Orchids were the repository of her dreams

One of the questions posed to me was how do I get inspired to write. I thought for anyone who really does want to know the answer, it would be useful to share the text from my professorial lecture.

I presented a critical analysis of the creative process in 2015 when I officially took up the honour of becoming Visiting Professor of Media, Strategy and Communications at the award winning University of Huddersfield.

Might be worth boiling the kettle and settling down with a cuppa and some hobnobs...

A blank sheet of paper. A computer screen, blinking faintly with light. A pen in hand. Fingertips poised at the key board.

There's a book by Jon McGregor I love called 'So many ways to begin...' and I feel exactly like this today. I have to choose somewhere. So I'm choosing here. The beginning.

In the creative process, the beginning is always somewhere slightly out of reach. And that's because there is an infinite number of complex variations in stimuli; and an infinite number of complex variations in the way different stimuli provoke a response. My job today is to show you how these stimuli play their part in inspiring creative thinking across disciplines.

Take a simple thought. Nearly everything you do in life requires a choice to be made. Think about it - from the deeply prosaic such as where to sit on the bus - or where you're sitting right now... what to study, what to order off a menu. To the more philosophical such as as what you want to do with your life, what are the things that make you happy.

We are each of us conscious of our consciousness - we have emotions, perceptions, assumptions, thoughts. But so much of it happens automatically. We rarely take the time to stop and think about what's really going on inside. So many of the choices we make are processed so quickly we scarcely have time to realise that's what we've done. You could say we live much of our lives without thinking.

Lesson one - inspiration can come from anywhere.
The author, poet and civil rights activist Maya Angelou said: "We delight in the beauty of the butterfly, but rarely admit the changes it has gone through to achieve that beauty."

Metamorphosis is fundamental to creativity; and the interplay between the mind and the stimuli it discovers is vital to the process.

You may not be familiar with the work of the English philosopher Gilbert Ryle, but his 1949 book 'The Concept of the Mind' gave birth to a wonderful phrase that I am sure you are familiar with and helps us think about the way the mind works. He argues against the metaphysical philosophy of Descartes, who maintained that the mind is an entirely distinct entity, a central tenet of Cartesian logic.

Descartes thought of the mind as a mental substance, if you like - elevating thinking to a higher plane than all other matter and seeing as separate the mechanics of the mind to the material substance of everything else. Ryle disputed this entirely and labelled this type of dualism the dogma of the 'Ghost in the Machine'. He ridiculed the notion that the immaterial mind was somehow inhabiting the physical body, controlling the cockpit of what makes us flesh and blood. Ryle said: "The dogma of the Ghost in the Machine... maintains that there exist both bodies and minds; that there occur physical processes and mental processes; that there are mechanical causes of corporeal movements and mental causes of corporeal movements".

The Ghost in the Machine is an irresistible concept. It conjures up images of dystopia and powerlessness. It makes you think of artificial intelligence and the disconnect between self-determination and destiny.

If there is a Ghost in the Machine it is far more integrated than that. Instinct and gut response governs much of our decision making and our thinking. And this is where the role of stimulus comes in. Sometimes it can be overt and obvious. Other times subliminal and invisible.

Let's start with the overt.

As it happens, 'The Ghost in the Machine' is a 1967 book by Arthur Koestler aswell. He ripped the phrase straight out of Ryle's philosophy. Sting's band The Police called their 1981 album 'Ghost in the Machine' after the concept. The X-Files had an episode called The Ghost in the Machine. The phrase featured in the brilliant 1985 film Brazil; and referenced in the 2004 film 'I, Robot' based on the extraordinary short stories of Isaac Asimov. And this year, for fans of the TV show Humans, the eagle eyed among you might have spotted that one of the characters was pictured reading The Ghost in the Machine. In fact, I've hunted down more than twenty examples in songs, TV shows, films and video games where the phrase features. Oh, and in the annals of future history, you might find a reference to it in a lecture that was once given at the University of Huddersfield.

Plagiarism or inspiration? I'd argue the latter. Take something and make it yours. I am an inveterate magpie, collecting bits and pieces and thoughts and phrases and trinkets to store in my mind. Sometimes I wilfully and deliberately rummage around in great lierature, films and music, snatching cadences and rhythms and poetic treasures. Interesting nuggets, facts, curios, keepsakes and brain food. I was trained as a journalist and in my view, the core qualification you need is simply curiosity. But I didn't get trained in curiosity. It's just something that drives me and fires me every day of my life. From the minute I get up in the morning, to the moment I go to bed, the world is a kinaesthetic tsunami of the senses. I often scribble down things I have noticed or overheard. Public transport is brilliant for inspiration. You never know when something you hear, read or see might prompt something in you. The author of His Dark Materials Philip Pullman said “I have stolen ideas from every book I have ever read."

