Beyond a Book Review: Creativity, Inc. by Ed Catmull

When I returned from Asia, still burnt out on struggling to make things work, I didn’t think a nonfiction book written by Pixar’s President would help me feel ready to get back to work. But it was the first book on my list.

Before I left, playwright and producer Jordi Mand had suggested it to me after I mentioned my intense summer of writing screenplays for children’s animated television. Though I was dreading to re-start reading with career-related nonfiction, I knew I couldn’t leave it for later. It would either help me get back into the groove or convince me that I need to change career aspirations.

Thankfully, it inspired me to dive back into creativity… and now I’m recommending Creativity, Inc. to everyone.

I could list so many reasons why I responded so strongly to this book and Ed Catmull’s examples. Like him I also had a passion for Disney and Disney only as a child. At age eight, I wanted to be a cartoonist and whenever my parents suggested Hanna Barbara or reminded me of the equally talented artists behind Looney Tunes and The Flintstones, I shook my head and slipped Beauty and the Beast or Aladdin back into the VHS player. [I’m more open-minded now, but this book did nothing to turn me away from Disney.]

Jumping back into Toronto art life with Nuit Blanche projects.

Jumping back into Toronto art life with Nuit Blanche projects.

I could explain how this book is almost more about successfully working with people, no matter what the profession than it is about managing your personal creative life. Mr. Catmull uses Pixar and Disney Animation as case studies on how to create creative businesses built on values that respect the individual and the group–and since he outlines the threats of being sold, threatened, repurchased, and merged he’s faced as president, it’s pretty compelling stuff for any business-mind to read as well (especially for those of us who don’t identify that way).

But I also took away a lot of tools for keeping my own creative mind primed and ready for challenges: external, internal, constructive, and destructive feedback.

My favorite Creativity, Inc tool: mental models.

Out of the many tools that Ed Catmull gifted from his Pixar experiences, I found the concept of mental models the most immediately applicable. For one thing, I found examples of so many animate and inanimate attractions, public service announcements, rocks, and practically anything and everything in Japan and Taiwan represented in animated characters.

Somewhat obvious...

Somewhat obvious…

Catmull’s examples of mental models aren’t quite so odd. And they aren’t there to sell anything or attract funny pictures from tourists. They are what his directors, writers, and creatives at Pixar and Disney Animation use to get through the tough bits of the creation process.

One director likens directing to being a ship captain–even if the director isn’t sure where land is located, it’s his/her job to point in some direction confidently and give the crew hope until the whole crew can see land. Otherwise, paddling just to paddle in circles will only get everyone frustrated and lead to mutiny…



Another director’s mental model likens the process to running through a long tunnel. The only way to get through is to realize that though it’s super scary in the middle, faith in light on the other side will eventually lead you out back into the sunlight.

There are mazes, archeological digs, blindfolded mountain climbing, and more that you’ll have to read to fully grasp–but the point is that putting an image into the complicated, hopeless, paradoxical, and irrational parts of the creative process makes it easier to keep moving forward.

... to girls with hair that matches the geological rock formations at the Yehliu Park in Taiwan.

… to girls with hair that matches the geological rock formations at the Yehliu Park in Taiwan.

It’s advice I’ve heard before, most compellingly from Ann LaMott in Bird for Bird: write one sentence, just enough to fill the space in a one-inch picture frame. You don’t need to see the whole road, just the bit that your car’s headlights show. Or from church songs: God gives us just enough light to see the next steps forward, not the whole path.

Do I sound like a broken record yet? Good.

Because hearing it isn’t enough. That’s the point I’m learning: putting in an audible or visual form, the process of translating the words into my own working mental model, is the only way it starts to sink in.

So I’m making mental models for EVERYTHING.

I’m visualizing the plays and screenplays I’m writing.


I’m making art from the fall season that’s still surprising and new to me.


I don’t have a picture yet, but I’m developing a mental model/character for my biggest on-going challenge: anxiety.

I’m thinking of DRAGONS…

Stay tuned for more reviews and creative tidbits from my trip to Asia and my on-going creative process.


About austinausten88

Playwright in love with Classic films, afternoon tea, and Noel Coward. She recently graduated from Rice University. In the fall, she will be exchanging her English major undergraduate status for that of Theatre & Performance Studies graduate student.
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5 Responses to Beyond a Book Review: Creativity, Inc. by Ed Catmull

  1. love this idea of using a theme to get through the creative process. i’m more into audible themes — each writing project gets its own film soundtrack or playlist. always keeps me motivated 🙂

  2. Pingback: Beyond a Book Review: The Great Work of Your Life by Stephen Cope | gladlybeyondaustinausten

  3. Pingback: One Word 365: 2016 edition | gladlybeyondaustinausten

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