- Tim Clare’s podcast Death of 1000 Cuts (recommended for anyone who wants to write)
- Tim’s website
- Follow Tim on Twitter or buy Tim a Coffee
Please note, there may be a few errors here and there in the transcript.
Hello and welcome to Parallel Worlds. This episode features an interview with someone whose work I’ve admired for a long time - the writer Tim Clare. You might recall at the start of this podcast I talked about how much I love Tim’s podcast, Death of a Thousand Cuts.
There are two sides to the Death of a Thousand Cuts podcast, and both are great resources for anyone who has an interest in creativity. On one side, there are writing courses, such as Couch to 80k and the 100 Day Writing Challenge, both of which feature daily activities to unleash creativity and make you a better writer. What I love about both of these courses is that Tim presents small, manageable and fun writing exercises every day, along with thoughts and observations about how you can be a better writer. There is a warmth and a love of craft which comes across in every episode, and it is great that these exist for anyone in the world to listen to, learn from, and grow through, for free.
Then there’s the other side of his podcast, where Tim interviews writers, psychologists, people who write, people who study creative practices, and more, about all manner of other subjects. There are loads of conversations with people like Ross Sutherland, Nikesh Shukla, Byron Vincent, Naomi Ishiguro, and many more, as well as Tim’s own writing rambles and pep talks. Death of a Thousand Cuts really is a great podcast, I highly recommend you subscribe to it - there’s a link in the notes of this episode.
Tim is also an author of books including novels The Honours and The Ice House, a memoir, and a book of poetry. But I first came across his work through live performance, at the monthly show Homework that he and writing collective Aisle 16 used to hold in London.
This interview is about an hours’ worth of conversation, which was recorded in early June 2020, several months into a COVID-19 lockdown. There are a couple of references to current events from the time, which are hopefully less current by now.
Enough waffle from me - here is a conversation with Tim Clare.
Ollie Palmer: I wanted to talk to you on this podcast, because first of all, your podcasts, Death of a Thousand Cuts and in particular, the Couch to 80k writing course, and the _100 Day Writing Challenge _have been really instrumental in forming the way that my practice works - as a designer. And I wanted to thank you. First of all, for those things, because of a few years ago, I was in a real creative rut and I came across your podcast, and it transformed my ability to do creative stuff, to go from having been in a rut creatively to feeling like just through 20 minutes of creative practice per day, that I was still a creative person, still doing creative stuff and it has gone on to fuel a bunch of projects, based on little bits of writing I did through the course.
So the thing I wanted to ask you about is creativity and generosity because there’s a spirit of generosity that I really feel through having done a couple of your podcast series, which are about creativity, but also the fact that you have these interviews with people where you ask them about their processes, you try to get through creative blocks, work out how procrastination works, this kind of thing.
But all of those are done in a performative, but also really generous ways that people are able to get feedback from you and that kind of thing. So sorry, that’s really, this is the worst kind of question, isn’t it? Because it’s not actually a question.
Tim Clare: No, it’s not really the worst kind of question at all, because you’re giving me a kind of open-ended topic and then asking me what I think about that which actually fits your criteria of being quite generous because it gives me lots of latitude. It gives me space to interpret it in a number of ways without ever sounding like I’m dodging the question because there hasn’t technically been a specific one, just a kind of like essay title. And then I get to interpret it and you’re giving me lots of creative freedom. And that’s a classic two ways that you can approach creativity, right? One is we’re talking about with your course and how you’ve had to reshape all sorts of fundamentals of how it’s delivered to meet a changing situation, which has new restrictions. You know, it’s a little bit of a truism and a creative common place that constraints and restrictions breed creativity.
But, they do certainly give you sort of parameters and rules around which the creative game can be played. They paint lines on the tennis court and they exclude certain moves, which actually can be quite freeing. I think my that’s why I like having a daily practice with say like 10, 20 minutes or whatever, on some specific requests, rather than just the general edict go create , and you get to choose absolutely every aspect of that. It’s actually, despite essentially being like a series of demands, in the former case, this: you need to do this 10 minute assignment and I’m going to tell you what it is and what I want you to create and what the parameters are, and in a sense, what the win and loss conditions are. And that’s going to be a one size fits all for everyone listening to this or, or whatever, it doesn’t sound intrinsically like a wellspring of creativity. Certainly if you’re approaching it naively from the outside, I wouldn’t have assumed that that would be something that would be conducive to creativity and self expression, right? Because it’s limited, it’s dictated by somebody else.
But one of the things that I think is sort of counter intuitive, but holds fairly true across a bunch of domains is this idea that when you’re given an assignment, and when certain approaches are shut down or excluded, then it’s quite freeing because you’re freed from that kind of analysis/paralysis of having your ways of responding are just everything in the universe down to: here’s what I want you to do. In creativity, a real source of anxiety - and I harp on about anxiety and stuff a lot because it’s, you know, like an anxiety, something that has been a presence in my life for a long time, and it’s something that despite my best efforts, it’s a huge challenge for me, probably the biggest one I face I feel. Sometimes narrowing down the, a range of options, kind of funneling it down into something specific and directed can be freeing. It can help us focus our mental and creative resources.
And, it can also give you a relatively clear criterion for when you’ve met a success condition, you know, which actually when you’re designing or creating anything , sometimes success can be such a wooly amorphous concept.
For some people that’s OK because they’re not too worried and they can find intrinsic pleasure in it. But I think if you’ve got low confidence or you’re having a difficult day or other things in your life are sort of tricky, just getting good feedback on how well you’re doing is, is actually, I think actually one of the criteria for - I know it’s still quite voguey, but this concept of the flow state - one of the criteria for being able to enter that, is that you get clear feedback as you’re doing it, on how well you’re doing, which when you’re doing something creative, especially a big project, you know, where maybe there’s not a team or that you’re not giving it to be reviewed by someone else for quite a long time, you can be working in the dark without good feedback for a long time. And I think just small directed, assignments can just provide, they’re not the be all and end all, but they can provide a kind of relief and counterbalance that we so rarely get in the broad canvas side of creativity.
