To tell the truth.

A story about the creative process and the art of being true.

About five years ago I found myself drawing a tree on a bit of paper and writing the line:

“Being truthful is the root of beautiful projects.”

One of those things where I don’t know where it came from, but when it shows up, it feels like it will last forever.


About three years ago, I found myself on stage in a Dutch forest, improvising a story about being a chameleon. Later that night, a stranger came over to me and said he thought he knew what the message of the story was. I said that was good, because I didn’t know what the message of the story was.

“Stay true. I think that was the message. Stay true.”


About a year ago, I was in a workshop in Waterloo (Belgian battlefield, not London underground). After introducing myself, someone I’d only just met insisted that I could sum up the whole of my work in one word:

“True.”

I think he was right.


About ten years ago, I was sitting on my lounge floor in Brighton, surrounded by post-it notes, index cards, scraps of paper — several years of brain emptied out in front of me. There were notes on improvisation and The Way of The Fool (introduced to me by Floris Koot). And money and identity (courtesy of Peter Koenig). And the creative process (from working with The Kaospilots, Ideo and Matt Weston). And storytelling (from one eternally inspiring one-hour lecture by Ron Donaldson, from my time as features editor at The Face, from collecting the Storyteller book-and-tape series aged six).

And something happened where all these different threads came together. Where I could see how these different theories and different practices wove together into one. That — somehow — they were all pointing at the same thing. I felt it. I knew it to be true. And I had absolutely no way of articulating what it was.

You know when you have something to say and it’s on the tip of your tongue - you can almost physically feel it there? Nearly becoming speech, but the connection from brain to mouth hasn’t quite been made. This was like that, but instead of the unexpressed idea being just a moment away — almost articulated but not quite — I could sense in that same almost physical way that the idea was in there, but about ten miles back. Way, way back in my mind. Like I could see landscapes — neural pathways and hillsides and rivers and streams of consciousness and blue skies obscured by clouds — and way beyond, somewhere near the furthest horizon of thought, just hidden from view, there was the answer.

It was a great relief to feel as if, in some hidden way, I’d managed to make sense of all these disparate parts. Even if I couldn’t put it into words, somewhere a knot had been tied. And it was strange, also, that I knew from that first moment that the answer would make its way towards the front of my mind at its own pace. And that ‘its own pace’ was very, very slow. Like in a film where the camera — unmoving — watches someone walking all the way from the horizon.

I carried on exploring improvisation and money and identity and project design and storytelling. And I started exploring meditation and dharma and what makes a good question and what it means to take the initiative. And I’d check in on that idea in the back of my head and watch its progress towards the front. And it would make me laugh — that it was so intangible and nothing-y to track the progress of an unnamed idea, but at the same time it felt like the essential and persistent factor in the course of my life and my work and my thinking. And it would make me laugh — that I felt so entirely helpless in the face of its uncompromisingly unhurried progress.

“Who has time for that now?
Waiting for a natural path to open up
Only acting when the moment arrives?”
 — 
Poem Fifteen, I thought I was on the way to work, but I was on the way home

And I developed a systematic way to clarify ideas. And I wrote a new version of Lao Tsu’s Tao Te Ching. And I attempted to articulate the fundamental nature of money in a ten minute stand-up talk in Amsterdam. And I spent hundreds of hours unravelling the knots that were stopping people from pursuing their vocation.

And in the end, all of it comes down to this.

In this very moment, there is a next step for me to take that is true.

In this very moment, there is a next step for me to take that is true.
And if I listen inside, with care, without prejudice, I know what it is.

In this very moment, there is a next step for me to take that is true.
And if I listen inside, with care, without prejudice, I know what it is.
And if I take it, then I am being true to myself and to the world I am in.

And if, having taken it, I can look back and say — in that moment I was true to myself and to the world I was in — then there is no space for regret.
Because what more can we ask of ourselves than that — in one moment — we might manage to stay true to ourselves and the world we are in?


I look across the table at her. And she asks what I see. What we might do together. We’ve barely met, but we’ve promised to speak truthfully to each other this evening, either side of this little restaurant table. And I go to say a selection of usual responses, of projects we might undertake, of visions we might bring to the world, but I hear another voice in me, somewhere deep inside. And I laugh. And I take a number of deep breaths. And I try to climb out of my chair without climbing out of my chair. And I tell her. I see us doing everything. Together. For years. And she says: ‘Woah.’


It’s not magic. Being true in the moment doesn’t mean that what you hope will happen will happen. You might get a ‘woah’ when you thought you’d get a ‘yes’. But whatever you get, you’re still living truly. Truthfully. And, whatever you get, you don’t end up walking around with an ‘I wonder what would have happened if only I had…’ as your dispiriting inner companion.


It might be difficult to say what ‘truth’ is. One of those big philosophical questions. But it’s easy to say what being truthful is. And we know when we are lying. And it’s easy to say what it means ‘to be true’ to someone or something. We know when we are being unfaithful. Disloyal. Duplicitous. Deceitful.