A few years ago, I read an editorial in the Observer which lamented that there wasn't enough being done to help children deal with the problems they face. It made me think. And stop. And think. I realised I wasn't really very sure WHAT problems children face. So I decided to find out. At the time, I was running the original journalism part of BBC News which was a department called News Specials. I got my team calling all of the children's charities to try to test what the key issues were facing children today. A few key themes emerged - some of them painfully worrying. I wanted to find out more. And I reasoned, if I was interested, there was a good chance the public might be, too.

We ran a comprehensive survey with A&E departments across the country to investigate further the phenomenon of children being treated for alcoholism. We uncovered instances of primary school children as young as six being admitted with alcohol poisoning.

We found out that anorexia in boys is surprisingly common, but hardly ever discussed. One of society's last taboos. Somehow it's ok for girls to have body image problems, but virtually inconceivable that a boy would fret about his weight and develop a mental illness as a consequence.

And we learned that self harming is a compulsion and symptom of mental illness that affects thousands of our children.

We made some films to help highlight these issues, using the opportunity to showcase the places help was available and to tell the stories of young people facing heartbreaking, largely hidden problems. In the circular way of these things, we found the series spotlit in the press, generating a national debate and winning awards. I hope also at the crux of it that it might have helped raise awareness and made a difference to some children's lives.

You can see how an entire creative cycle spun into action all because one person read one line that one another person wrote. That one line ignited something in me, and generated a question which lead to an enquiry which lead to debate. Whether the world is a better place as a result I honestly don't know - but the point I am making here is that creative stimulus can come from anywhere and lead to anything. You just have to have the curiosity to explore the unexplored. This is an example of how the role of stimulus can be far more subliminal and invisible.

I'd like to know how many people here today Googled the quoted phrase in the subject of my lecture? "Orchids were the repository of her dreams"? For anyone that did, you will have found the source a little surprising I think.

What do we suppose? Keats? Byron? Maybe something from F Scott Fitzgerald? A line from a haiku? A nugget from Alain de Botton?

None of those things, although they might well have been. I came across this phrase and cut it out and kept it because it touched me deeply. I loved the orchestration of the wording, the profound sense of longing innate to the thought. The delicacy and yet richness of the language. I liked the exquisite nostalgia it espouses.

Ok, I'll come clean. I found this phrase in the response to a question sent in to an agony column. Mariella Frostrup - the Observer's agony aunt - was helping someone who was concerned that her mother was being treated badly by family members. The phrase 'orchids were the repository of her dreams' lifted off the page for me. The sadness of the situation was apparent. But the beauty of the language caught me and inspired me. I am an omnivorous collector of life's literary bagatelles and knick-knacks.

When I write poetry and fiction I draw on muscle memory of reading the writers who I love. And as I've shown, those writers could be anywhere, writing about anything. I don't ever seek to replicate or even overtly to pay homage to the authors I have loved, but inevitably there is an influence that pervades who I am and what I create. I am a product of my experience. All the wondrous, delightful, awe-inspiring experiences of my life to all the difficult, heartbreaking ones.

Seeing the aurora borealis with my own eyes - lighting up the sky with a cosmic magic like nothing I have seen before - touched me on a deep, emotional level I could never have predicted. I felt atavistically connected to the ancestors of this earth, and found myself wondering how they would have interpreted the cacophony of fluorescence. What would ancient peoples of ancient civilizations think? As a storyteller, I wanted to imagine myself in the place of our forefathers, making sense of the heavenly light show. I experienced it with my mind and my body and have the memory locked away and yet accessible whenever I want to capture wonder and mystery in my own writing. I may or may not overtly dip into my aurora borealis file, but I am hardwired to draw on the magic I felt.

Hearing Benedictus from The Armed Man by Karl Jenkins for the first time and finding myself profoundly moved and stilled by it, I wanted to channel that inner calm and peace and serenity and file it somewhere. It's not as ordered as this, but I feel the Ghost in my Machine is an archivist of curios. They are latent and quiet most of the time, barely there. But present and living, breathing, waiting to be activated.

I promised you a critical analysis of the creative process. And next I want to explore whether creativity can be learned, or taught.

Lesson two - anyone can be creative.
The surrealist artist Salvador Dali said: 'Have no fear of perfection, you'll never achieve it.' A comforting thought, and a liberating one. Particularly when we are discussing the creative process.

Fundamentally, it's important we have a shared understanding of what we mean by creativity, of what we mean by being creative. Too often in my experience, people confuse this with being artistic. And sometimes some of the most creative people are indeed artistic. However, some of the most creative thinkers I know declare that they are not creative, sometimes wistfully wishing they were. This is not false modesty in the majority of cases. It's a misalignment of the meaning. They are confusing the artistic creation of something with the creation of something. They will tell you they can't play an instrument, or draw, or write. So they're not creative.