Ollie Palmer: I think my background is slightly different from yours in that I have a design background, but it involves writing films and art projects and things like that. But in teaching one of the challenges I frequently have is trying to identify with students what their own criteria for success of a project are. And a lot of the time it takes a long time for people to be able to identify what they would think of as a success criteria for something that they’re working on. And what I like about your exercises is that you get that immediately. You work within a 10 minute time constraint. And you know if you’ve done it or not, sometimes it’s completely fine not to have done it very well.
And there’s this phrase that you use all the time of having this policemen inside your head and stopping him from stopping you, putting out bad work and getting rid of that person, because for this very limited period of time, you are completely free. there’s a strange paradox of the freedom that comes with these constraints that really comes across.
Tim Clare: One thing that I’m terrible for is saying stuff, and then later on someone quotes it back to me and I go: “Did I say that? I, Oh, I’m not sure I agree with myself wholeheartedly.” I say a lot of things, but it doesn’t mean you to take them seriously.
The only counterbalance I’d say to that is the idea of sort of getting read of the inner critic. He’s often heralded as the doorway to creative freedom, right. That once you do that, then you’ll somehow be liberated. Have you just produce all this work, that your, I can’t remember who said it ( I’m paraphrasing anyway) , you reach a certain level of success or you reach a certain level of inner self confidence and you retire to Elysium, at which point you’re never troubled by those feelings again. And you can just churn out work in this spontaneous ecstasy. And what I’d say is : your inner critic, isn’t intrinsically bad. that’s just discernment, your ability to, like I say, with this kind of idea of flow state, which you know, I’m not marrying myself to the idea of flow state being an actual, real verifiable, data-backed phenomenon. I’m using it in the colloquial sense rather than the hard scientific sense, but this idea that you need decent feedback to get a sense of how you’re doing - that partly comes from that inner police officer, that inner critic. Discernment and your ability to look at your work and go ‘is this going the way I want it to go?’ - the ability to kind of like Projects at different phases , I would say it’s impossible to produce work of any merit, certainly not work that you’re going to feel happy about if you don’t have that.
Now, there’s another side to it, which is writing for therapeutic purposes. I used to be very snooty about. I used to be such a nasty piece of work when it came to people writing therapeutically, because I just felt like - and this was when I was much younger - but I was like, I’m over here, trying to learn the nuts and bolts of writing. There are certain things about sentence structure and syntax and compositional principles, and that’s like a creative lexical engineering, and I’m going to learn the principles of that, the foundational principles.
And then I’m going to put together great stories. And I don’t want you coming in here, ruining it by going it’s about your feelings as well and stuff like that. think, you know, I kind of cop to this before, but I do think that there is almost certainly a kind of undercurrent that, of unacknowledged sexism, basically that engaging with feelings and prioritizing them is somehow something that is done by a kind of a cardigan wearing female, authors who are more interested in the therapy of writing than the writing of the Great American or British Novel . I just feel that is a very male position to have, or a very unhealthily chauvinistically position to have, because I feel like it’s a, it’s about ‘I don’t want to engage with my feelings and I want to be like these great male writers who write big set pieces and are technically competent.
But what I’ve discovered is that you actually can’t get through big projects if you’re really unhappy and you’re making yourself miserable. And also there’s no real value to it because so what if you wrote some beautiful crystalline dodecahedron of words, right. Who cares? Like what, what’s the human value of that? And so I think getting in touch with how I feel when I’m writing something - writing for therapy is really valuable. I felt like the confusion between writing therapy groups and creative writing, teaching pedagogy was unhelpful. People were learning stuff in classes that were basically for self development. then they were going to produce bad writing.
It doesn’t matter if that writing’s bad by someone else’s standards. If you’re doing writing for yourself, you literally owe nothing to any other reader, any other human being in terms of what you’re writing and creating.
I think I’d want to make that distinction very clear, but just to finish sort of like the thought here. What I do think is rather than getting rid of your internal critic, there could be points where you kind of give the doormen a break. you get, they get to go on their lunch break. And you can understand that there can be times when the evaluative mode is really useful and pertinent and helpful to the project. And there’s times where you can consciously suspend that evaluation mode on the basis that you’re just trying to generate work and you can think you also use that side of your mind can think you’re being very shrewd by analyzing, by like doing a quality scan, first stuff, as it comes in, as it hits the page.
And actually what you’re engaging in is confirmation bias. Your just comparing it to what you think something should look like, and you’re not actually giving it time. And so you can feel like it’s quality control, but actually it’s kind of like, Homeostasis is what you’re trying to maintain.
There’s a quote that I liked from Thích Nhất Hạnh, the Vietnamese, Buddhist monk and teacher who says:
“Usually when we hear or read something new, we just compare it to our own ideas. If it is the same, we accept it and say, it is correct. If not, we say is incorrect. In either case we learn nothing.”
And just a very plain way of talking about confirmation bias, right. You can think you’re evaluating your work in a shrewd way and actually, you’re simply comparing it so pre consisting ideas and that can lead to a very closed off - it just stifles any sort of innovation.
Ollie Palmer: And just replicating, in a very literal sense, power structures, which already exist that you’ve alluded to earlier with this idea of just doing the set pieces.
Tim Clare: Yeah, yeah, yeah, absolutely.
Ollie Palmer: I reminded, when I’m, when I was a teenager, I think like most teenagers, I tried to learn the guitar. So unmusical it’s unbelievable. but I had a guitar teacher who was really into Joe Satriani, who is this guitarist who is technically like the best - he’s like the guitarist’s guitarist, if you were into guitarists who sound like synthesizers and it’s so lacking in emotion. He hates the sound of the plectrum hitting the string and it just makes me think, sure you can do that, but a computer can do it ten times better. Why not engage with some sort of emotion and embrace a little bit of sloppiness, a little bit of something that’s human, rather than just trying to be something that is really not.
