Woody Allen is undoubtedly one of the most prolific artists alive today. Starting off writing jokes for The Ed Sullivan Show and The Tonight Show at age 19, Allen’s career has spanned decades, genres and mediums. He’s directed 50 films, written for 73 movies, acted in almost 50 films, worked in stand-up comedy, written Broadway plays, and made over 100 cameo appearances in various projects. How can one person possibly be so productive, and never seem to run out of ideas?
Allen’s creative process is revealed in a biographical documentary from the American Masters series from PBS. Sitting in his apartment, Allen reached into his nightside table drawer to pull out a pile of cluttered, unkempt scraps of paper. He said, “This is my collection. This is how I start. It’s all kind of scraps and things that are written on hotel things. I’ll ponder these things.” Tossing the papers onto his bed, he added, “I’ll dump them here like this…I go through this all the time, every time I start a project. And I sit here like this… and I look at one… like that…and then …”
Woody Allen doesn’t just wait for his ideas to appear in full form; rather, he structures his life around enabling a free flow of creativity. Like other famous film directors, Allen prefers to edit in post-production, rather than during the process of creating material for his films. He uses the right tool for the right job, and knows that adding structure too soon in the process can often stifle fresh ideas. Allen’s methodology allows for the actors to take his work in whatever direction they see fit, and rather than imposing a structure of his own preconceived notions, Allen lets the project take on a life of its own.
“By the time you get the thing together it’s such a mess,” he says. “You’re flitting around the editing room making all sorts of compromises,” thinking, “I’ll prostitute myself any way I have to survive this catastrophe.” From the “catastrophe” of Allen’s mind, some of the greatest works of American cinema have emerged over the last 40 years.
Annie Hall (1977) is generally regarded as Allen’s first commercial success; it is a film that both defined modern romantic comedy, and elevated his status as a director in Hollywood. Allen’s attitude toward flexible creativity paid off while filming the movie, as the actors often went off-script and in doing so created some of the film’s most iconic moments. If Allen stuck to a preconceived structure of what the film should look like, instead of allowing moments to sprout organically, the movie would have gone in a completely different direction. We wouldn’t have the infamous scene where Alvy sneezes and scatters a mass of cocaine… The producers had to add an extra pause in the film after initial screenings, because the audience was laughing so hard they didn’t hear the next lines of dialogue! What was initially a deviation from the plan turned out to be one of the best parts of the project.
We are often our own worst enemy when it comes to being productive. Paralysis by analysis can keep us from even starting, when what we need is the freedom of scribbles on paper scraps. Don’t let your desire for results stand in the way of your free-flow, brainstorming has to be an unrestricted spigot flowing with disjunct thoughts that just might come together into something great. The challenge is to wait until “post-production” to whittle down and make choices. The right tool at the right time will make the difference between innovation and mediocrity. Don’t forget, at one point the Internet was someone’s crazy idea before it became an indispensable tool of modern life.
You can let your creativity flow with hotel notepads, whiteboards, or one of several software packages that help you get in the brainstorming mindset. Inspiration focuses on visualizing information with charts, maps, and graphics, while MindJet crowd-sources ideas within a large organization for maximum input. Whatever your medium, getting into a free flow mindset is often the key to breaking out of a rut and bringing your innovative spirit to the next level. Carry a small notebook to jot down ideas, or use an app like Evernote to type quick thoughts on the go. Never edit the creativity out of your thoughts, write the crazy ones down for later and see where they might take you.
Free your mind, and let the juices flow. You could be one scrap of paper away from your Annie Hall!