driven economic system that surrounds us. 

I also think it’s fair not only to ask why the distribution of volunteering is so unequal but also why we praise people’s ability to say ‘no’ when what it often really means is ‘let someone else do it.’

The idea that saying ‘no’ in this sense is a cause of greater creativity is therefore the truth but not the whole truth, and so of no real value as an observation. It is, however, a very convincing example of confirmation bias for those who’ve bought into the poisonous conservative myth that success is always deserved. That, in a nutshell, is the specific point I wanted to make in this post but I’m not quite done as there’s a general one too.

In the light of these observations (which highlight just one of many, many injustices in our sector) it suddenly becomes apparent how the ecology of the creative sector is a kind of politics; there’s a complex interplay of work, value, power, hierarchy and constructed notions of success which, in order to survice, needs to be negotiated, and which, to extremely unequal and inequitable extents related to privilege and character, can or cannot be confronted, avoided or exploited.

By analysing this we can ask what kind of politics we want our sector to have. I don’t think many people would say it’s what we have at the moment.


*I started this post several months ago, then forgot about it. I came across it again recently and it felt relevant. I don’t remember much about the article that inspired it, but I do clearly remember my reaction to the article’s conclusion.

A Letter From an Old Democracy to One Struggling to be Born

Dear students,

I’m writing to you from 5,929 miles away in London, while you risk both your safety and your liberty in the struggle for democracy in Thailand. I worry about your wellbeing, of course, but mainly I’m proud of you for standing up for what you believe in.

I want to say a few words to those of you I’ve had the honour to teach, and to any others who are interested in the perspective of someone with many years’ experience of British politics. I want to say something about why I think democracy matters. It may not be for the reasons you think.

Continue reading “A Letter From an Old Democracy to One Struggling to be Born”

How Not to Save the World

There’s a vanguardist streak in the environmental movement which I think does more harm than good. It can lead to an alienating kind of arrogance that we can’t afford. We desperately need more people on our side if we are to build up the critical mass of public opinion necessary for the scale of change we need. Not that we don’t need people to take the lead. But taking a lead is not an end in itself. It’s pointless if you don’t take people with you. The vanguard is not the movement; the vanguard is a possible catalyst for the movement.

There are many lessons to learn from the twin fiascos of Trump and Brexit: one is that people act on their feelings, not on rational analysis. Another thing to consider is that most of the damage inflicted on the environment is carried out by wealthy people and corporations. It’s important for the rest of us to be good, green consumers, but that’s nothing compared to the scale of change we need, which is radical and systemic. Basically, we need government action and, while protest and publicity stunts are fine for bringing issues to attention, large-scale change is only going to happen if enough people care. Most politicians will only do what gets votes. Put all these things together and, as I’ve been saying for a long time, the way to save the environment is for people to want it to be saved. They need to feel it’s their struggle, to choose to make the necessary sacrifices now so that future generations may live bearable lives. Continue reading “How Not to Save the World”

On the Loss of Citizenship

This is probably my last night here as a citizen. My family’s been coming here since my aunt worked in Italy in the 70s. It’s a modest, friendly ex-mining village in a beautiful corner of the Alps: lovely for walking in the summer and cross-country skiing in the winter. It has a downhill slope too, which is OK but not great. And good mountain-biking, if you like that kind of thing. It’s unpretentious. It’s not expensive, as these things go. Some crazy Brits and others come to risk their lives climbing frozen waterfalls but most the people who come here are Italian. It’s very white and I’d guess a fair few residents voted for the fascists of La Lega. There’s some poverty. People are generally kind, and go out their way to be helpful. There are things that drive me crazy and many things I love, the same as in the UK.

We have long-standing friends here. We always stay in the same apartment. My aunt knows most the village. I haven’t been coming here as long as her but when I go to the shops I meet people I know. My aunt comes here twice a year, and after she retired she spent 11 months here. She sometimes gives free English lessons. And when she’s been ill, or had a problem with the car, or had any other kind of trouble, there’s never been any shortage of help. We’re not locals, but we feel at home here. And of course we share citizenship. You see more regional than national flags here, and you also see plenty of EU ones. Continue reading “On the Loss of Citizenship”

What is Green Criticism?

The last time I was purposefully academic was probably when I sat my finals. Even then, we’d only been educated in the philosophical contexts of the writers we studied; not in the context in which we ourselves were operating. Since then, I’ve taught at half a dozen universities at least, but always as a practitioner. Academically cutting edge I am not. But I do want to understand how the work I and my colleagues do in the arts fits with the urgent need, in the face of imminent climate breakdown, to view society as part of an ecological system. The question ‘what is green criticism?’ is neither theoretical nor rhetorical. Green thought has provided us with a sophisticated analysis of society and its relationship to planet. How can we apply it to artistic practice?