But you know they can interpret complex mathematical patterns, or see beauty in clouds, or enjoy the storytelling of a film or a book. Be touched and inspired. Solve complex problems, brilliantly. Respond with agility and alacrity to perplexing puzzles.

So let's step away from the idea of being artistic and - to paraphrase the French writer Theophile Gautier who coined the phrase 'l'art pour l'art' - art for art's sake - let's step into the concept of creativity for creativity's sake. And part of exploring creativity is exploring how to think.

Let's play a game. A game about interpretation. Imagine for a moment you read the phrase: "I did not say he killed his mother."

Pretty straightforward, no?

Other than that this simple phrase can demonstrate how seven different people could read it in seven different ways. You don't believe me?

1. "I did not say he killed his mother."
2. "I did not say he killed his mother."
3. "I did not say he killed his mother."
4. "I did not say he killed his mother."
5. "I did not say he killed his mother."
6. "I did not say he killed his mother."
7. "I did not say he killed his mother."

And the moral of this story is that communicating clearly is vital, wherever you are and whatever you do. And that each and every person will bring their own interpretation to the things you say, do and write because each and every person comes with their own context, their own assumptions. You could argue that a characteristic of creativity is the ability to look at things from all the angles. Lateral thinking.

If we go back to Descartes, and another piece of Cartesian logic, you can see how the simple art of asking good questions can help stimulate the mind. Frameworks can be incredibly useful in helping unlock potential and progress. I am a qualified Executive Coach and during the training - along with learning the fundamentals of the key disciplines of psychology - we learn both how to ask questions and how to listen. Let's look at the first of these - how to ask questions.

Work with me for a moment. I'd like you to think about something you're considering doing. A choice you are having to make. It could be something straightforward like - shall I do the shopping before or after lunch on Saturday? Or it could be something a little more existential like deciding whether or not to take a job you've been offered. Got one? Ok good.

Now in your mind, I'd like you to think through the answer to this question:

1. What would happen if you did?

Now let's think through the inverse:

2. What would happen if you didn't?

And let's explore the converse:

3. What won't happen if you did?

And now for the hardest but possibly most interesting question. It's a bit of a mind-bender and is known as the 'non mirror image reverse' for those of you who like your jargon.

4. Here we go: what won't happen if you didn't?

You can see how exploring what is essentially the same question from differing angles can open up new ways of thinking which take you into new places. Usually by doing this you can challenge people about the assumptions they are making and the perspectives they are bringing to bear. I believe strongly in Henry Ford's maxim: “Whether you think you can, or you think you can't--you're right.” Helping people see the plethora of possibility helps unleash their creativity and their potential.

Another of my favourites is to simply ask people - 'what if the opposite were true?'. It forces them to think something through they wouldn't have otherwise. Sometimes we are burdened by our own expertise; or perceptions of what is being asked, or an assumption that we know the answer. Reframing the question and exploring unexpected angles is a way to inspire creative thinking in people who fear they aren't creative. An authority no less than Dr Seuss, author of Green Eggs and Ham and The Cat in the Hat, said: “Think left and think right and think low and think high. Oh, the thinks you can think up if only you try”.

An example of this is the humble ATM. An every day enough occurrence on the High Street; and something we take for granted. Wherever we travel all over the globe we now have the ability, 24 hours a day, to access our money. But the ATM came about almost accidentally. Market research had shown that customers wished banks were open longer and at weekends. A wish that the banks decided was too costly to deliver return on investment. But the market research hadn't drilled down to ask the right question. What was the essence of what customers wanted? Did they really want banks to be open significantly longer? What did they need them for? Ultimately, the need was to access cash, not to have access to a bank teller. So a means to enable customers to access cash was needed - hence the ATM was born. An accidental idea.

Uber is the cab firm that doesn't have any cabs, brought about by the frustration of a businessman unable to flag down a cab in Paris after a conference. Travis Kalanick set about solving the problem of cabs being unreliably available - and now his concept is so successful some think it's threatening not just the traditional taxi set-up but the future of the automotive industry. This serendipitous idea is now worth $50 billion.

Airbnb is the company that solved a problem accidentally. The founder, Joe Gebbia, wanted to start a business but was struggling to pay the rent. He didn't have a concept for a start-up but read about a temporary shortage of hotel rooms in the area and thought to get through the next month he would see if anyone would want to pay to stay on his spare air bed. This accidental idea has turned into a global phenomenon, transforming the way the travel industry operates and inspiring a feeling of belonging in travellers around the world. This accidental idea is now worth $20 billion.

