The Creative Process

The Creative Process

Mark McGuinness

By Steven Pressfield | Published: June 4, 2010

The Story of a Reluctant Entrepreneur” was my introduction to Mark McGuinness. Read it. Mark wears a number of hats—and wears them all well. He is a poet, an entrepreneur, a creative coach and trainer, and the author of Wishful Thinking and Lateral Action. You can also find his work at http://www.markmcguinness.com/ and Magma Poetry.

SP: Mark, your site (which is terrific and tremendously helpful to many, many people including me) is called Lateral Action. What exactly is “lateral action?”

MM: The phrase “Lateral Action” was dreamt up by one of my business partners, Brian Clark—it’s a play on “lateral thinking,” but in keeping with our belief that creative thinking is not enough, and that execution is what truly defines creative achievement, he substituted the word “action” for “thinking.”

Brian, Tony Clark and I started Lateral Action partly out of frustration with the creativity industry, which can focus too much on idea generation and not enough on making things happen; and also with the productivity industry, which has a lot of fancy tools and techniques for “getting things done,” but if you’re not careful you can end up doing lots of trivia and ignoring the important stuff. Both tendencies are a form of Resistance.

In practice, Lateral Action means creating something bold, original, challenging and difficult. It could be a work of art, a business, a piece of software, or a social movement. Whatever it is, you’ll need to face down Resistance in order to make it happen. It will involve making sacrifices—the first of which is your comfort zone. But if and when you succeed, it will be the most thrilling, meaningful, important thing you’ve ever done. Until the next challenge comes beckoning, that is. . . .

SP: You are a poet.  How did you evolve into a champion of creative entrepreneurship?  Was there a “crash moment” that overturned everything or was it an incremental evolution?  And by the way, what exactly is “creative entrepreneurship?”

MM: It’s a long story! I wrote a rare autobiographical piece last year called “The Story of a Reluctant Entrepreneur,” which explained that I started out being deeply suspicious of business and entrepreneurship. There was certainly no “crash moment”—my career has been a series of enthusiasms followed by frustration, in writing, publishing, psychotherapy and management consulting. But looking back, I can see that I’ve learned something important from every stage, they’re like the pieces of a jigsaw that I’m only now starting to put together properly.

I’ve been self-employed for almost the whole of my career, and for most of that time I’ve worked as a freelancer or consultant, doing work for clients. If there was a tipping point in my decision to become an entrepreneur, it was at the end of 2007, when I took Teaching Sells, a course in creating e-learning, delivered by Brian Clark and Tony Clark. For the first time, I saw a business model that would allow me to deliver a lot more value to a lot more people, and earn a living without having to keep servicing clients week in week out. That led to the three of us creating Lateral Action together.

I guess the lesson is that whatever your line of work, there are business models that can bring you a lot more freedom and satisfaction (as well as income) from your work, as well as having a bigger impact—reaching more people, and making a positive difference in their lives. To me, that’s a profoundly creative approach, so these days I have no hesitation in yoking the words ‘creative’ and ‘entrepreneur’ together.

So “creative entrepreneur” can have several meanings—it could be an artist or creative professional, who finds a way to make a living from their creative talent; or it could be a business person who takes a very creative approach, coming up with new products, services, business models, and ways of communicating and interacting with customers. For a more detailed description, have a look at my article on “The Three Critical Characteristics of the Creative Entrepreneur.” And for a fun treatment of the same subject, check out our video Everybody Loves Marla, featuring Tony Clark’s awesome animation—Marla is the archetypal creative entrepreneur.

SP: How would you compare the two fields of poetry and entrepreneurship—for differences and for similarities?

MM: Great question! Now that you ask, I can see several similarities—poets and entrepreneurs both tend to be independent-minded, more likely to trust their own judgment and follow their dreams than to fall into step with people around them. I’ve already said that I think they’re both very creative, although in different ways. And maybe they both have a tendency towards eclectic careers—poets usually need at least one other job in order to pay the bills, while entrepreneurs have typically got several different projects going at once.

