Returning To Input Mode
First up, a confession – I’ve been conscious over the last few weeks that the Therapy Tapes had slightly morphed, seemingly against my will, into something they were never intended to be, in that they felt to me like they were coming to resemble a traditional newsletter concerned largely with letting readers know what projects I’d been working on and where they could see/hear/engage with those projects. Nothing wrong with those newsletters, and hopefully I still put out some interesting/inspiring/useful thoughts into the universe while writing them, but I first started the Therapy Tapes as a conscious attempt to do something online other than plugging stuff. I was trying to work out why I was struggling to come up with ideas to write about each week other than simply “This is happening, I’d love you to come,” and realised yesterday that it’s because I’ve been coming to the end of a creative cycle, which tends to put you into Output Mode. “Here is the product of my work of the last year!” sort of thing. It’s difficult to get your brain into any gear other than that, until you’re able to naturally find your way back into Input Mode.
I much prefer Input Mode, which tends to last about 18 months or so, I find, depending on the particular life-cycle of whatever project absorbs most of your attention for that time (this last cycle lasted about two years, all told). Output Mode is concerned principally with selling the product of your creative endeavours within a commercial marketplace, which can be very dispiriting and feels a bit like it goes against all the values you centred yourself around while making the work itself. There is still creative work to be done in Output Mode, but it’s mostly about distilling the meaning of what you’ve made in a way you can communicate simply to audiences while selling it to them. This can prompt discoveries in itself – sometimes the packaging and selling of a piece of creative work reveals things within it that up until that point had been hidden from you. Output Mode involves stripping away all the extraneous veils of stuff that the thing might have been about, or could have been about, or was sort of about that passed through your mind while making it, in order to look at what you actually made, what you ended up with. Stripped of all that other baggage, you come to an understanding of what is at the centre of the work you actually produced, what that work is actually communicating to its audience. This can be interesting work, but also very hard on the spirit because you need it to be tethered directly to results, because Output Mode is almost entirely results-oriented.
Input Mode is the opposite. There is commercial work to be done during Input Mode, because there’s no point embarking on a new creative cycle unless you can identify the potential for this project to achieve some measure of success when it comes to selling it in a commercial marketplace. But for now, that’s all you’re trying to identify – the potential. Most of the other work of Input Mode involves feeding and attending to your curiosity, surrendering to process, to accident, to mistake, to failure, to surprising new combinations or connections. I was aware of Input Mode starting to wake up and stir itself again for the first time in 12 months or so yesterday while reading Faith, Hope And Carnage, the wonderful new book by Nick Cave & Sean O’Hagan. It’s a book of conversations between them both about the creative process, and it’s easily the best book I’ve read this year. The two of them talk about creativity in a way I could only dream of. For any readers who genuinely value what I’m trying to do to open up and document process in this newsletter, I can’t recommend it highly enough, it could be a Bible on the subject. I thought this week, as I begin to surrender myself to Input Mode again and the taking in of interesting new ideas, I would jot down a couple of the passages from the book that most leapt out to me as I read, as well as my immediate reactions to them:
Cave – Religion is asking the question: What if? And to me that question is also, in its way, a completely adequate answer. A question unencumbered by an answer.
O’Hagan – But does it not in itself leave room for doubt as well as wonder?
Cave – Yes. Doubt and wonder. Well put.
This really leapt out at me because it feels strikingly similar to one of the central principals of my approach to absurdist comedy, which is the question “Why not?” When your job is to be silly for a living it can be easy to feel judged, dismissed, patronised or diminished by a society that expects us to prioritise commercial success, status, respect, authority above all else. To live a life dedicated to silliness, stupidity, nonsense, failure, mistake, error, sometimes feels like it draws the silent question “Why?” from a lot of the people around you. I’ve long felt like “Why not?” functions well as both a question and an answer – what would it mean to live your life as if nonsense were as important as status? What does it take away from you? What does it add? This in itself is a form of belief. I’m not religious myself, but reading Cave’s defence of his own attitude to religion made me understand the role it plays in people’s lives far better.