At the heart of all of these examples is the ability to think left and think right, and think low and think high.

Can anyone offer me an answer to this riddle? A donkey is tied to a rope 10 feet long. Fifteen feet away is a bale of hay and a trough of water. Assuming the donkey is unable to bite through the rope or unknot it, how can he get to the hay and the water?

It's interesting to think about what assumptions we bring to bear on a question like that. We naturally assume the rope is tied to something, even though that was not explicitly stated. In fact, the donkey is tied to a rope, but the rope is not tethered to anything. So as soon as the donkey feels hungry or thirsty it can stroll over and have some supper.

Along a similar vein is another example from the Mind Gym, a really fantastic organisation that uses insights from psychology to help people be the best they can be. They pose the following question:

'A man is driving a black car on a blackened road without street lights and without headlights on his car. A black cat crosses the road right in front of his car and still he is able to apply brakes to save the cat. How come?'

The answer lies in our innate desire to impose assumptions on situations. We hear the word black a few times and naturally assume we are talking about something that happened in the pitch black of night. But the time of day was never mentioned in the question, and in fact the car was driving along on a bright sunny day so visibility was not a problem.

HAL the computer in Arthur C Clarke's collaboration with Stanley Kubrick, A Space Odyssey, had his beginnings according to conventional wisdom in the world's then most omnipotent computer company, IBM. Skip a letter along from IBM and you get HAL. These things aren't accidental, are they? Officially it stood for Heuristically programmed ALgorithmic computer of course. But reflect on the bathos of a thinking machine running a spaceship and you get the social commentary and irony. We assume the name HAL was a clever device dreamed up to reinforce the theme of the movie - the story fits. Only it doesn't take much digging to discover both Arthur C Clarke and Stanley Kubrick refuted the claims and went so far as to say they would have changed HAL's name if only they had spotted the coincidence.

When I am running creative brainstorms, I often ask people to imagine what would the answer be if someone else was doing the thinking. So if I am working with a team of people from, say, a financial services industry, I might ask them to examine their problem through a different lens. What would Google do? How would Apple tackle this? If there were no constraints, what would we do?

You can see I hope what I mean by lesson two - anyone can be creative. You just have to challenge yourself to park your assumptions and learn to look at problems from a variety of angles. Applying techniques like this can loosen and free the most conservative of minds and teach anyone to think laterally, solve problems, and apply creativity. It's not easy, but it is possible. Don't just take it from me. Albert Einstein knew a thing or two about this stuff, and he said: 'To raise new questions, new possibilities, to regard old problems from a new angle, requires creative imagination and marks real advance in science.'

Lesson three - breaking rules is ok. Sometimes.
The Dalai Lama is known for a bit of free thinking and his liberal attitude. He said: "Know the rules well, so you can break them effectively.”

I completely agree.

The most extraordinary exhibition I have ever seen was Alexander McQueen’s “Savage Beauty” earlier this year at the V&A, the Victoria and Albert Museum. One of the creative highlights of my life. It wasn't just the stunning fashion, the compelling use of mood and music, the staging and the macabre beauty of the exhibits. It was the sense of journey. You got to see how Alexander McQueen had learned his craft working in bespoke tailoring, creating exquisite, finely tuned garments that were nothing short of perfection. He learned his techniques, he respected the rules, he became a master of his art. Then he began to deconstruct what he had learned, and started to free himself of the inhibitions of the craft. What he did with that was utterly breathtaking.

There were several quotes from him throughout the exhibition, and this one stayed with me: 'You've got to know the rules to break them. That's what I'm here for, to demolish the rules but to keep the tradition.'

I lived and worked in Paris in my year abroad while reading Modern Languages at the University of Oxford. Lots of memories flooding back this weekend of course, in the light of Friday’s terrible attacks. Back then, I spent all my spare time going to see old film noir movies and making the most of the Pariscope recommendations of the week, hungering after as much culture and creativity as I could afford. Two exhibitions in particular from that part of my life resonated with me for similar reasons. Firstly, the Picasso gallery. Like the Alexander McQueen, it took you on a chronological journey from his boyhood mastery of sketching through his painting and sculpture through all his artistic periods and muses. Seeing how he had learned the rules of perspective, and all the techniques in his media, threw into sharp relief the accomplishment and talent of the man who went on to bravely create works of art the world was hardly ready for. Picasso himself said: 'Learn the rules like a pro, so you can break them like an artist.' Bravo to that.

The other exhibition I remember fondly was the Givenchy. He was the designer who dressed Audrey Hepburn - and on display were scores of outfits he had created for her. The delicious breadth of the designs was sublime. The cut and fit and fabric - all of it took my breath away. The sheer craftsmanship was exquisite. Givenchy said: 'The dress must follow the body of a woman, not the body following the shape of the dress.' I loved that - it seemed such a fresh and modern take on design to me, even back then. And sadly for me it was rather a long time ago - 1991-1992 was my year in Paris. Extra poignant to think about that after this weekend’s events.

