Sunday, March 11, 2012

Creativity, Incubation and the Case of the Missing Winter

Winter Wonderland: Vintage 1940s Postcard
"Greetings from New Hampshire/The Silvery Moonlight"
I think it is safe to say (with two weeks left until the spring equinox) that this is the winter that wasn’t.  Or, as they have been calling it at the yoga studio I attend, our "gentle winter."  While both of those ring true, I’ll admit I've had mixed feelings about this season of little to less snow, mild days and early-appearing perennials and it has less to do with weather and a lot to do with the creative process.

Like many things, such as the seasons, the creative process has four phases: Preparation, Incubation, Illumination, and Implementation.  Each one is a vital part of the creative process.  In Preparation, we do our research and our initial work on the idea, challenge or problem.  For the painter, this means stretching and priming the canvas.  For the marketing person, this means immersing themselves in the industry of their client.  We gather information related to what we want to accomplish.  All of this goes into our brains and, for lack of a more appealing word, churns. 

This begins what is understood to be the most critical and also the most mysterious phase of the creative process: Incubation.  In Incubation our subconscious takes over.  While we are washing the dishes, taking a nap, daydreaming as we gaze past our computer screen and out the window, the subconscious is following leads, discarding unnecessary information and trying out new directions.  Because this process happens outside of the guidance of our conscious mind, it is one that can be so easily disrupted by the urgency of the everyday.  The good news though, is that your subconscious is persistent, and to a certain extent likes to have your consciousness distracted. 

Which is why, when you get in the shower, are driving in the car, or are anywhere pretty much far away from where you do the physical work of your craft, you have the well-known lightening-strike-eureka-moment, when the light bulb comes on and you go racing for a pen and paper.  This is the Illumination phase which is known for its sense of urgency.  Illumination waits for no man or woman, and happens only when your subconscious has fully vetted the information.  This is why you should always have a sketchbook/idea book on you at all times, and also why in the corporate environment the creative process is often found frustrating for not running on schedule. 

From the important and often unpredictable phase of Illumination, which identifies exactly what is needed to solve the problem, or to craft the idea fully, you then move into the Implementation phase.  This is the phase where the idea takes shape in the physical world, becomes tangible, and then can be fully evaluated.     

The four phases of the creative process happen on their own schedule, sometimes messily overlapping with other ideas, and can be fragile.  The process, especially the Incubation and Illumination phases, can be easily disrupted—often by our own unfocused actions, but frequently by our environments which are always connected and accessible.  I found a great illustration of the importance of protecting the Illumination phase in the recent Entertainment Weekly article “Don of a New Era” about the return of the series Mad Men.  Author Dan Snierson writes of the show’s creator Mathew Weiner, “Because inspiration sometimes strikes at 40 mph, Weiner has instituted an unofficial rule for his arrival at the office. ‘No one can talk to me for, like, five minutes, so in case I thought of something in the car, I can write it down,’ he chuckles. 'I have serious pressure on my memory.'"

So what does this have to do with my missing winter?

For me, winter is my season of incubation.  The seeds of ideas and projects that often get sidelined due to my work and teaching schedule, wait for winter.  The snow slows things down.  People stay in.  The still magical “snow day” sometimes happens.  In winter, I return to those ideas, and it is a perfect season for a combination of preparation (reading, sketching, planning) and the activities that foster Incubation.  While I know this process runs constantly, a fire fed by my own stoking, I have come to observed that my overall creative process mimics the seasons: autumn is preparation; winter, incubation; spring, illumination; and summer (my favorite), implementation, when the ideas flow from my fingers into typed pages in the slow, hot afternoons.

So while it was a “gentle winter” it was also a very busy winter.  And now that it is almost behind us, I feel conscious of my creative process and how it has been different.  I remembered What to Do When You are in the Dark, and rather than trying to rush my creative process with a few projects I had planned to work on, I took the time to fuel the preparation and incubation process by spending some time looking, observing, and noting ideas.  (This is why you will see some changes here on The Paper Compass that I hope you will like.)  Most importantly spring is almost here, which ushers in one of the best seasons for my favorite creative thinking and Illumination tool: walking.

How has this season and its unusual weather patterns been different for you?  Do you notice any changes in your creative habits?  Have you observed the four phases of the creative process in your own work?  What kind of seasonal pattern do you observe with your creative process, if any?  To inspire you, especially if you are new to understanding the creative process, here are a few things to consider and experiment with:
  • Preparation: This phase can be filled with an overwhelming combination of excitement for the inkling of the new idea and fear.  Go slowly and tell yourself that you are just exploring.  Exploring and learning are less threatening words to your judgmental mind, than New Endeavor!  Also, it is best to keep your idea to yourself at this time.  Nothing harms the creative and the creative process as much as outside critiques.  Preparation loves consistency, routine, reading, experiencing, prepping the work “space,” learning, and keeping the “secret” of the idea.  
  • Incubation: This “mysterious” phase of the creative process does best when it is away from your usual work space.  It can be difficult to walk away from where you are trying to work, but it is truly for the best.  Incubation loves breaking out of your routine, new experiences, napping, daydreaming, and any activity that is not the current idea/project you are working on.
  • Illumination: The most unpredictable of the four phases, Illumination loves walking, showering, repetitive activities such as sewing, and taking long drives.
  • Implementation: The final phase of the creative process is anything but final.  It is the beginning of a lot of action, and a lot of mini-repetitive versions of the four steps of the creative process as many ideas often come together to make your Big Idea happen.  Implementation loves urgency, being in a state of flow, and not being interrupted.   

1 comment:

  1. Such important thoughts on the process of creativity! All stages need to be experienced and you said it so well.