Lie, Steal and Stop Listening to NPR, Tracy Letts on How to Live a Creative Life

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In 2013, Chicago Ideas hosted Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright and Tony Award-winning actor Tracy Letts who shared his ten recommendations for How to Live a Creative Life. With pieces of advice like, “read a fucking book,” and, “feel good about stealing,” this funny, frank and invigorating Talk remains an adults-only go-to for creative stimulation.  

1. Don’t do anything.

Go home, sit on the couch and stare at the wall for a long time. And then the next day, do the same thing. And pretty soon you’ll stop thinking about your problems or your schedule or your failings and your mind will start to wander and you’ll start to fantasize. You will start to daydream.

2. Stop listening to NPR.

I recognize that I am speaking to people who have come to the MCA for Chicago Ideas Week while the Bears are playing, so you’re probably NPR listeners… people who start to listen to too much NPR start to regurgitate some of the same ideas and, actually, the skin starts to get a little sallow. Too much NPR is not good for the skin.”

3. Get out of the way.

When you’re sitting there thinking your thoughts on the couch or in the shower, a censor appears. Your own personal censor appears and says, ‘Stop thinking about that. Don’t think about that. That’s wrong to think about that.’ Think whatever you want. Think of the most venal, vile, disgusting, disturbing thoughts you possibly can. Get rid of the censor and let your mind go wherever it goes.”

4. Stop drinking.

If you’ve ever been a sober person talking to a drunk person then you’re aware that they have nothing to say. I know this myself from when I was drinking. It destroys creative impulses. If you want to live a creative life maybe you should stop drinking or at least don’t drink so much.

5. Masturbate.

You probably think that I mean this literally– and I do. Masturbation is playing with yourself and that’s something that a creative person has to do… It involves the body, it involves the mind and it involves, again, unchecked fantasy. You are allowed to think whatever you want to think. You are allowed to think about whatever gets you off.”

6. Lie.

Lie because the truth, in fact, is rarely interesting. Let’s face it, we’re all lying. We’ve all lied a lot. I think the key here is stay true to yourself, know thyself and know what you’re doing when you lie….When you’re talking to me, or when I’m talking to you let’s make shit up.”

7. Steal.

I’ve stolen it all. Everything I wrote was stolen. Some of it is shot through my own experiences, through my own history, my family, my beliefs–all of that stuff. But everything, it’s all stolen. There’s nothing new…Don’t get in your way about stealing. Feel good about stealing.”

8. Get help.

You should probably see somebody. I know that I’ve seen shrinks in my life, maybe because of some of these other things on the list. I’ve needed to see shrinks in my life. Sometimes they can really help you break patterns and sometimes the key to creative thinking is breaking habits.”

9. Read fiction.

You will not get a better window into the experience of your fellow man than by reading a book. So when you’re done sitting there for half an hour, pick up a fucking book and read it for two fucking hours.”

10. Don’t create anything–it already exists.

“I sometimes improvise with David Pasquesi and TJ Jagodowski. They’re two improvisers, they work out of iO primarily, they’ve been doing it along time and they are arguably the best improvisers in the world…One of the things they actually rehearse is openings of the scene. So that moment when the lights come up and you’re looking at each other–and then Dave says, ‘All right, stop, where are we?’ And I say, ‘Well there’s a body of water right here.’ … ‘That’s right. We know where we are, we’re already in the space, we know it’s not magic, and it’s not a lie. We’re already there, it already exists, because it’s already part of us, it’s just about finding it in the other person.’”

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