And that brings me onto the KISS principle. First of all, a quote from the Queen, who acknowledging the significance of the discipline of our Vice-Chancellor Professor Bob Cryan, said: "At its heart, engineering is about using science to find creative, practical solutions. It is a noble profession."

Problem solving is intrinsic to the creative process, and learning how to optimise your ideation will lead you to more effective results.

The KISS principle is a manifestation of 'Occam's razor' - which is sometimes known as the principle of 'parsimony' and in essence is all about shaving off any unnecessary assumptions from any given theory. This can come into play at times of speculation around crop circles or UFO sightings or various conspiracy theories. It tries to encourage a mindset whereby we should not seek complicated, convoluted explanations for things when a simpler one will do. It doesn't claim the simpler one is definitely correct, purely that on the balance of probability, it is more likely to be correct.

The theory can also come into play in the field of creative problem solving, with engineering and computer programming a case in point. There can be a tendency towards complexity and over-specification. We've all seen this - when you buy a new device and it has dozens of applications you never use and never intend using. For some reason, problem solvers can be compelled to make things ever more complicated when creating their solutions. In its purest form, Apple products can work so well simply because of the simplicity of the design and the intuitive nature of the user experience. In practice, even Apple have lost sight of this goal and it's a rare product that does, simply, what it says on the tin.

The KISS principle I referred to is the mantra those that do it well stick to: 'Keep It Simple, Stupid'. Music to my ears as for a few years I was in charge of the corporate simplification of the BBC, and I can tell you tackling the legacy systems, processes, structures and layers of the BBC is no easy task.

Dealing in disruption is becoming the new normal for start-ups and scale-ups across Britain and around the world. Breaking free of the constraints of the unexpected is revolutionising industries from textiles to publishing. On the former, I was fortunate enough to be at the Duke of York's Pitch at the Palace 4.0 event at St James's Palace the other day. This is an initiative aimed at fostering entrepreneurialism in the UK and brings together some of the most creative, innovative thinkers who have business ideas to pitch with some of the world's most influential investors and connectors. It's a truly extraordinary affair, and the last few Pitches have led to some dramatic results for both people who won investment and others who were lucky enough to get connected with just the right influencer to make all the difference. This time around, a company called UNMADE won with their KNYTTAN concept - a fantastic idea which takes the knitting out of knitting. Machines can be programmed to create knitwear to virtually any design dreamed up by the customer. They then 3D print the garments. The whole process takes about ninety minutes. You end up with a knitted item that was printed – not knitted - into being.

I also mentioned revolutionising industries like publishing. First we had Amazon smashing price points and eliminating borders, providing convenience, cheaply, and products people want to read. Then the Kindle and other e-readers swept onto the scene, meaning for some it's an end to suitcases stuffed with heavy books on holiday and a new freedom to read anything and everything they like on public transport with no fear of being judged. Fans of 50 Shades of Grey, fill your boots. It's a zero sum game these days and fast becoming unnecessary in some instances to create adult friendly covers for young reader successes like Harry Potter and the Hunger Games.

You've heard of Kickstarter. The world's largest funding platform of its kind - with a mission to help bring creative projects to life. From Pebble to Spike Lee to Neil Young and Broken Age - success stories as inspiring as they are revolutionary.

Also ushering in a new dawn is Unbound - the crowdfunding publishing platform which promises to put books into the hands of readers. Digital disruption in action, rules being broken left, right and centre - with extraordinary results. One of their books - The Wake by Paul Kingsnorth - was longlisted for the Man Booker prize 2014 and won The Bookseller Industry Book of the Year 2015. Everyone from Shaun Usher to Sue Black to Katy Brand have chosen to work with them.

If you're someone who loves a good read, visiting the Unbound website is a real treat. Current projects include a journey into the four ingredients of beer; a new album - that's a book; the stories behind criminal mugshots; the hidden silly side of higher education; a Viking adventure fantasy novel and an anthology of writing on asylum seekers. My own novel, SEAS OF SNOW, was selected for publication earlier in the Summer too, and I am thrilled to let you know that my book was the second fastest fiction book to get fully funded in the history of the site. The photograph we used to illustrate it, shown here, is by Eugene Smith, and was one of the inspirations of the book. When I was living in Paris, I bought a book called ‘Memoires d’Enfance’, and this picture was on the front cover. The images of the children had nagged at my mind for years.