Tim Clare: Oh, but that finger tapping though… I don’t know. I do get the thrill of, like, pulling off a technical stunt. Don’t get me wrong. I just think it’s when you think that is the only game in town, you’re shutting out a load of joy in your life. You’re narrowing your palette in a way that isn’t going to ultimately serve you.
Ollie Palmer: I think there are merits definitely to creating these constraints, which you break against and having, arbitrary, silly little things. Part of my background is architectural. And architecture without context is completely meaningless. If you ask a student to design something and they say, well, I want my context to be this place in the middle of a desert or in an artistic context. Oh, I’m designing something for a white cube gallery. Those projects are inevitably going to be the most boring ones, because they will be the ones that are trying to pull off something that is incredibly technical, but just doesn’t react to anything that’s around it in any way.
And I feel like the embracing of the critic when it’s necessary and ignoring them when they’re on their lunch break, seems to me like an intelligent mode of embracing what contexts are going to be productive for work and what contexts aren’t going to be productive at work.
Tim Clare: Yeah, that’s really interesting.
This is going to sound like a big leap and so sort of like give you my cheerful permission to cut me off if you think this is silly, but - it’s just because of what I’ve been absorbed in lately, in terms of my research - but it just makes me think they’re like a lot of the time therapeutic modalities are kind of designed as if they exist for a white cube gallery, where they engage with a prototypical, somebody who exists without context.
And proceeds to solve the, to help them engage with their feelings and how they deal with those feelings and problems of their life, without really having anything to say, or to engage with what’s going on in their life or the world, or how they’re coming to therapy in the first place, why they’re there, their background, their sense of meaning.
I mean, this is a basic principle of good creative writing composition. Go for the - I always call it ‘crunchy specificity’ - but go for the specific over the kind of like general case. because immediately you start, we experienced the world through specifics rather than through, abstract concepts. Of course that’s in itself a generalization because a lot of our sense of what the wider world is, is built up from generalizations and things like that. But, something existing in a specific context immediately gives it hooks that people can connect with. And then, in engaging with the very, very, very specific, we end up inevitably sort of bouncing back to those kind of like a broader themes and generalities and those wider things, because that’s where it connects with our feelings and stuff. And I feel like that’s a failure across multiple domains, right? It’s difficult because often if you’re trying to create something that can be used in multiple contexts, the result is the kind of “solution” - and I use that in heavy bunny quotes - is to pretend that context doesn’t exist. But actually often solutions had fiendishly difficult to isolate because they’re hyper specific to a context and a, and a time. Whereas we’re always kind of like looking for this skeleton key of generalities.
I tell you the other example. I was doing a literary festival in Beijing. And, somebody was doing a show. A lot of the show was in a Scott’s dialect. And they were really worried that the audience wouldn’t, they were wondering about whether they should just like strip it back to, you know, standard English, cause all the references would be hyper-local. And the thing was actually, they went out and the show just killed. It did so well. And what was great about watching that was the, nobody wants you to come halfway across the globe and then just do a set about broad, relatable, transnational things like airline food or whatever, but what they want is you to talk about your stuff, the characters who live on your street. And inevitably when you do that, even if you’re talking about one district of your town, the way you talk about that will allow the audience to make the analogy in their head.
This is like where the kind of like slave pretentious people live. our equivalent in my town would be. they can relate through something hyper-specific it actually gets that general quality.
Ollie Palmer: Yeah. Nobody sees a show or read something and thinks, ah, that was great, but I wish he could just be more general. Can you strip away the context please? Cause, Yeah. It’s but then I sort of, I feel in what you’re saying about using very specific things to channel the general or the wide as sort of a lot, like the objects that we’re using, theres an ether that’s around, you know, this unspoken air of feeling that exists. And then the objects that we use to describe very specific things exist in hyperlocalized context. And they are the nodal points through which you channel these wider things. And so within a design context, quite often design projects can only really talk about a very limited amount of stuff, but by using specific objects located in the right way or, highlighting different modes of practice or anything else, you can tap into a much wider feeling by sort of hinting at what this larger thing is, but you can only do it through the very specific, if you try to address sort of an entire ecology, it’s impossible because you couldn’t, you couldn’t describe an ecosystem, but you can describe the animals that exist within the ecosystem and the relationships they have with each.
You can’t just say: Oh yeah, the sea is good. Cause, cause it’s so, so much more complex and so much more interwoven than that, but it requires those, yeah, there’s very specific nodal points to be articulated in a way that causes people to be able to identify with the more general.
Tim Clare: Yeah, I think I agree that not only is what you’re talking about a bad medium to do that, but any kind of like, Single kind of like message is such an anidine, goal to have with art or any kind of creative endeavor. The problem to me is that, like the world of criticism, I mean, as in kind of artistic criticism, rather than kind of jibes, and literature around art I guess sort of like, meta-literature and, kind of like awards, culture and all that kind of thing. the good as it is that, you know, people there’s a discourse and things like that. I think the danger is always that, in, in trying sort of like, we’re kind of like want to nail the moon beam to the table. And impose. It just means that there’s often the valorizing theme of big themes and what something has to say. And look, I get suspicious when someone says, Oh, it doesn’t really mean who went when they sort of resist interpretation. I always, you know, sometimes I feel myself go, well, it’s got to mean something.
You can’t just sort of like. You can’t just kind of brick your work up behind this kind of recondite bulwark of epistomelogical relativism, and then say, what do you think it means? Because then you’re just saying that it’s sort of impervious to all interrogation through criticism or intellect, right?
