Your Cleverness is Spoiling Your Creativity

Scott Leonardi

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The other day I was reading an interview in The Hollywood Reporter with Noah Hawley, the writer and creator of the FX series Fargo(a fantastic series which you should definitely check out if you haven’t already, but if you want to and haven’t yet, that link does contain spoilers).

In it, he’s being asked about the last scene of the newest season’s finale and his decision regarding how the final moments played out. It’s hard to say much without getting into spoilers, but let’s keep it simple and just say that there is…a death.

This death is followed by a scene of the future in which a certain family member is seen driving off towards their own destiny. A story that actually connects that family member to an earlier season of the show. Hawley said this character was meant to drive towards this fate while narrating over the scene all of their thoughts on what they had just been reminiscing on, i.e. the newest season we had just watched — that character’s past.

Hawley stated that this big final speech felt like he was giving the audience whiplash. He felt he wasn’t giving the audience enough time to process the events they had just witnessed if the whole thing just jumped straight into this grand monologue, taking away from the lingering impact of what had happened.

Even though Hawley said the speech “[…]would have been a classic,” he also said, “It felt like whiplash. I always try to be aware of when I’m being clever.[…]Clever is not art. Clever is just clever.”

Those two sentences really stuck with me.

Clever is not art.

Clever is just clever.

It sort of bothered me to read that and I wasn’t sure why. I knew it to be true on some level, and yet it was like I didn’t want to admit to myself that I’ve relied on cleverness for much of my life, inside and outside of writing.

I had to be honest with myself about how much I’d used that crutch.

Being clever isn’t necessarily hard. Dad jokes can be clever. What bothered me is realizing how much of my own time and energy has gone into proving to myself and others in my life and writing that I’m clever; that I can make up funny jokes on the spot, that I’m good with outside-the-box ideas, that I try to make my writing not only interesting but fun to read by adding all kinds of alliteration and occasional witty rhyming and wordplay. These things can all be useful, fun even, but it’s not inherently an artform. It’s simply recognizing patterns and doing it so often that it becomes second nature. It doesn’t make for good art in and of itself, but it does give you interesting tools to work with.

I don’t take statements like the one made in that article to be some sort of identity-shattering gospel, but I also don’t deny them entry into my perception of self simply because it makes me feel icky to think about.

The things that make us most uncomfortable in our own skin are more than likely the things we most need to hear.

Questioning who you are and why you are the way you are is a good thing. It allows you to test the foundations of what you’ve built your identity around and can expose what’s truly sturdy and what parts of your psychic scaffolding are actually pretty brittle.

Those questions allow you to be honest with yourself about your shortcomings and humble the attitude you may have about the things of which you pride yourself around.

Simple phrases can have a massive effect on you if you take it the right way at the right time. They don’t have to cause you to implode on yourself and question your very existence, but they should cause you to do a double-take on your previous notions of normal.

For example, me reading, Clever is not art. Clever is just clever, didn’t turn my world upside down, but it did cause me to address something I’ve actually thought about before but wasn’t truly acknowledging.

Mainly, that I was using a lot of tricks and distractions as crutches in my writing. If I feel I’m falling short of fully fleshing out an idea, instead of working harder to provide real substance, I’m absolutely guilty of simply dressing up the words and adding funny fluff and filler. I mean, did you just see how many F’s I just used back there? Fuh-get about it (*Italian hand gesture).

…see what I mean…

I’ve always known that I sometimes dip my hand a little too deep into the “creative” side of “creative writing.”

It’s easy to think that’s impossible due to the inherent nature of creative expression, but when you’re like me and trying to infuse essays about identity and self-development with the abstract exploration of the art of the written word itself, it’s best to use creativity as the icing, not the entire cake. Better yet, save it for the sprinkles. Everybody likes pretty colors.

I’m definitely not saying that cleverness and creativity are mutually exclusive. They can go hand in hand at times.

It’s understanding that cleverness is more attached to your ego than your creativity is.


Creativity itself comes from a place within you that begs to be expressed in some external way. It’s a drive within us to give real substance to something that was conceived within our minds as something elusive and intangible. It calls to you to give it form, to give birth to it through creative expression. There are myriad ways to do this, and you’ll most likely be pulled towards whatever artform magnetizes you most.

Occasionally, you’ll even create something a little outside your wheelhouse because the idea tells you it would work better as something else, i.e. a song working better as a spoken word poem, a movie working better as a series, a comic resonating more as an animated cartoon, etc. Most of the time, the better path is in the same vicinity where it was originally conceived. There’s rarely a time you’ll see a still life painting of a fruit bowl and think, “You know what, this would be great as a Broadway play.” Although, in this day and age, who knows anymore.