My psychological thriller may or may not be your cup of tea, but if you're a book person and haven't discovered Unbound yet, I'd urge you to take a look. You could help an author get their ideas onto bookshelves. As Unbound would say, books are now in your hands. My book will be in bookshelves next year, I am told, and Unbound are collaborating with Penguin Random House on the sales and marketing of it. Wish me luck...

So in summary at this point I would say - learn the rules, master the rules, consider how you might enhance what you are creating by deviating from the rules - and have a purity and simplicity of idea. Only consider breaking the rules when you have become a master craftsman of your art. Whether that's engineering or embroidery. But channel that spirit of disruption, and experiment all along the way.

Lesson four - storytelling isn't painting by numbers, but there are some tricks to it.

The singer songwriter Ed Sheeran said: "The thing that I took away as an early fan of Bob Dylan was the storytelling aspects. He can tell some wicked stories."

I was lucky enough a couple of weeks ago to go and see Bob Dylan perform at the Royal Albert Hall. I have always admired his storytelling abilities, too, particularly because of the enigma and poetry of his work. There's a kind of creative liberation in his songs, a freedom of thought. Years ago, I had been struck to read about his creative process. It's fairly well documented so I won't go into great detail here, but he described the origin of 'Like a Rolling Stone' as "vomit".

What he was getting at was that he had experienced something a bit like automatic writing, where he splurged about twenty pages of material down in one go back in 1966. This splurge was exactly that - no structure or rhyme or meaning. But Bob went back to it and edited out the bits he felt worked and moulded it into the shape it became.

And curiously, given we have been talking about the Ghost in the Machine, Bob Dylan told an interviewer in 2004: "It's like a ghost is writing a song like that. It gives you the song and it goes away, it goes away. You don't know what it means. Except the ghost picked me to write the song".

Earlier when talking about one of the central tenets of the creative process, I spent some time talking about the vital role of stimulus. Everything comes from somewhere, and Bob Dylan's song is a case in point. His inspiration was the Hank Williams song 'Lost Highway' which had a line in it 'I'm a rolling stone, I'm alone and lost' which in turn was inspired by the proverb: 'a rolling stone gathers no moss'. This humble proverb also - and separately by the way - inspired Muddy Waters when the American blues musician penned his song 'Rollin' Stone' based on the idea - and it was the Muddy Waters track which inspired the naming of both Rolling Stone magazine and that little known rock band you might not have heard of: The Rolling Stones. So much inspiration from one somewhat innocuous phrase. But it's an alluring one on some level - the concept of a free entity, free of commitments, free of obligations, free of responsibility. But also lacking roots, status and home. A powerful metaphor which captured the imagination of rock royalty and sustains today.

When we think about whether storytelling is an art or a science, we have to accept that for many writers, automatic writing is a fact of life. I have to admit that when I put my story scaffolding in place, my framework for the narrative, the rest just comes to me. I have never had to ponder what to call a character, they always arrive fully formed in my head. The story writes itself and I am a fascinated bystander watching it unfold. In terms of technique, I go back and revise and I edit, of course, imposing rigour and discipline on what I have written and hopefully making it the best it can be. But one thing I am certain of - and that is everything comes from somewhere.

I wrote on my Unbound blog about this recently and wanted to share with you here today the way I described it:

"Several people have been asking me about how I find the time to write. The truth is, I'm writing in my head nearly all the time. And all the experiences of my life, the things I see, the things I hear, taste, breathe in... All these things meld into a tapestry in my mind - so when I put pen to paper I often scarcely recognise the inspiration, but there's muscle memory there which infuses my writing and my ideas.

Sometimes it's more explicit, with a story or a poem prompting directly from a chapter in my life."

I then shared a poem which I had written inspired by the time I was working with Cambridgeshire Police while in charge of the BBC News coverage of a high profile case. This was also the case that inspired my interest in the mind and motives of a psychopath which lead to me writing Seas of Snow. I wanted to share it with you here today. I should also say, I felt very emotional when I wrote it and it still makes me feel sad today. It's called Lakenheath:

They walk in blackness

Coal tar damp

Straggles of straw

Remnants fractured

Silent screams pierce the birdsong

Ancient leaves fold in, protecting

I watch your shape, entwined eternal

Primitive stasis

Pearl bone light

You two now one

Melted together

The chill breeze lingering

Above your skull faces

Overhead, an aeroplane flies by


But noiseful in its intrusion

Your bodies resting, now

Soft into the ground

Soil still scorched

Like you

I watch the quiet unfold

Over you and in you

Stygian in its stealth

I think about the man who did this to you

And my blood black purple screech stops

I watch your stillness settle 

As the night of all your tomorrows descends

I see your twinness

Feel your light

Angels breathe over you

Your blackness walks

A thousand hearts cry.
When you write something like that, the emotion takes over and all you want to do is convey the visceral reactions and responses you feel, so that you can bring it to life for others. It's pretty dark as poetry goes - but I hope it illustrates the point that when it comes to story, so much of it is art rather than science.

