Don’t Skip This Crucial Step of the Creative Process

November-December 2022
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Novelist Agatha Christie believed that the best time to write was while washing the dishes.

Author Harper Lee did much of her creative thinking while golfing. And artist Grant Wood said, “All of the really good ideas I ever had came to me while I was milking a cow.”

Welcome to the wonderful world of incubation. That’s the third step of the five-step creative process — the one where you take your eye off the ball and let the back of your mind work on your project for a while. Then comes the miraculous moment when your brain presents a brilliant idea fully formed — aka the Eureka! or Ah-ha! moment.

The other steps: forage or gather information, analyze that information, break through with your big idea, and then knuckle down and implement.

The spirit of the staircase

The French call incubation l’esprit de l’escalier — the wit of the staircase. That’s when you think of a great idea on your way down the stairs after the brainstorming meeting or the perfect retort the day after someone makes a snarky remark.

Where did that brilliant idea come from? I don’t know. It’s all part of the magical and mysterious juju of the creative process.

Here’s how to create the magic:

Time it right.

My writing time is much more effective if I research and organize information the day before I write. The next day, I’m itching to get started. The reason: 16 hours of down time have really been 16 hours of incubation.

Kenneth Atchity, author of “A Writer’s Time,” calls this phenomenon creative pressure. You put off that first draft until you can hardly stand it anymore, until you can’t wait to get to the keyboard and let off some of that creative steam.

But incubate before you’ve foraged and analyzed, and you don’t have anything to incubate on. Don’t let incubation become procrastination. 

Sleep on it — or move it, move it.

German scientists have demonstrated that our brains continue to work on problems while we sleep. After eight hours of rest, they’re more likely to come up with the right solution.

Other research shows that the best way to keep your brain working is to get outside and move.

Multitask your way to incubation.

Don’t have time to sleep while a deadline is looming?

Instead of taking a break, move on to a new project. Forage and analyze Project A, for example, then forage and analyze Project B. While your conscious mind tackles Project B, your subconscious will continue to toil away at Project A.

Stuck? Don’t plow through. The best approach may well be to move on.

Don’t skip incubation.

Incubation may be the most misunderstood — and, therefore, the most frustrating — part of the creative process. That’s because it seems as if you aren’t really doing anything.

To Western eyes (and Western bosses) that can look a little… well… lazy. But the cost of going full bore on a project without a break can actually be creativity — even productivity itself.

So, take a walk, take a nap, take a break — or just switch projects.

It’s when you stop working that the Eureka! moment is likely to hit. 

Copyright © 2022 Ann Wylie. All rights reserved. 

Master the steps of the writing process

Want more tips for developing a writing and creative process that works? Join PRSA and Ann Wylie at “How to Write Better, Easier and Faster,” an online workshop including live editing on Dec. 12-16. You’ll learn to edit before you write, find more joy in your work and save hours of writing time every week. Find details here.

Return to Current Issue Leadership | November-December 2022
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