Stages of Creativity

I spend a lot of time thinking about the creative process from a practical point of view, but not much thinking about the nature of creativity itself. So, I was intrigued when I came upon a reference to Graham Wallas’s Stages of Creativity. (quoting Wikipedia here)

(i) preparation (preparatory work on a problem that focuses the individual’s mind on the problem and explores the problem’s dimensions),
(ii) incubation (where the problem is internalized into the unconscious mind and nothing appears externally to be happening),
(iii) intimation (the creative person gets a “feeling” that a solution is on its way),
(iv) illumination or insight (where the creative idea bursts forth from its preconscious processing into conscious awareness); and
(v) verification (where the idea is consciously verified, elaborated, and then applied).

I’m not quite sure what to make of this. It’s an interesting break-down of the process of having an idea from an observational point of view, and it puts me in mind of a recent guest post I read on Livia Blackburne’s blog. And on the one hand, it squares pretty well with a lot of my experience: I can sit and obsess over a problem for hours, but it’s only when I’ve moved on to some other task that the answer comes to me. Step 3 seems out of place to me (and the article does note that many lists leave it out) and I’m not sure that step 5 is usually anywhere near that explicit.

On the other hand, this is not the only way I know to generate ideas. And as psychology it’s probably pretty thoroughly out of date (anyone care to comment on the current state of the science in this regard?). But it has gotten me thinking about how ideas come to me. On reflection, I think that I get ideas in two main ways: after an incubation period as above (nine times out of ten, step 4 occurs while I’m doing the dishes, which is why I’ll never buy a dishwasher), but also in the process of conversation.

I’m not a big one for brainstorming. Sitting down and deciding to come up with ideas is the best way to make the well dry up for me. I start staring at the paper and wondering what I’ll have for dinner. But when I talk something out, the ideas often come freely. I can start explaining something that’s not fully baked, and find that the words come to me without trouble even when I get into areas I hadn’t consciously thought about before. They’re not always the right words, but I’ve learned to be confident in that stream of words.

To my mind, then, that list of stages above can be cut off at stage 3/4 and replaced with

(iii) application (put yourself in a position of needing the idea right now)
(iv) validation (think about what just came out of your mouth and see whether you need to backtrack)

I’ve probably just erased a lot of my credibility right there 🙂 But that seems to me closer to the way creativity works for me. Sure, there’s some incubation time, but if I sit and do nothing but dishes, only a few ideas will “just come to me”. It’s like writing with a new pen: you’ve got to start your line before the ink will flow. To some extent, this works for me in just sitting by myself and writing the text or an outline, but dialog with someone else works better for me. I can make a lot more progress on a plot just explaining it to someone on IM or over coffee than I can by talking to myself.

How about the rest of you? Do either of these stages describe the way your brilliant brain babies explode onto the world, fully formed and in armor?

(Edit: Changed that last link to one with pictures)

12 thoughts on “Stages of Creativity

  1. My brilliant brain babies explode into the world more like…well, think “John Hurt in ALIEN.”

  2. “I can make a lot more progress on a plot just explaining it to someone on IM or over coffee than I can by talking to myself.”

    This is true for me, too. I’ve often thought writers should hire people like therapists to sit and listen to us talk about our stories for an hour a week. That would be enormously helpful for me. It’s hard to find people who are willing to listen for that long, without giving unhelpful advice.

    Also, re: brainstorming, I used to think I hated it too, but I’ve begrudgingly accepted that when I actually DO it, ideas really do come. Not right away– for the first while, I’m just staring at the page thinking about what I want for dinner– but if I keep sitting there and I make myself start typing, it’s amazing how much more I can work out than I could have just thinking inside my head.

    But I do eventually have to talk it out out loud, even if it’s only to myself, which makes me sound crazy to my roommates but I can’t write without doing it.

    1. Yeah, it’s hard to train listeners to not give advice. But it’s rude to glare at them and say, “I wasn’t talking to you,” especially if you interrupted them to jabber at them. I think the answer is to just cultivate a reputation for eccentricity, and to tip really well.