Having said that, as per the lesson - there are tips and tricks you can do which don't give you the perfect formula for story success, but do help put you in the right direction.

1. The first is to create a compelling opener. Keep your audience hooked.

2. Introduce an element of jeopardy, but follow a structure. Every story needs a beginning, a middle and an end.

3. Put your audience first. Whoever they are, ensure what you do speaks in their language and resonates with and for them.

4. Where possible, keep it simple. Draw people in but remember KISS - don't overcomplicate it and Keep It Simple, Stupid.

5. A blunt, simplistic rule of thumb from the TV world – play to human drivers. If you have men in your audience, make sure you drip feed nuggets of information. Of course both men and women like to be feeling they are being informed, but extensive research shows this tends to be the primary driver for men. If you have women in your audience, ensure there is warmth and emotion in what you do. Again, of course men appreciate warmth and emotion, but the research shows this tends to be the primary driver for women.

I also wanted at this point to share a real-world segment from an email I wrote a couple of weekends ago to a campaign executive who works with me at Seven Hills. I shall spare his blushes as I was trying to help him get to the next level with his writing because he had struggled when trying to put together a blog. This is what I said:

"Your blog was a very decent first effort at this sort of thing and I think you have lots of potential.

I would encourage you to read newspaper and online articles through a new prism: starting from this weekend, start reading to see not only what is being said in terms of 'information' but in storytelling terms as an engagement mechanism. How do different writers hook in the reader? How do they position the top line of the story? How have they made you feel one bit of the story is more important than another part? Which bits are colour and atmosphere, which bits are facts and figures? What's the ratio between quotes and observations?

All writers are nuanced in the way they tackle these things because we are all subjective beings. But all good writers apply the same basic framework principles - all good stories have a beginning, a middle and an end. Great stories find a way to link the beginning with the end. Good newspaper and online articles always have some salient quotes to bring elements of the story to life in someone's own words. Very rarely do you get pure commentary unless it's a piece of analysis written for a column rather than a piece of reporting.

The more you start reading using the power of observation, the quicker (by osmosis) the great techniques others use will start to infiltrate your work. Through time you will develop your own narrative voice, but don't rush that. For now, concentrate on learning the principles of great storytelling by teaching yourself - see what works and what doesn't. What leaves you hungry for information, what leaves you feeling overwhelmed with background nonsense but nothing useful and interesting. What draws you in and keeps you reading? What are the things you are glad you were told? What are the things you thought were superfluous or boring?

The best writers read all the time because it's the equivalent of doing scales when learning an instrument or going training and developing cardio stamina or strength when you're an athlete."

I went on to ask him to put his hand up next time a blog needed writing so that we'd get him back in the saddle quickly.

This was all about writing, obviously, but I also think it applies to all creative endeavours across all disciplines. The more you absorb of the people you admire who do it well, the more you will learn. You can take this principle to science as easily as you can to the arts. Learning from the mistakes of others, keeping abreast of recent research, building on what has gone before and having a healthy appreciation of trial and error is vital to progress. Although the oft-quoted 10,000 hours of practice theory has been derided over recent years - I am a strong believer in working hard and keeping at it, whatever 'it' is.

Steven Spielberg said something very important about this, which brings together two of the key tenets of my theory about the creative process. The first is although it is far more an art than a science, there are indeed certain formulae we can use which work. The second is that whatever we create, whether it's an accounting spreadsheet; or an opera; or a beautiful bouquet for a company's foyer; or a part that will help power Tim Peake onto the International Space Station next month, everything has an audience, a customer, a user, a reader, a listener, a consumer. Spielberg said: 'The most amazing thing for me is that every single person who sees a movie, not necessarily one of my movies, brings a whole set of unique experiences. Now, through careful manipulation and good storytelling, you can get everybody to clap at the same time, to hopefully laugh at the same time, and to be afraid at the same time.'

Lesson five - you really are mind-bending. Use it.
For lesson five I am going to first share a quote with you, then tell you the story of the woman who said it. "Our minds have the incredible capacity to both alter the strength of connections among neurons, essentially rewiring them, and create entirely new pathways. (It makes a computer, which cannot create new hardware when its system crashes, seem fixed and helpless).”

The amazing woman who said this was Susannah Cahalan, a New York based reporter who woke up one day aged 24 strapped to a hospital bed with no sense of where she was or what she was doing there. Suffering extreme psychotic episodes and delusions, she was eventually diagnosed and treated. She ended up writing an extraordinary book called 'Brain on Fire' about her experiences which chronicled her fight with and recovery from a rare autoimmune disease called anti NMDA-receptor encephalitis.