Because being true is about listening. We always know what we’re meant to be doing. We don’t always know we know. Sometimes the information is deeply hidden, behind fear or superstition or prejudice or conditioning, but somewhere inside, we always know. And if we listen — in the moment — and we listen carefully enough, then we have the chance to be true. In thought and word and deed.

And it’s an art.

When you improvise, it’s the art of being true. Anyone who has stood on an empty stage with no plan, but with full faith that inspiration will arrive to save you… anyone who has had that experience of inspiration arriving exactly on cue and providing a live feed of genius to mind and mouth and body… anyone who has been there, knows what it means to be true.

But it requires faith. And it requires surrender. And it requires listening. And it requires love.

It’s the most beautiful thing.

And anyone who has read a poem or heard a singer or seen a play or watched a speech knows the difference between true and not true. The job of the performer is to reveal something true. And when they don’t — when they dissemble and protect themselves from exposure — they break the deal. And we know. And we feel it. The difference between watching a singer being true in their singing and a singer not being true in their singing is the difference between something that is alive and something that is dead. (It’s the difference between being torn in two by Adele singing “I heard that you’re settled down / That you found a girl and you’re married now”. Or just being bludgeoned in the ear by her yelling “hello from the other side”.)


“In the early days of the Little Review people used to tell me that I had no critical sense, that I didn’t know one thing from another. I always answered: I know the difference between life and death — in everything.”
 — Margaret Anderson, Little Review founder and first publisher of James Joyce’s Ulysses


And we have a language for talking about working in this way. In a way that’s true. And it’s a language of the present moment. It’s the language of impulse, inspiration and initiative.

When we’re talking about feeling, the first moment of feeling our way towards doing the right thing, that’s a moment of impulse. Where you know something, but you don’t know quite what it is you know and you might not even know that you know, but you find yourself subtly directed by some inner intuition.

When we’re talking about thinking, the first moment of making that inarticulate impulse conscious — being able to look at it and enquire into it and make sense of it — that first moment is a moment of inspiration.

And when we’re talking about doing, then there can be every reason in the world not to act. Every doubt and fear may raise its head. But if we succeed in walking through those doubts and fears, and we actually act — then that first moment of action is the moment of initiative.

And each step — from impulse, to inspiration, to initiative — each step depends on listening. Each step depends on being clear, on being true. And if we succeed in clearing that path — all the way through from feeling to thinking to doing, then the action that we take in the end is animated by the vivid energy of the initiating impulse. The action has life in it, because the action is true to the impulse. And that’s what we want to see on a stage, on a page, at work.


And this is the knot that I tied in the back of my mind sitting on my lounge floor surrounded by post-it notes and index cards and the content of my thought laid out in a hundred handwritten scraps.

That it is possible for the things that we do to be true. 
And when we are true in the things that we do, then the things that we do have life in them.
And it requires love. And it requires listening. 
And there is an art to it. And it is possible to learn it.


Learning how to improvise is learning how to listen to the impulse and how to not stand in its way. How to not be afraid, but accept the present moment as it is — with love — and find in it the potential for something that is alive.

Learning how to tell stories is learning how our minds make sense of these impulses. And it’s learning how to articulate those intangible hidden movements so we might share the truth of our inner lives with others. So that we might understand this creative movement.

Learning meditation and mindfulness is learning to listen to the feeling and the thinking. They are the practice of staying in the present moment listening to what is true now (not what you wish were true or what used to be true). Not listening is the enemy of work that is true. And it’s the easiest thing in the world: to be doing one thing and not paying it the slightest attention, as our focus is entirely on something imaginary and elsewhere. To be caught in a story of who we are or who we are meant to be, rather than listening to what wants to happen here and now.

Learning how to work with identity — to understand and engage with that festering nest of stories we carry around with us about who it is OK to be and who it is not OK to be — that is learning how to clear the path for something alive. To see clearly how stories about money and society and self can play like a broken record, bringing a dead past to bear on a living present.


We call it ‘the creative process’ because it’s meant to produce something alive at the end of it. Like a seed becoming a flower. Like birth. Like nature.
And if we are true in each step of what we do, then what we do is creative and something alive is born from it.

And it is not the same as going through the motions. If we go to work in the morning and check emails or lay bricks or serve coffee or sing songs, if it is not built out of the living force of impulse and inspiration and initiative, then the only output is something dead.


So now, when I go to work, this is what I do. I try to stay true to this creative process and I try to illuminate the path for other people. Whether I’m improvising on stage or talking about money or writing a poem or uncovering someone’s purpose or finding the story that unlocks someone’s creative potential, it’s always only ever this one thing. The art of being true.


The idea that I had ten years ago… that took its own sweet time to cross the vast landscapes of the mind to make it here… the idea walks up to the camera lens, takes out a cloth and wipes it clean — crystal clear, in focus, bright — then puts the cloth away, turns and starts a long walk back to the horizon.