How long can you stomach ‘Creative Pain’?

Alex Busson
Oct 1, 2018 · 4 min read
“men's white dress shirt” by Raj Eiamworakul on Unsplash

Much of your creative success comes down to how you handle anxiety. How long can you live with a creative problem? Can you stare it in the face and toy with it — long enough to find the answer?

Frank Capra came out the theatre squirming:

“Oh God, we’re doomed. They’re gonna crush us. We’re all gonna die.”

He had just watched Leni Riefenstahl’s The Triumph of the Will.

It was a masterpiece of propaganda to promote the might of Nazi Germany. Riefenstahl’s film had all the usual Nazi stuff; endless goose-stepping armies, parades of artillery, swastikas flying high. But think how Capra felt seeing those images for the first time.

Now he had to direct a picture for the allied side. Something that’d get America energised for war. It seemed like an advertisement for suicide.

It’s difficult to imagine just how bad the situation was by 1940. Nazi Germany had engulfed virtually all of Western Europe. Below that was fascist Italy, fascist Spain and neutral Switzerland. Even Britain was ready to capitulate. (Were it not for one man, Winston Churchill, they probably would have.)

It was a crisis for the world. A creative problem for Frank Capra. And the stakes had never been higher.

Yet all creative problems, I’ve found, instil this awful sense of doom.

David Ogilvy, the great 20th Century adman, said he never sat to write an ad without thinking: ‘I am going to fail.’

That pain and uncertainty never goes away. So much of your creativity depends on how you handle these emotions.

And I have to admit, this is still my biggest weakness. I’ve been in a creative career for almost 10 years. My anxiety is sometimes so bad, it becomes physically painful.

I lay on the floor while my wife presses down on my chest. “Breathe in deep,” she says. “Now breathe out.”

I want to relax, but how can I?

The problem feels insurmountable. It’s goose-stepping through my head.

And my wife is a modern-woman, let it be known, with a career and what-not. She can’t always conform to this chest-pressing patriarchy. This week, she buggered off on a work trip.

So I’ve spent the past few days wedded to my heaviest books.

My compliments to Jamie Oliver, who wrote two of these big, heavy books. Such a comfort while wifey is away

As I lay there, I focus on my breathing.

Focussing on your breathing is important. This gives you a sense of detachment from your creative problem. You build a tolerance for anxiety. You can live for longer periods with the problem unsolved — and this leads you to better solutions.

A good example is from John Cleese. During his Monty Python days, Cleese noticed that one of his colleagues (he didn’t say which) was much funnier and more creative, yet would always produce weaker sketches.

Cleese found his partner had less tolerance for creative pain. If he came up with an idea, he was inclined to take it. Cleese could live with the unsolved problem for longer, so he frequently had better, more original ideas.

That’s because once you’re detached from the problem, you’re also able to play with it.

“People say ‘fight fire with fire.’ That’s silly. You fight fire with water.” — Howard Gossage, San Francisco Adman from the 1960s

Playing with a problem helps you see it from different perspectives.

This is what Frank Capra did.

Capra didn’t bother harping on about America’s military might. That would have been fighting fire with fire. A knee-jerk solution from somebody writhing in the creative problem.

Instead, he fought fire with water. He used the Nazi’s own propaganda as a weapon to fight back. Capra’s Prelude to War used some Nazi footage to frame them as a slave state.

He was essentially saying: “Look how delusional they are. Look how tough they think they are. Well we’re gonna show them.”

It was a brilliant piece of creative judo. Yet the idea only came after he’d gained some distance from the problem and was free to play.

Whenever I’m stuck, I always think of Capra leaving that movie theatre, and everything falls into the right perspective. ‘His creative problem was Nazis,’ I think. ‘Surely I can think of a way to sell this goddam workout video.’

(If you’re interested in Capra, or any of that war stuff I mentioned, you should watch that new Netflix documentary: ‘5 Came Back’ I think it’s called. Anyway, Spielberg made it. Well worth a look. I loved it.)

(You can see Prelude to War on Youtube here: If you’re in a hurry, I suggest starting at the 10-minute mark and watching for a few minutes from there. See how Capra paints a picture of the enemy using their own footage.)

Originally published at on October 1, 2018.

Alex Busson

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