She learned first hand about the neuro-plasticity of the mind. I first came across it during my training to be an Executive Coach. I found the concept genuinely mind blowing - that it's possible to re-programme the brain, to change some of the hardwiring that makes us think in certain ways. Coaching - and other forms of therapy - are brilliant at helping people re-frame the way they think about things and transforming the potential and the outlook of millions.

Say for example you think you are rubbish at maths. Which in my case is what I've always thought. The feeling and perception that drives you to believe this will have been engrained into you by someone or something and gradually over time becomes part of the truth of the narrative that defines you. What's going on in neurological terms is simple to understand if you think of it like a corn field.

The first time you think a thought or conceive a belief, it will be like Russell Crowe in Gladiator strolling through the cornfield, gently caressing the fronds of the plants. The next time, it starts becoming a slightly better worn track. Each and every time you revisit that thought, the track develops a shape and permanence, until it becomes a lane, then a road, then a motorway. In time, that motorway is part of the architecture of your brain and will never go away.

What neuroplasticity allows you to do, however, is close that motorway down for good, and start a new, fresh track in the cornfield. It's called 're-framing'. Most people need to be coached to achieve it as it's quite hard to do on your own, but the essence of it is finding a phrase or way of looking at something that is authentic, true to you, accurate. But also different in tone and nature.

In my case, it's completely true that I am rubbish at maths. I am hopeless at mental arithmetic, I struggled with calculus and long division and adding and subtracting in base 12 with the 24 hour clock at school.

However, what I am NOT rubbish at is understanding logic and sequencing. I can see patterns and shapes and join dots in creative ways with mathematical constructs. So what I need to do is re-think the overarching, damning declaration that I am rubbish at maths, and find a truth that I am comfortable with so I can slap the 'road closed' sign on my motorway.

In my case, part of my training was to be a guinea pig for the technique myself. So I did find a way to re-think this particular limiting belief - and now I don't feel crippled with anxiety when trying to add things up in my head - and failing, coming to the conclusion I'm completely rubbish. Instead, I accept that mental arithmetic isn't my forte, who cares - that's what my iPhone calculator is for. I celebrate the fact I am good at computational thinking, which is actually a more valuable skill considering even computers can't think (yet!). Don't tell HAL.

The reason I bring all this up is because for the creative process to reach its potential, human beings need to play to their strengths and free themselves of the shackles of their limiting beliefs. And I believe they can.

I took my own learning further and trained as an MBTI - that's Myers Briggs Type Indicator - practitioner. This deepened my understanding of different natural preferences among people - and helps you understand why some people dilly-dally and meander through tasks and others are very methodical. Why some people feel energised after talking to lots of other people, and others feel drained. Why some people follow the step by step instructions of an IKEA flat pack, and others dive straight in and make it up. Why some are more naturally prone to ideate and brainstorm and think in terms of possibilities, comfortable with ambiguity; and others are more naturally prone to needing empirical data to make informed choices.

All this stuff is absolutely fascinating and for me, provides a cornerstone of the creative process. The better we understand our own preferences, the way our brains work, the higher planes of potential we can reach.

If we reflect for a moment on the lessons I have gone through, I hope this offers a critical and strategic analysis of the creative process which might be useful.

Lesson one - inspiration can come from anywhere.
Lesson two - anyone can be creative.
Lesson three - breaking rules is ok. Sometimes.
Lesson four - storytelling isn't painting by numbers, but there are some tricks to it.
Lesson five - you really are mind-bending. Use it.

I mentioned at the start, that I felt my core qualification was curiosity. It's the Ghost in my Machine. And one of the most influential Ad Men of the 20th century, Leo Burnett, said “Curiosity about life in all of its aspects, I think, is still the secret of great creative people”.

And I think Jim Jarmusch in MovieMaker Magazine put it well when he said: "Nothing is original. Steal from anywhere that resonates with inspiration or fuels your imagination. Devour old films, new films, music, books, paintings, poems, dreams, random conversations, architecture, bridges, street signs, trees, clouds, bodies of water, light and shadows. Select only things to steal from that speak directly to your soul. If you do this, your work (and theft) will be authentic. Authenticity is invaluable; originality is non-existent. And don’t bother concealing your thievery - celebrate it if you feel like it. In any case, always remember what Jean-Luc Godard said: “It’s not where you take things from - it’s where you take them to."

And with that, I shall close with a question which is in the last paragraph of Jon McGregor's book 'So many ways to begin.' One of the characters looks at another, and asks, simply "What do you want to do now?". So that's my question to you. "What do you want to do now?".

Thank you for listening.
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Published on February 12, 2017 05:06
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