Like we can’t have an opinion on it because it’s relative and slippery and. Everyone’s experience is valid and stuff, and you go, well, possible criteria could you have for failure then? And then we’re back into this place of let going, well, how do you get feedback? Why bother studying a domain at all? Why bother developing skills? If ultimately you can’t in any way, say that this thing is better than the other. So I get that. These are the big problems. But, at the same time, I think we can come up with better conceptions of, a piece of design or art or a piece of literature or a poem, what its functions are, beyond what it has to say, because it’s just that sometimes those things are harder to articulate. But if they function as a, sometimes they can have very practical, very practical, cool uses, but also they can, they, they, there could be a multiple, it could be a multiplicity of things going on.
Sometimes something just providing a counterpoint, you know, like, it, it doesn’t have to be saying anything. It can be in dialogue with the things around. It’s just, it’s just hard. Cause it’s often like explaining a joke. The joke isn’t very funny when you explain it. I think with literature, you’ve always got this nice thing where you can just kind of like fall back on the kind of, emotional experience of a plot, right. Where you can just have some tent rising and falling tension and then a kind of like resolution. And that can be entertainment and there can be novelty and all those things. And you can just kind of throw them down as kind of insurance beyond any broader thematic resonances. You can just go, you know, like they’ve kind of like four functions of language: to entertain, to inform, to persuade, into instruct. And I think like then he kind of like piece of creative writing. You can try and see it doing you to do any of those things. You have to sort of do them. They’re kind of like the different light layers of the ziggurat and you, you, you ha you, you have to do each of the previous ones before you can do the next one.
So you have to entertain that, just get someone’s in, to engage with it, to just be there and paying attention to it voluntarily. If you’re entertaining, you can then go on to inform because you’re then able to, you’ve got an audience so you can include some content. Some you can, it can be it’s now has the potential to be a delivery system for facts, for want of a better term.
If you’re delivering information, then you have the possibility to persuade because. They’re paying attention through entertaining. You’re giving them information. They’re informing you can now persuade because you’ve got their attention and some content with which to persuade them. And then finally is instruct.
And you can only instruct someone if you’ve persuaded them, you can only persuade them if you’re giving them some persuasive content and you can only give them persuasive content. If they’re paying a ton. I mentioned. So, you know, the, these are all sort of like layers that something can do, but I think you, you.
Molly philosophy or my feeling is that you’ve, you’ve got to kind of like engage people that are so very base level first, by being interesting or something about it kind of grabs their attention before you can start doing any of this sort of like more, I I’m in heavy inverted commerce, “high-minded” work of art.
Ollie Palmer: Yeah, I wonder to what extent the, the desire to create sort of high minded art in, in whatever term we’re sort of talking about, art comes from the insecurity that we all have about our own mortality and this desire to speak to the universal comes from a place of wanting to be in some sort of canon. Not a literal cannon. I mean, maybe a literary, but sort of, to be acknowledged as somebody who has created the thing that is, you know, the defining thing of that genre and
Tim Clare: It - it’s possible. I do think that like that immediately just starts to feel few tile. Like it’s, it’s just such a, just, it just feels like. Even, you know, novel writing where you kind of like, think there’s this kind of broad canon and classics and stuff. And then you actually look at how many novels are published and how many, any of them last.
And even just let the way our interpretation shift over time and, you know, not novels are just still in a really ephemeral form. in, in, in some kind of like fundamental way. So, so brief, really just to kind of slightly more exploded performance. And actually I really, really interesting chat I had with, Chris Gribble who runs, the National Centre for Writing, on the podcast where he was talking about how the novel being in a femoral form, because even if you read a novel twice at different points in your life, you have very different experience. And so really the are the actual event. The art is what you read and feel at that point in your life at that point in history, in that moment and it changes, it does, I mean, you change, and you can’t step in the same river twice.
And I guess that’s the same with kind of physical public structures as well is that they acquire this history and the context around them, the architecture around them changes, over time. And so you can’t really… there’s nothing that doesn’t have all these dependent conditions, holding it up, that won’t at some stage sort of fall apart and it will go back.
So it might be driven by that desire. But if it is, you’re going to have a bad time.
Sooner, sooner or later, even if briefly you feel you get this kind of like delusion that that’s what you’ve achieved, your, that you’re then going to have a legacy that you’ll spend the rest of your life, sort of battling to maintain and control and not see usurped and not see misinterpreted.
And, you know, I see, I see this with so many of the, like pick it up and take a lot of research into the sort of psychology, the psychology recently. I see a lot of there’s a lot of, guys, psychologists who. I kind of some of the big players in the psychology textbooks from when I was sort of doing it in, in that kind of late nineties, when I was studying psychology who did, some foundational experiments or case studies or set up some foundational kind of like second wave theories who are now all at retirement age, or just past, with time and age, who are just working a flat out to maintain control and assure their legacies of their work, writing that kind of big memoirs about that achievements, making the case that their are discoveries and systems were important, in a way that just. I don’t know, like, I don’t want to say feels tragic cause I don’t think it does.
I think that’s sort of like slightly condescending, but it just feels maybe this is my way of seeing things, but it just feels _stressful _to me. Like, I, I, I think you can only ever like be like participating in a conversation and any sense that, and yeah. Like, because if you nudge the boat sort of one way down the river, Then every decision that comes after that is going to have been inflected by your contribution.
But, it’s a kind of team game. And, and I just, even, you know, even if even taking, for example, the pro probably the acknowledged most famous world builder in literature: Tolkein. Like his work has been ruined. Interpretive has been made into movies, which is how a lot of people, they’re only kind of like inflection and Andy Sirkis’s version of Gollum is now it is impossible to read Lord of the rings without that being the dominant image and voice that every you read it, that book is now playing off of, like, you can’t read that book now without that freight of cultural baggage with it. So to a certain extent, it’s no longer the book that Tolkien wrote. And, and, and, and then having kind of like, like ascendancy within a genre means that actually, you know, I’m talking about this as a fantasy writer. There is, I would say more than 50% of the kind of discourse in fancy writing is kind of like panels like beyond Tolkien, you know, like, and you know why Tolkien sucks and the whole new weird movement was essentially didn’t have much more tying it together than we think Tolkien is a bit rubbish. We don’t like Tolkien or we think he’s a bit conservative. you know, he’s not terribly inspiring for us, but like, even if you, if you reach ascendancy, then you basically become, and the thing that everyone says, they don’t like.