Creativity comes from a place that is servicing something greater than the creator. It seeks to provide itself to the world around it. It wants to enlighten, to entrance, to entertain. Rarely does it want to be expressed solely for the purposes of the person expressing it. Although it does usually relieve the creator of pent up emotional energy and provides them with a kind of solace and serenity they can’t find anywhere else, if it’s meant to be seen, it normally doesn’t stay where it was born. It will find its audience eventually. Sometimes even years after the artist’s death.


On the other hand, cleverness doesn’t come from the same source. It may be a child of your creative instincts, but it’s more of a plaything of your ego. It’s a toy that your ego grew up holding like a security blanket. It’s always been there providing some sort of comfort for you, but it was never meant to be your sole creative instrument.

Your cleverness can be a crutch that you continue to use to walk even though you have two healthy legs. It can be training wheels you insist on reattaching to your bike just in case even though you know you’re fully capable of popping wheelies. It’s like a behavioral tick. We need to use our cleverness every now and then to prove to ourselves that we haven’t lost our quick wit lest we be cast back into the weeping mass of mediocrity; a fate worse than death for some.

You can tell when you’re just being clever instead of creative.

Your desire to be clever will be coming from you. It won’t feel as if you’re simply relaying insight from that ethereal place where all good ideas are born. It will come from your own personal preferences about what is smart, or witty, or chuckle-worthy. It will have nothing to do with the bigger picture of the idea itself, it will just be essentially like signing your personal insignia in noticeable areas so the people experiencing your idea will know that it was you who thought of it. That, instead of being able to see it was you who just happened to be the conduit for a force greater than yourself. The rod that happened to catch the lighting.

But being clever isn’t always a detriment by any means. It’s just the incessant need to continually prove your cleverness that hinders your development as a creative and can make your art suffer. I don’t mean to say one should avoid it at all costs. It’s my personal bread and butter, but that’s no meal to survive on without also eating something a bit more substantial.

Think about your own art.

What about it stands out as transcendent and what is obviously a personal preference? Is it made up entirely of personal peculiarities? Or is there obviously something about it that stands out as coming from beyond you?

Try and pinpoint exactly what it is about your art that you lean on every time you’re feeling stuck.

Every time you’d rather continue working than thinking of a creative way forward, what’s your go-to technique for slapping something down and moving on? Do you ever go back and change it? Or have you gotten so used to relying on old tricks that you’ve forgotten to bother setting them aside for something more profound?

Have your tricks become your trade? Don’t you think it’s time you provide instead of play? I’m doing it right now, aren’t I…

I’ve gone back and read things I’ve written in the past. The further back in time I go, the more this elicits a symphony of anguish and eyerolls. But the further ahead I read throughout the years, the more I can see a true connection slowly growing between myself and the creative powers that be. The less I seem to be relying solely on humor and witty wordplay, and the more I’m clearly relaying something beyond myself — an idea outside of my crutches and bad writing habits.

Go back into your own work. What parts about it do you see getting better and which parts are sticky bad habits you can’t shake? Do you notice that you still hold onto techniques that no longer serve your greater talent? What about them compels you to hold onto them? Do they simply make you feel comfortable, like no matter how far into your art you get, you’ll still have the thing that made you feel comfortable when you started?

Are you still holding onto your early artist’s security blanket?

If you are, you need to notice how you’ll never be able to use both your hands to do real work if you’re always using one to hold onto your bad habits.

You don’t have to throw away what makes you comfortable, but your confidence in yourself and your artistry doesn’t come from your crutches and clever tricks, it comes from the source of your genuine creativity. It comes from the place inside you that you’ve dug into and nurtured over the years to eventually become your wellspring of authentic expression. It’s a liquid from the True Source, and it doesn’t need your clever-looking bucket to pull it from the depths of your psyche. It simply needs you to be open to its flowing presence in your life.

You don’t need to get by on your wits alone.

Your personal expression is more than simply a clever trick, it’s a state of being with roots touching the deepest pockets of your creative spirit. The clever toys that have gotten you this far aren’t to be boxed and fated to the attic, but they also shouldn’t be the centerpiece of your inner sanctuary. Hang them on the wall, be proud of them. Just don’t be obsessive about them.

Don’t let your cleverness ruin your true creative nature.

You may feel safe and confident using what gives you comfort, but as we all know, real growth never comes from feeling comfortable.

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I write a lot about self-development and personal growth. I want to help people uncover their authentic selves through creative expression and in the process understand their place in the world a little better. I also enjoy writing screenplays, short stories, and poetry. All of which can be found at

Imperial Beach, CA

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