Cave – We’re often led to believe that getting older is in itself somehow a betrayal of our idealistic younger self, but sometimes I think it might be the other way around. Maybe the younger self finds it difficult to inhabit its true potential because it has no idea what that potential is. It is a kind of unformed thing running scared most of the time, frantically trying to build its sense of self – This is me! Here I am! – in any way that it can. But then time and life come along, and smash that sense of self into a million pieces. And then comes the reassembled self, the self YOU have to put back together. You no longer have to devote time to finding out what you are, you are just free to be whatever you want to be, unimpeded by the incessant needs of others. You somehow grow into the fullness of your humanity, form your own character, become a proper person – I don’t know, someone who has become a part of things, not someone separated from or at odds with the world.
O’Hagan – You mean you get old.
Cave – Yes, Sean, old and free!
This jumped out because it really chimed with the stuff I mentioned earlier about the creative purpose of Output Mode, which is to retroactively decipher the meaning of the work you’ve done. Over the course of the Edinburgh Fringe I came to terms with the realisation that the real meaning of my show Blink was not so dissimilar from Cave’s summing up of ageing here. It was a show built to consciously shatter my ego and dismantle the person I spent my youth hoping I was, or trying to be perceived as – someone impressive and exciting to behold and in control of his destiny and deserving of admiration – and find comfort in the person I am, someone prone to foolishness, to error, to failure, to all those things I mentioned above that go hand-in-hand with what it actually means to live a life in comedy. The aim was to find more happiness in that truth than the initial lie could ever have given me. Every day as I performed the final moments of that show, in my pants, dripping with sweat and pickle juice and reading about the Dalai Lama and Desmond Tutu whipping each other with towels having just pretended to shit myself while bellowing “Roxanne,” I felt such a wave of peace wash over me, and honestly, in a weird way, “growing into the fullness of your humanity” and “becoming a proper person” doesn’t sound too far away from how it felt, as preposterous as that might seem. People who don’t work in comedy often find it strange and ridiculous to hear how profound it feels to be stupid onstage, but it does feel at times like it gets in touch with something fundamentally human – the need to forgive ourselves for our mistakes, maybe. The need to give an audience licence to forgive themselves for theirs.
Next week perhaps I’ll dig a bit more into the other meanings that I found in the work I did this year as I move out of Output Mode, and perhaps look at some of the ideas I’m interested in exploring in the next cycle’s Input Mode, but this is long enough for one week! What do you guys think? Does your creative work tend to follow similar cycles? Are you taking in any interesting ideas at the moment that you think will fuel a new creative cycle? Let me hear all about them!
A Cool New Thing In Comedy – Just as Output Mode goes into its final death throes, I’ll use this section to plug something of my own one last time, because tonight the second episode of The Dream Factory goes out on Radio 4 at 11, and will be available subsequently on BBC Sounds. This week, Joz has to break into Anna’s head to retrieve a dream that shouldn’t be there…
What’s Made Me Laugh The Most – The bit in Episode 3 of Don’t Hug Me I’m Scared where the Duck asks a loaf of bread if it will be his family.
Book Of The Week – Faith, Hope And Carnage by Nick Cave and Sean O’Hagan, obvs.
Album Of The Week – YTILAER by Bill Callahan. Callahan’s in funny territory for me. Sometimes I Wish We Were An Eagle is an absolutely astonishing album, and every album of his I’ve listened to since is really nice, but struggles to reach the same heights for me. This is his new one, and is kind of the same thing again – it’s really nice to listen to, but nothing in it hits me in the stomach like that earlier album did. Worth a listen though!
Film Of The Week – Mrs Harris Goes To Paris. This film is outrageous. The title is not only silly, it is also a spoiler for the entirety of the film’s plot. Mrs Harris goes to Paris. That’s it. There’s a montage where she gets driven around Paris and points at things and says “Wow, look at that!” One of the only moments of jeopardy in the entire film is a scene where she oversleeps. I found the film so bafflingly plotless that I spent the entire final act worried that she was about to be murdered in a big twist (she wasn’t). If I found out that the whole screenplay was the work of an AI responding to a prompt consisting solely of the title, I would honestly not be surprised. Very nice film, though.
That’s all for this week! As ever, let me know what you think, and if you’ve enjoyed the newsletter and would like to send it to a friend or recommend others to subscribe, I’d hugely appreciate it! Catch you all next week, and take care of yourselves in the meantime,
PS Here’s a photo of a monkeypuzzle with socks on its branches.