Ollie Palmer: Yeah. I mean, I guess the, the thing with any active creation is that your you have control your work needs to exist within a context anyway. That, this thing that we were talking about earlier of sort of like situating without any boundaries, trying to just speak to the universal necessarily rather than the specific comes up with the most boring, bland stuff that goes nowhere. And that has no sort of emotional resonance. You don’t hook people in. And so that way, but also as a creator, you have to acknowledge that you don’t have control over the context in which this thing will be interpreted. You know, your, your sphere of control is the thing that you’re making, but not necessarily the way that people will see it.
You can’t, if you write a book, you can’t say you can only read this book when you’re 17 in your formative years on beautiful sunny days when you’re a little bit stoned. You know, and you can’t control the, the societal shifts, which will make your work fashionable or unfashionable or any of these other things outside of your control.
And I guess what’s sort of distressing about the idea of an elder scientist trying to cling on to their legacy and to prove that the thing that they did 50 years ago is still relevant is: it feels helpless. It feels like they’re sort of scrambling at something. If they just let go of, they would, they would lighten their load significantly.
Tim Clare: they it’s like the, at the beginning of the dark crystal where they’re kind of like sexy is like light dying in bed and his dying words before he crumbled is I am still emperor. And that immediately, that kind of like fighting over, who’s going to take over. yeah, no, I mean, and I think it’s just. And he’s kind of anti scientific as well because science is all about you make these incredible contributions and then it’s courage bubble scientists, a Corpus of knowledge. It’s a system for evaluating the truth of that knowledge. And to making sure it doesn’t turn into a cargo cult by, valuating, the components of it, and, just endless refinement testing, evaluating.
And it’s really hard and it’s really slow and it’s really frustrating and we make mistakes and then people point out problems in methodology. Do you want to help people? And I think like also there’s a constant war between not war that’s too, but I’m sure there is some like out and out of like rivalry, but there’s a constant tension between a theory.
And kind of like applied sciences, right. And like the point at which your, your doing work to solve, you know, kind of difference between like solving puzzles and solving quote unquote “real world problems”. You know, like I think even the kind of discussion we’re having now to some people would be like, what you’re doing is you’re kind of like derdling around kind of like philosophical puzzles, what are the actual problems that you are attempting to take on?
On the other hand, there’ll be lots of people who kind of like style themselves as kind of mavericks. and, and everyone else is a kind of fuddy duddy or whatever, because they care about these apparently abstract questions, but then these things are really, you know, like valuable.
And if you don’t think about them at all, you could often go down really peculiar unhelpful paths, having kind of convinced yourself through kind of like confirmation bias or whatever this feels right. This is, you know, and then, and then years later we discover that there was other ways of doing it. So it’s, it’s a tremendously complex process.
And I think what we could do better is sort of celebrating like various contributions along the way , without really holding up whether they were right so much as whether they were I don’t, I, I don’t mean that on a kind of like moral level. I’m not talking about like, kind of like vicious, dictators and going well, I think you’ve got to give them credit that they did create some very interesting historical moments.
So that would be that I just made this kind of like idea that like, often posing interesting questions, and, sort of troubling, the, certain philosophical certainties in any domain, it might, and you might not get it in the middle of the bat yourself, but you might like lay the groundwork or open the question, pose questions that other people answer in interesting ways, and you push the area forward.
Ollie Palmer: Does yeah. That, that everything you’ve just said makes me think of two things, which I will probably ramble and get through in a terrible convoluted way and get lost halfway through. But the. The first, what you were saying about sort of like the day to day business of science reminds me of when I’ve, was early on in my PhD, I was sort of interested in neuroscience and, and this kind of thing.
And it’s all sort of fell a bit by the wayside and it got replaced more by sort of, psychology and. There was, I took a class called ethics in science. I think it was. And we studied book, er, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. And he talks about there being two different types of science there being sort of revolutionary science, where there is a massive sort of seismic shift and you found the edges and the second that, that, that big story shifts, you know, like, the, the big one that he talks about is the Copernican revolution where post-Copernicus, and post- that movement of people who worked through this, process of, of making the world, not the center of everything, but seeing that the world exists sort of in the solar system, and it all revolves around the sun. Nothing that existed before that makes any sense. So yeah, the scientific revolutions come along and they append absolutely everything. And cause the theories that, that it came before that we were working in regular science of this old medium to make no sense, but they’re actually really slow processes to take place.
And the rest is sort of um, daily routine science. So at the moment, we’re sort of like in the routine science of evolution and working out how those things, work. But everything that’s before that, you know, like creationists look like absolute lunatics now through the context of us knowing about, evolution, which at the time that sort of Darwin wrote about it, also seemed like complete lunacy because it was outside of the framework of the thing that existed.
Tim Clare: I think, yeah. Popper is really interesting. I believe it’s he talks about, like, he kind of goes in on psychoanalysis and Freud and this idea of like a lack of falsifiability, there is no conceivable thing that a human being could do, no conceivable reaction they could have that would falsify or disprove the, the, the sort of like theories and positions of psychoanalysis.
There’s no point where you can go, well, if, if this, if this happened, you know, what, what are the criteria under which you would feel like your, what your position is is disproved, but what Freud has, what I think is always, really was, could like tempting about theories, is that what he was saying was interesting. In this kind of very specific sort of like philosophical sense of interesting. He was saying, look, what appears to be, what appears to be, sort of manifest, reasons for your behavior, there are actually latent reasons for those behaviors, so, like what you think, you know, you don’t know for a lot of people, that’s quite interesting.
