Tuesday, 9 January 2018

Appearing to do two things while really doing neither

Sodajerker recently released an interview with Noel Gallagher. I am not a huge Oasis or Noel Gallagher fan, but you couldn't escape his music when I was a teenager - it was basically the soundtrack to life in Britain between about 1994 and 1997 - so I was still fascinated to hear his views on the creative process. 

He used a nice metaphor to describe the old principle that creativity is all about putting in the hours: he likens it to fishing - you may not catch a fish by fishing in the river every day, but you absolutely have to go to the river if you are going to catch one. Creativity isn't magical; it's time and effort, mostly.   

But the really interesting throwaway revelation was that a lot of his songwriting is done by noodling round on a guitar while watching TV with the sound turned way down. As I think he puts it (I don't have a transcript), to the untrained eye he is playing guitar while watching the TV. But actually he is doing neither. He is in a kind of fugue or flow state, waiting for something to hit him. When it eventually does, that's when the work begins and the actual songwriting starts.

I would not want to compare myself to somebody like Noel Gallagher, but I was struck by this because it is exactly the same thing I usually do - the TV is on in the background and I have a notepad in front of me jotting things down. I'm not really paying attention to the TV, and not really thinking hard about what's on the notepad. Something about that brain state results in a kind of tuned-down, out-of-focus blue-sky thinking that occasionally causes gold to flow out of you, and if you pay just enough attention you can catch hold of a handful of it and then get to work shaping it into something. In other words, doing two things in a half-arsed fashion allows you do to a third thing - come up with ideas - amazingly well.

I don't have an explanation for this, except to suggest that perhaps something about watching TV keeps part of your brain sufficiently distracted that it stops editing out some other part of your brain which is responsible for your imagination. If it's true, it supports the idea that the brain is essentially modular and part of being successful is the quest to herd those different modules into behaving in the ways in which you want them to. It's as good an excuse I can come up with for watching Homes Under the Hammer repeats on the Home Channel at 9 o'clock at night.


  1. Isn't that what David Lynch says he's doing? (his book actually being called Catching the Big Fish)

  2. sounds like a way to keep the rational part of the brain occupied while allowing the "creative" part to wander pastures new

  3. This is also a really good reason for helping people, half heartedly at least. You're not super invested in their project, but in the interface between the practical skills you know and this totally unrelated set of ideas, you can get something loose.

    Do they actually get helped? Depends, but at some point you get an idea that you realise is not really "for them", it's your idea for your stuff, so you pocket it away, and so, you've been creative.