Around the time I did my English degree, there were some books emerging that used ecology as way to approach literature: Jonathan Bate’s Romantic Ecology springs to mind, and Kim Taplin’s Tongues in Trees; I probably should re-read them. The aim of these books seemed to be to understand how writers related to nature: how ‘green’ they were. But that approach is about ecology, not employing it as a critical tool. I wrote an extended essay in my third year. It was about depictions of landscape in literature and painting at the time of the first generation Romantics. I was interested in the sublime and the beautiful, not out of any kind of swooning romanticism but because they suggest two ways of modelling our desire for the external. Briefly, as I still haven’t got to the real point I want to make, I’d noticed how some writers saw nature as a force that transformed the tiny figures traversing its landscapes while some saw it as something that framed or provided a kind of extension to, or illustration of, heroic anthropocentrism. I was somewhat out on a limb, frankly. It probably wasn’t my best work. And it was also mainly ‘about’ the natural world. Yet it made me realise that there’s a deeper analysis which can – and probably should – be be applied to any kind of discourse.

So what might real green criticism be? Is anyone writing about how ecology could be a useful way to look at culture?  Continue reading “What is Green Criticism?”

Letter to a Brexit Voter

Dear friend,

I wasn’t a passionate supporter of the EU until the referendum made me stop and think. The thing I really valued highly was my European citizenship. The freedom to travel and to work in the EU. The sense of being part of of an expanding world. Of taking a small step towards that Star Trek dream of united Earth. But I could see that the Union’s democratic structures were as flawed as the UK’s, that the Euro was being torn between the very different economies of the richer and poorer nations, and that sometimes the bureaucracy could slide into absurdity. Plenty to criticise. Plenty to reform.

Then came the referendum. So I did my homework and it swiftly become evident that it was overwhelmingly in our best interests to remain. Not only because of the direct political and economic benefits to the UK but also the strategic benefits in the fight for social justice. Chief among these was that a Leave result would fuel the fanatics: not just the anti-European ones but the racists, antisemites and Islamophobes. Other forms of bigotry too, no doubt. As for the UK’s political and economic interests, the reasons have been given thousands of times in thousands of articles. The Guardian seems to be running several post-mortems a day in its opinion section. I’m not going to go over all that again.

Instead, I am going to talk about my personal experience. Why? Because I want you to know that we’re not enemies. And then I want to talk about how we can move on. Politicians and media alike have painted us as opposites in some kind of culture war. I disagree. I think we’ve fallen out over a big misunderstanding.  Continue reading “Letter to a Brexit Voter”

Why We Won’t Shut Up

I feel as though I should write something personal to explain why I’m so hurt and bewildered by what has just happened. Especially since plenty of people seem to think folks like me should shut up. In the lead-up to the vote I focused on facts; on the direct disadvantages of leaving and the possible political consequences. I didn’t make it personal; I’m involved with politics because I care about our country and the wider world. I would never normally make the kind of argument I’m about to make now. I’m even going to try, for once, to resist discussing the bigger implications. But these are exceptional times.

Firstly, however, let’s remind ourselves that this wasn’t an election for politicians who can do only limited damage over only a limited period; it was a decision with massive, long-term ramifications. These are not only political. Many of the consequences put severe limits on our personal freedoms; so for those of us who embraced those freedoms, the decision to leave the EU restricts the way we live our lives and, as I’m going to argue, is a kind of censoring of the way we see ourselves. Continue reading “Why We Won’t Shut Up”

I’m done with the economics, how about the revolution?

I’ve tended to be quite ambivalent about the EU in the past. But I now find myself pretty passionate about staying in. I wanted to articulate why.

One thing to get out of the way first. If conventional economics are your thing then the economic arguments for the UK staying in the UK are overwhelming. Even som’eone without much economic expertise – like our Chancellor, say –  can see that. Conventional economics is clearly a load of cobblers though. Look at what a complete mess it’s making of, well, everything; it’s a mix of ideology (the invisible hand of the market will work for the common good? Yeah, right!), guesswork (cos trickledown will definitely happen) and a ridiculously unscientific attitude to growth and the planet’s resources. So I’m moving on to the more serious stuff right away.   Continue reading “I’m done with the economics, how about the revolution?”

Dodgy Analogies, Dodgy Politics

The arts give society a space to think. Without them we are a golem: a figure of clay, subject to its master’s command, and deprived of the imaginative space necessary to relate meaningful to others and function in society.

OK. That’s an analogy with which you may or may not agree. It’s fairly useful as away to explain an idea that I personally find interesting. On the one hand, it’s way too reductive to be truthful in any philosophically helpful sense. It’s only of very limited use in explaining our need for the arts. Continue reading “Dodgy Analogies, Dodgy Politics”

Green Panic!

In case you missed it, some arts people on the interwebs (and presumably the real world too) are in high dudgeon, claiming it’s the end of the Green Party’s moral integrity forever and ever because, in a policy document on the website it says… well, let me copy and paste:
Continue reading “Green Panic!”