The truth value, a big evidence base for it in a way doesn’t matter to a lot of people when you’re talking about any kind of theory, there’s just a narrative where it’s like, what, in knowing this, this has some explanatory power and it is really interesting. And upends, and that’s what we’ve always got to watch when we have any kind of like this kind of like.
People are kind of fiending for a big kind of revolution to overturns something and things really interesting and says, all these disparate phenomena are actually part of a single phenomenon and govern that feels really satisfying to human beings. Oh, so actually all this is kind of like golden hammer effect where you get a theory and then theorists always seek to expand the, domain that their theory covers, and so start applying it to more and more things until it becomes ludicrous. But we really enjoy that as humans. There’s kind of like idea that we can start getting more explanatory power because it gives us a sense of understanding, which gives us a sense of control and reduces uncertainty, which we kind of hate why, especially somebody who’s like suffers from like severe anxiety, a lot of the time, I hate uncertainty.
So these, all of these things are really understand why there’s a lot of human factors behind so much of this, where, what we’re actually looking for is like good stories that might help us predict the future. And in a way it doesn’t really matter. There’s an extent to which it doesn’t really matter how true they are. Certainly with certain, certain domains, including with psychology, right? Like sometimes, you know, I spoke to some neuroscientists who were saying, it’s questionable how much, How many tangible clinical advances for sort of mental health - especially things like anxiety, yeah - neuroscience has made in the last 20 years, despite us being able to see inside the brain, but there’s a certain percentage of suffers who just having this story of being able to see. The kind of movement of hemoglobin around their brain and going look here, like when you get anxious, this part of the brain has a great demand of oxygen that’s cause this is the part of your brain that is kind of responsible for your kind of like fight, flight, or freeze circuit. Just having that kind of story and guidance is a neuro biological response. It’s what’s happening to you. It would like. That to a certain extent diagnosis is treatment and, and it reduces the dysphoria of unknowing. And I think like with all of these things, in any domain and in a creative domain, like having what feels like a solid theory behind you can just sometimes reduce the kind of uncertainty.
In a way this kind of comes back to what we’re talking about. That at the beginning with kind of like it’s another form of constraint. it gives you a much tighter decision and decide, give him gives you a much tighter design space. It gives you a theory, gives you a repertoire of moves and it gives you a set of goals to work towards. And now, aside from anything else that can just make you feel calmer and more confident, actually taking a step instead of just being lost in analysis / paralysis of like I’ve got 10,000 decisions. You just go, okay, this is, this is like how, this is how a story works. This is like this three act structure, for example. So that’s your theory. You know, this, our story works. I need: act one, act two, act three, or, you know, you’ve got Freytag’s pyramid of rising and falling action. And that’s your model for what a story has to be? Well, not all stories have to be that, but in a way, does it matter if someone’s just picked one, and it makes them feel confident and scalm and then they just get on with it? Well, that is preferable to them writing, them writing nothing because they don’t know.
Ollie Palmer: Yeah. Yeah, I’m sort of, reminded of, the Charlie Kaufman film adaptation. Where the, the central conflict is between a writer who is trying to write the ultimate thing that, that conveys the perfect amount of beauty. And, it goes through an entire existential problem to try and write it. And his brother who writes according to sort of a Robert McKee style formula. And the relative sort of levels of, of happiness and anxiety that they both experience as this goes through.
Tim Clare: Yeah. I always feel like that’s, that movie is like a little bit close to the bone to, for me to enjoy it. You know, it’s just like:_ Aah! Ouch! Its hard_. Like it’s, it’s hard because like what I would say just. In fairness is I think people who are trying to, you know, go through this kind of like complex, like better cyclical journey are doing so honestly.
And sincerely, most of the time, I think, you know, not out of a sense of what we think of as like self-indulgence and pretentiousness that they’re having, that they’re swinging for the fences, you know, that they’re doing their best, and it’s hard. And. And it’s easy to kind of like get kind of lost in that and fail, but, you know, so, you know, when people do find themselves doing that, I always feel like as artists, we’re kind of quite quick to kind of mock that kind of endeavor while recognizing it in ourselves. And the danger is that turns into a little bit of self-loathing, which doesn’t help anyone. So I always feel like I get that, I get the joke, definitely because I’ve been fallen victim to it, but, it’s hard cause you wanna, you want to do your best and you want to make a meaningful journey and you also don’t want to patronize your audience and you want to give them something new and you want to gift them something. And it’s, it’s tricky to thread that needle.
Ollie Palmer: Yeah… I bring that film up because I identify so much with it. Every time I go through a creative process, I find myself sort of, or at least a large scale project of any kind. I find myself playing. Both Rose and hating myself for playing the other one, if you know what I mean. Okay. That was a super lazy way to, to resolve that thing, but equally, why do I try to make it so hard? Why do I have to be solving the biggest problems and this kind of thing? So it’s yeah, I, yeah. I like that it encapsulates the tension between the two sets of desires that you have in any creative process. The sort of desire for certainty and the desire to explore this complete unknown, but the absolute fear that that exploration gives and the monotony of the certainty.
Tim Clare: Yeah. That tension is really hard. It can be really hard if you’re not feeling… [it] takes a certain amount of robustness to be able to be comfortable in that uncertainty. And maybe that’s why you have to sort of balance it with kind of self care and things like that because that is a source of, you know - it is anxiogenic. But like you say, if you resolve all the uncertainty, then essentially you’re you, you no longer have any freedom. So what a pickle.
Ollie Palmer: Yeah. Can I ask you about something else? Not like we’ve, we’ve exhausted this completely, but just because the, I wanted to ask about the relationship between the sort of very generous acts that you do have sort of like making these podcasts available and sort of, publicly helping people with their writing process. I’ve seen your name come up on numerous about sort of like giving feedback to races on their first drafts or their first pages and this kind of thing. And…and how that actually interplays with your own creative practice, because you have published numerous novels you’ve, you’ve written kind of, is it two books of sort of memoir?
Tim Clare: I’ve written one novel, and one memoir and one poetry collection at the moment.