The differences are probably more obvious. Poets tend to be suspicious of anything that looks ‘commercial,’ and some of them, like me a few years ago, tend to associate entrepreneurs and businesspeople with Satan’s hordes. And some entrepreneurs are similarly dismissive of poets as hopeless dreamers. Terence Conran came out with a fatuous comment—“You have to be absolutely determined, otherwise you might just as well write poetry”—which shows how utterly clueless he must be about how difficult it is to create real art. When you put pen to paper to write a poem, you are competing with Shakespeare and Homer, not just the guy in the shop next door.

SP: I was just listening to Van Morrison’s “Queen of the Slipstream.” There’s a couplet in the lyrics:

There’s a dream where the contents are visible

Where the poetic champions compose

How do poetic champions compose? What’s your process as a poet? Is it self-disciplined in the ways that commercial entrepreneurs must be—or is it more fluid and free-form?

MM: Well, I’m hardly a poetic champion, but fortunately I do know the answer to that question! A few years ago I interviewed some leading UK poets about their composition process, and received a very interesting range of responses. At one end of the spectrum was Susan Wicks, who described a very orderly, methodical process—writing at the same time, in the same place, with the same equipment and mementos around her. At the other was Paul Farley, who said he basically had to be “mugged” by a poem in the middle of doing something else. He really enjoyed the feeling of “skiving off,” doing something mischievous and spontaneous.

Both methods evidently work. I think a lot of writers experience a creative tension between the two. At the moment, I’m pretty disciplined and orderly about the writing I do for my business—I’m at a stage where I need to crank out a lot of articles, courses, e-books, newsletters etc to build my online empire. So for now my poetry writing tends to be more of the “skiving off” variety. Ditto my poetry blog, which I write in odd moments when I should probably be doing something else. Having said that, I’ve tried writing poetry the other way—and found that if I sit down and make poetry the focus of my attention during my writing hours, then sooner or later something starts to happen. So bang goes the excuse that I need to be ‘inspired’ before I can write a poem!

SP: Here’s an easy one. Where do ideas come from? (Sorry, Mark!)

MM: Well I’d hate to see a difficult one! Okay, here goes. It depends on what you mean by “come from”. . .

In a practical sense, most creators would agree that ideas “come from” a range of activities—working hard, having a routine, taking breaks, reading widely, watching films, conversations with stimulating people etc. It’s hard to isolate any one activity—more often than not, it’s the balance between different elements that is crucial. Spend all your time in the study, and you’ll probably dry up for lack of first-hand experience. But if you’re too busy having adventures all the time, you’ll never get round to writing about them.

A cybernetician would tell us ideas don’t “come from” anywhere, they’re an emergent property of a dynamic system. That’s actually not as dry as it sounds—systems theory is a fascinating subject, which I learned about when I was a member of a family therapy team about ten years ago. It’s all about the relationships and interactions within complex systems, which can apply to the creative process as well as family relationships or technology.

There is also a much older tradition, which you’ve written about in The War of Art, that ideas and inspiration come from the Muse. As a poet I’m sympathetic to that view, partly because it’s such a good fit with the subjective experience of having a line or few appear in my mind as if by magic, or as if spoken by someone offstage.

Finally, Julian Jaynes proposed a fusion of the scientific and spiritual traditions in his book The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, which is even more mind-boggling than the title suggests! His thesis is that the accounts of gods and goddesses speaking to human beings in Greek mythology, the Bible and so on, were not made up fantasies but rooted in direct experience. He argues that human beings were at an earlier stage of their mental evolution, where the sense of self was much more fragile and it was normal to see and hear vivid hallucinations at points of crisis or decision-making—the figures who appeared and spoke to us were manifestations of the wisdom of our unconscious minds, which we naturally took to be the intervention of the gods.

There you go, take your pick!

SP: In addition to Lateral Action, you do coaching—both individually and for groups. What is your career “mission statement” right now? Where do you see yourself in the future?

MM: I think my mission statement is pretty much the same as it’s always been: firstly, to do something creative and inspiring myself, and secondly to help other people do the same. I’ve been coaching and training face-to-face for well over a decade now, and I’ll probably always do that in some shape or form. It’s hard to beat the buzz of meeting and working with creative people who are fired up to do something amazing.