      Talking to yourself is not a bad substitute, as long as it’s out loud. The pop psych explanation I’ve heard is that the information takes a different route into the other half of the brain or your subconscious or the alien parasite or whatever, than it does when you just sit and think to yourself.

      1. “I think the answer is to just cultivate a reputation for eccentricity, and to tip really well.”

        Quite possibly the answer to all of life’s dilemmas!

  3. If you view programming as simultaneously art and science, then I’d say some of those stages apply, but your change is more applicable.

    Incubation is certainly something I do when looking at the more complex bugs or code changes (despite the fact that thought is increasingly frowned upon in our profession). If I don’t have at least two things to do at work sometimes that creates mental deadlock (which can be unbreakable in my current work environment). Validation is either the working change or your mathematical proof that it works. (Does anyone actually write proofs for software anymore?)

    Intimation, at least for the more scientific arts, is really more of a state change from “no idea” to “got it!” and not so much an independent stage. Probably why it’s commonly omitted.

    1. Yeah, I had programming partly in mind there — when you get into the groove it’s easy to find yourself doing something you never explicitly planned, but that works really well. I don’t know of any place that still does proofs for software, no. Maybe they might prove big-O execution times, but that’s it.

      The point about having two things to do at all times is well-taken. It works that way in fiction, too, at least for me: you’ve got to have a couple things on different burners or do drive yourself into a corner and can’t see the way out. Of course, “reading Slashdot” is occasionally the second thing to do 😉

  4. I assume there must be some underlying process by which all humans create, but since mine seem to change depending on a complex set of variables, I can’t claim to have an idea of what that is.

    I’ve always found that good ideas come pouring out of my mouth without any internal examination if I start yapping at someone about my story, like you said. Recently I discovered (with the digital recorder I bought for VP) that it’s specifically solving problems that I can do better aloud.

    If I took a stab at it I’d say:

    1) Absorption, by which apparently unrelated data is collected through even minor interest the creative subject has for the material.

    2) Compilation, either subconsciously or consciously, depending on the degree of the creative subject’s awareness and willingness to dick around with their own process.

    3) Application, in which the rough gems are fit into the creative subject’s work. This can range from rudimentary to perfect, depending on how well stages 1 & 2 went.

    4) Re-application, in which a stage 3 that didn’t go quite so well is grasped and re-positioned. This is nearly always intentional dicking around with the work.

    1. Those stages make a lot of sense to me, yeah. Certainly there’s a role for revision that doesn’t quite get its due in the original list. I think that outliners in particular get a lot of mileage out of your stage 4.

      I really need to try the digital recorder thing. The digital pen I got is great for taking notes of *other* people talking, but it’s really not that good for recording myself — especially in the car or while doing the dishes.

  5. This is really interesting…

    My second non-fiction book is out next week from Portfolio, a memoir of working retail, and i would argue — from a journalist’s perspective — there are some additional steps in here. For me, I can have an idea for a book but I need to reality-check it first: 1) how many existing books are out in the market already competing for “my” readers? 2) how well did they do?

    This may sound uncreative but it can save me a lot of wasted time and energy. Once I am working on a book, with a signed contract and advance, I alternate between reading, researching and interviewing (testing my hyopthesis, in effect, as I am writing) and the book gets fine-tuned along the way depending what data I find that confirm or deny previous ideas I had about the subject.

    In other words, I may be creative enough to envision and sell the idea to an agent and publisher, but I have to remain flexible enough in the midst to be ready to shift direction.

    1. That doesn’t sound uncreative at all: switching tasks is a perfectly reasonable way to give yourself time to let things simmer on the back burner while still making progress on the overall project.

      And as you say, sadly not all good ideas — even all great ideas — pan out. Being a good idea isn’t always (often?) enough. The first good idea that occurs to you has probably also occurred to umpteen other people. I’ve seen advice for writers to never take the first, second, or third good idea, but to write them all down and go with the fourth, when your subconscious really gets desperate, for exactly this reason.

      Thanks for stopping by, and congratulations on the book!

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