Ollie Palmer: Is there a distinction in your mind between the way that you go about the processes for yourself and the way that you go about them for other people? and I’m asking this - you might be able to tell - for completely selfish reasons in that I, I absolutely adore teaching and I really like the process of sort of being invited into other people’s creative journeys and sort of the, the intimacy of thoughts that you get when something isn’t quite finished, but I’m find it so much easier to give guidance for those things than I do for myself and to carve out time to actually do my own work is a real struggle.
Particularly at the moment - I mean, I think we’re going through, as everybody is saying, pretty weird times, but I just would like to hear your thoughts on the relationship between a very generous act of, of giving feedback and giving work and creating entirely free podcast series for people to follow - you know, like an entire eight week or 100 day long course - and also at the same time being productive author who is, is producing their own independent work.
Tim Clare: I mean, I wish Ollie that I had like a great answer for you that was gonna sort of untwist this pretzel. But the answer is that I feel exactly the same as you: I, in, in many ways in my life, I’m a terrible hypocrite. I help other people because I find it easier than doing the whole_ physician heal thyself _thing and turning up for myself. I turn and help other people because I sometimes can’t help myself or don’t feel able to in the same way, you know, I’ve spent the last nine months writing about anxiety and, and researching it, trying to tell the story about it and trying to look about ways of fixing it. While being someone who, you know, manifestly is not over his problems with anxiety and it sort of, I don’t know, I don’t know what the answer is. I really wish I did. I really wish I had some way of kind of softening or melting down or somehow taking the hard vegetables of angst and kind of cooking and softening them in the kind of soup, pot of self compassion and stuff.
But I just struggle with it a lot. Not every day, not every day, but some days and some days doing my own work really brings me up against myself and the things I struggle with and the bits of myself, I don’t like. And my own insecurities, and my fear of uncertainty, and the nastiest aspects of my inner critic. Sometimes it brings me up against those things, just in a way that working with other people doesn’t.
You know, you call it generous. But for me, it’s just the safest place for me to operate is. Relatively easy for me to feel warm and generous and ehthusiastic about other people’s work. You know, I like what they’re doing. I don’t always think he’s perfect, but that doesn’t matter to me. You know, like I, I can perceive ways to make it better, but I don’t see that as a referendum on their right to exist as a human being.
And, for reasons that I still don’t really understand when it comes to me, I do. I think I can sometimes explain it, you know, on an intellectual level. It’s just like the fusion of identity and role and stuff we do, right, that I sort of see myself as a writer and if I can’t write and I can’t do this, then I like don’t exist, I don’t have any worth in the world. You know, look what you nodded towards when you talked about legacies and stuff like that, and this idea you maybe see writing_ as like if only I could do this, it would make my life meaningful, and I would, something of me would exist after I die, and I’ve only got this one life to kind of like as my chance to make a contribution._ All of that, just kind of like piles up in me in ways that don’t tend to be conducive to creating.
And, and I, and I, I should be clear, like I have felt very critical of other people’s work. I have been very judgmental privately of other people’s efforts and work. I have tutted and rolled my eyes and gone well, that’s either that’s pretentious and self-indulgent or that’s going for the populist easy that’s very broad and that doesn’t really add anything, and that seems a bit simplistic, the message that that’s giving. I had all of those responses. It’s, it’s also very easy to talk about these things and play up one’s self-loathing because it’s probably the most palatable and sympathetic form of kind of creative writing neuroses, right? Like as opposed to jealousy, as opposed to kind of condescension, as opposed to private judgment of others and things like that, all of which I’ve experienced. And still to an extent, although much less do experience, but I just don’t know what the, what the answer answer. And maybe if you caught me on a different day, I would have a slightly more upbeat on.
So, you know, what’s interesting to me is, is, you know, reading about how people rate their life satisfaction, on a kind of ordinal scale that it seems like about 70% of how they rate their status, how satisfied they are with their lives, it seems about 70% of that number that they put down is dependent on their mood in that moment. Which kind of makes an intuitive sense, right? But just that we’re not very good at disentangling, our sense of how well we’re doing or how we should approach a project from how we’re feeling in that moment. And maybe sometimes you, you can take a step away because you stuck to make decisions about how you’re going to feel about something in the future or how something’s going to make you feel now, what they call affective forecasting, where you start to have having a sense of how something is going to change your emotions.
And then it doesn’t, and you feel terrible…you imagine you’re going to get the book out and then finally you can rest. Finally, you’ll feel good about, finally you can accept yourself and you just won’t. And like as a struggling writer or whatever you can can tell yourself, in a way that would be a nice problem to have, you know, you kind of think, well, when I get there to success, and I’m still not satisfied, oh, you know, I’ll rue the day I’ll go oh no, this book, didn’t this book coming out and being published, didn’t make me happy, but at least I’ll be sad and have abook out. You kind of, I take it very seriously because it’s something in the future. And you wonder whether you would feel secretly a bit better. I, I just, I, I, I’ve just got to come back to the theater to the place that I think anxious people, people who experienced anxiety feel least comfortable, but maybe I hope fingers crossed - gosh, I’ve got to believe this. Like, it’s one of the more fertile places for creativity and change, which is, I don’t know, like it’s s uncertain. I don’t know what the answer is, and I don’t know what the answer is for myself. And I try to still stare other people towards it, but I realize they might quite legitimately go_ well, if you believe in all this and why doesn’t it work for you? Why isn’t this stuff making you feel better? Why aren’t you coping?_ You know, are you not sort of just climbing into the kind of like guru clown suit and, prancing around to distract from your own failings and pain. And if this hypothetical and rubber, I have to say pointed stranger, were to say that to me, then my answer would be, yeah, you’re probably spot on. I don’t, I don’t know what the answer is for me. Like I just have no idea. You know, maybe that’s maybe that’s part of the journey. Maybe we find different meanings at different times, maybe sort of meaning and the answers are contextual, and it’s like victory Frankel talking about the meaning of life saying there can’t be a contactless one in the it’s like asking what is the meaning of life is like asking what’s the best move in chess. Like depends on what the board state is and where you are now. Or as the author Steve Aylett puts it_ being a geniusis like being a sniper. It’s not enough to be one. You have to be one at something_.