I also want to take my online ventures as far as they can go. The last four years have been an incredible journey, since I started blogging, and I feel like I’m just getting started. The publishing and communication tools that are available now are incredibly liberating—at last, I feel like I’m getting enough leverage to achieve my ambitions on a bigger scale. There’s a huge opportunity for finding creative and financial freedom, and making a positive contribution to the world, and I want to help as many people take advantage of the as possible.

On a personal level, in future I’d like to have more time for reading and writing poetry. And I have two small children whose heritage is half British, half Japanese, so I want us to spend plenty of time in Japan in the next few years—I’m hoping my internet ventures will allow us to do that.

SP: Established models of commerce seem to be imploding right now (the music business, newspapers, publishing, advertising), thanks to various technical revolutions—primarily the internet but also the iPod, iTunes, eBooks, etc. This has thrown a lot of careers into states of terror. One “answer” has been the model you and Brian Clark and others like Seth Godin and Jonathan Fields have championed, which is bold, often web-based creative entrepreneurship. Is this model just a way-station on the road to some new paradigm? Do you have a glimmer of what that New Paradigm will be? How will it alter the creative process moving forward, and how will individuals have to change in order to survive?

MM: I doubt very much that there will be just one answer, and I definitely think we’re on a way-station to somewhere very different. It feels like we’re living at an exciting time, making the transition from pre-digital culture to whatever comes next. I won’t be rash enough to make predictions, but Sonia Simone’s article about the Digital Village resonated with me; the idea that post-industrial society will be made up of village-style close-knit communities, rather than the faceless cities of the industrial age—except that these villages will be organized around common interests rather than geographical location.

So for example, I’ve always been something of a “black sheep” among my friends and family, the guy who was pursuing the eccentric career path. But now I’m in daily contact on the internet with a community of people whose approach to work is very similar to my own. It’s exciting and a little disconcerting.

One way we will have to change is to acclimatize to the technologies of social media. I remember reading a story about Nora Joyce, James Joyce’s wife, when she first encountered a telephone. She picked it up and said “I hear you, but I don’t see you!” For someone of her generation, that was an incredibly disorienting shift of perspective, yet nowadays we hardly notice telephones—they are just another way of talking to people. I think a lot of us are at the ‘Nora Joyce stage’ with social media—we’re entranced and somewhat overwhelmed by the tools, whereas for the younger generation of digital natives, it’s just how they talk to people.

SP: I read your e-book “Time Management for Creative People.” I have used the Urgent/Important model in my own head, but I never thought of what you said: doing what’s important but not urgent. You are right: “over time, the more you are dealing with important things before they become urgent, the fewer ‘urgent and important’ tasks you will have to deal with.” That is priceless advice. It is easy to become distracted by e-mails, phone calls, and other interruptions. You mentioned that you became an early riser in order to accomplish everything. How did you do this? Are there interruptions with which you still struggle? If so, how do you move through them?

MM: Well, Steven Covey deserves the credit for “doing what’s important but not urgent,” I borrowed the idea from his book The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. And I learned how to become an early riser from Steve Pavlina’s blog. His basic advice is not to worry about losing sleep by getting up early—get up at your allotted time, and catch up on any lost sleep by going to bed early that evening. After a while, your body clock adjusts.

At the moment, the biggest interruptions are the aforementioned children! They’re still babies, so we have our share of nocturnal interruptions, and my morning routine begins with getting them changed and fed. I’ve made a deal with my wife whereby she does most of the childcare during the working day and I help out in the mornings and evenings. As any parent knows, it involves making enormous adjustments, and from a work point of view it can be frustrating at times. But if there’s one thing having children has taught me, it’s that some things are even more important than creativity.


There’s a new report up on Lateral Action, titled “8 Reasons Rich People Hate Their Lives,” written by Sonia Simone. As Sonia wrote in her introduction, “The report could just as easily be called ‘The Eight Reasons (Some) Rich People Love Their Lives.'” The core of the report is rooted in living, not just doing, but living. Check it out.

AND—Just up on Lateral Action: An audio interview that I did Mark McGuinness.

Posted in The Creative Process

3 Responses to “Mark McGuinness”

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