I, so I, I think sometimes we might be able to find kind of like temporary and contingent answers to these questions at the moment. I don’t know these, the answer I’m afraid, Ollie, sorry.
Ollie Palmer: Oh, no, no, I, I, I wasn’t by any means expecting you just to go, Oh, I, I know absolutely what the relationship between these two parts of the creative process or parts of my life are at all. And, going back to, you know, earlier on we were talking about this sort of universal theme, I think that one of the great struggles of any creative endeavour is that it’s far easier to cast judgment and to provide guidance on something that isn’t your own because it’s, it’s a lot easier to feel like you can see that thing from the outside, as opposed to seeing the entire process that has been through. At least that’s the way I feel about my own work. I find it so much easier to, to help other people do work. And I hope I do. I hope, I hope I’m not just like some, you know, near say are coming in and sticking their oar in where it’s not necessary, but. It’s a lot easier to do that and have a sense of objectivity to it than it is with my own stuff.
And that also, when, when giving feedback to other people, I feel like they probably already know half their own inner critic who has shouted them down a million times throughout this process. And who’s, who’s gone through the stuff that I go through whenever I go through a creative process of sort of wondering about my own self worth, my own ability to call myself whatever it is, that’s the medium I’m working in or this kind of thing that you were describing.
So there’s no point in me doing any of those things because they’ve already done it to themselves. But you can sort of nudge them towards slightly different mode of practice, which would round something off better or would make the context more explicit or, you know, any of the other things that might be useful for that project.
Tim Clare: Yeah, I think that, that, I think that’s true. I think there are some times it’s just a bunch of like technical stuff. You can remind people of some like first principles that kind of like with all the stuff you’ve got to consider when you’re, producing any kind of project can get lost, just cause it’s just such an overwhelming amount of stuff.
You’ve got to kind of like retain in your brain. But like, I must admit more and more. I do. I do find myself maybe, cause it’s just what I crave so much, but I just end up shifting towards trying to reach out this, offer people emotional support, because not even emotional support, but encouragement and feedings that whatever happens, they’re going to be okay.
Because, I suppose that just removes one, actually unnecessary stress from the process, or just lessens it out, feeling that there’s some kind of ultimate judgment hanging over you on how, what you do rather than seeing it as a kind of iterative process that however it goes is going to give you feedback and is going to develop skills, and that there’s a kind of intrinsic value to it, rather than in how it turns out what the product is that you get the end and how that’s received kind of things that certainly in its reception is out of your control to an extent the product is as well.
But I just find myself trying to sort of Sue the people really, because I don’t know, I just feel kind of mastery is completely pointless if you’re miserable.
Ollie Palmer: I, I mean, I have to say having, having been a listener to the podcast for a while and having done it, that definitely comes across and that, that, that feeling of soothing and that feeling of sort of everything also being all right, there’s a, there’s a great amount of permission that’s granted through kind of listening to the way that your work enables other people to have their own space and to fill it in, and to be comfortable in their creative self.
So yeah, I mean, on a personal level, thank you so much for, for doing those podcasts and for being such a generous, generous coach, even though it’s sort of like a, a strange one- way mode of coaching. A lot of the time with that way, you don’t actually get to see any of the work that people are doing. From a user perspective, it really comes across and, personally I found it incredibly useful. So thank you so much. It feels like an incredible act of generosity.
Tim Clare: Really glad. I just, you know, like I say, uncertainty is something that. Few people, you know, super enjoy except in a limited number of domains. Like it can be a source of anxiety or discomfort. And I think on a really basic level sometimes with any kind of creative mentorship, one of the most useful things you can do is just hold the space for people, so that they have slightly greater tolerance or capacity to bear uncertainty as they try stuff out and then they will naturally find the path through that because that’s one of the toughest things that people have to overcome.
Ollie Palmer: Yeah, but then even, I mean, I, I looked through the Twitter messages that, we sent in to set this up and. I saw that I sent you a message ages ago saying thank you for doing the podcast and your entire response was not to go, Oh no, I did a really podcasts. I was really, I, I was, I think success in the way that I ran this, but just to go, Oh, it was actually you who did it. And it feels to me that what the what’s embodied in that attitude towards helping other people create things is the polar opposite of what you were describing earlier with sort of older psychologists, just trying to desperately clamor and hold onto the author, sort of the authorship they had 50 years ago. And the, the lightness of touch and the permission for other people to fill in their own space around that is, yeah. I didn’t really know where I’m going with that besides just saying it’s very generous.
Tim Clare: Well, thank you. I mean, I hope so. It’d be nice. It would be. Be nice to think. So I don’t want to do that thing immediately. Sort of, I know there’s a thing where people are sort of trying to be modest and then they just to have someone say something kind of they basically just go nonsense and thats not modest so much is kind of just weird.
So you know, I don’t always, I sometimes struggle to let, To let you know, compliments and things like that in, but thank you very much.
Ollie Palmer: Oh, well, yeah, thank you so much for, for talking.
Tim Clare: Thanks for having me Ollie.
I really appreciate it.
Yeah. And thank you so much for the, for the podcasts, for the books, for the performances, for all of the other kind of ways that I, and other people who are listening to this would have, would have heard.
And actually- genuine like feedback from I’ve had two or three students on the course that I’ve taught this year, who I’ve pointed towards your podcast. And all of them have come back with, like sketchbooks full of, notes and found the process really, sort of enriching.
Tim Clare: Oh, how Lovely.
Ollie Palmer: So thank you from them as well.
Tim Clare: Thanks very much for having me.
Ollie Palmer: No, thank you. And I will, I’ll stop recording now.