The Creative Process
I view creativity kind of like a faucet. Sometimes it gushes forth, and other times it drips and trickles — or doesn’t flow at all. Some folks seem able to easily twist the “knob” on their “creative faucet” to coax out all they want, but that ability eludes the rest of us entirely.
All creative artists experience “droughts” and “floods” from time to time. We may go for months – or even years – without a drop and then suddenly find ourselves thrashing in a creative surge.
The creative process consists of much more than getting inspired, producing a product or delivering a performance and then waiting for the applause.
Although many people expect their inspirations to come alive once they’ve learned a role, composed a melody or shot a photo, that’s not quite how the process works. Creativity comes in phases – some of which you may never have considered nor explored.
Here are the phases of the process as I see them:
These phases are not necessarily sequential. Often their order depends on your choice of art or the project itself. The phases may overlap, interact or – quite frequently – repeat. If you’re immediately thrilled with your work or you’re facing a tight deadline, you might skip a few. But normally you’ll move through each one at some point.
Creativity Phase 1: Identification
This first phase of the creative process involves choosing what you want to do. Whether your “Muse” has inspired you or you have only the vaguest notion about what you want to create, you brainstorm and toy around with ideas. You mull things over and consider what you wish to convey or to communicate.
Researchers sometimes discuss the creative process in terms of “problems” and “solutions,” which initially seemed wrong to me. These terms seemed more appropriate for inventions and science than for the arts.
What changed my mind about the words "problem" and "solution" was something Robert and Michele Root-Bernstein wrote in Sparks of Genius. They said the tools creative artists of all sorts use are “feelings, visual images, bodily sensations, reproducible patterns, and analogies.”
The "problem" then becomes, how will you express your emotions, images, sensations, patterns and analogies in a way that others will “get” them? What do you want your audience to think, see or feel? How do you want your message to come across? Your "solution" is what makes your creations unique and sets you apart from other creators. No one else will create a solution identical to yours, no matter how obvious your solution may seem to you.
So first identify the problem. Don’t worry if you don’t know how to solve it yet. Just work through the process, and the answer will come.
A muralist friend of mine says although he might have an image in mind when he starts a mural, he never knows quite how it will look when it’s done. He just enjoys the process and discovering how it’s going to turn out as he works.
If you simply can’t identify a problem for a creative process, just choose a mode of expression (beads, clay, a piece of wood, a journal) and move forward any way you can.
Creativity Phase 2: Preparation
Next you get ready to work and settle in. You prepare physically, mentally and emotionally. You gather tools and materials. You psych yourself up.
Most creative artists follow set routines or rituals and work at specific times of day and lengths of time. They warm up muscles, knead clay, clean camera lenses, set up easels, tune instruments and play scales, try to “get inside” characters they will be playing.
In preparation to write, some writers put on a special hat or T-shirt, wander a while out in nature, turn on instrumental music with no lyrics, light a candle or some incense, surround themselves with meaningful objects like river rocks or sea shells, pull out fresh legal pads and sharpened pencils, set a cup of tea or coffee or a glass of water or a soft drink nearby before settling in to write. I’d stay away from cigarettes and whiskey, which several famous writers used in the past. Although there’s chance they may ignite your creative spirit, they’re not all that good for you.
Such rituals, they say, help get them ready to create and signal their brain that it’s time to get to work. If you don’t yet have a ritual, consider trying a few of these – or similar – ideas. My own ritual is to pour a cup of coffee or a glass of tea or water, sit on the comfy end of the couch where I’ve created my writing “nest,” pull out or pull up a draft I've written or open a book containing a quote I want to use.
Perform whatever rituals you need to turn on your creative flow, but don’t spend too much time or get too obsessive about them. Otherwise, you’ll never get anything done!
Creativity Phase 3: Implementation
This is the most obvious, most active phase of the process — the one during which you “do” your art. You may have no particular tune in mind. You may be standing in front of a blank canvas. Or sitting in front of a computer screen with a blinking cursor. It’s fine if you don’t know your precise destination or exactly how you’ll get there, but it’s time to create!
A bit of uncertainty can actually be an advantage, so don’t be discouraged if you’re not sure what to do. Just turn on your “faucet of creativity” and quench yourself with whatever comes out. Even tap water doesn’t immediately emerge at the ideal temperature. Give your creative flow a while to run.
Allow yourself to be playful during this phase. Let your inner child out and stay open to new possibilities. Don’t stick rigidly to an outline, storyboard or plan. By all means lock up your inner critic! There’s no better way to stop yourself cold than to get prematurely critical about your creation. Avoid thoughts like, I’ll never be as good as . . . or This sucks!
Leave the door ajar and lay out the welcome mat in case your Muse wants to drop by. Ask “What if’s.” Experiment. Have fun! Trust the process and use whatever comes. If you make a “mistake,” just keep on going. Maybe it will be an accidental improvement over what you originally had in mind. If you get tense and upset during this phase, step away a while. When you return, you’ll often have a new perspective. Give it time to crystallize.
What’s most important during this phase is to get moving and keep moving, regardless of the direction you take or what emerges. Most likely, you make some wonderful discoveries.
Even if you despise what you produce, don’t destroy it. You may find value in it later, or some part of it may ignite a better idea. Hang on to it and watch your creation evolve.
Creativity Phase 4: Evaluation
Now it’s time to step back and examine the progress you’ve made toward your creative solution. When possible put some distance between the Implementation phase and this one. Even a few hours away from what you’ve created will help you see things differently.
Review what you’ve filmed, listen to your recording, read your draft. Only now is when you to let your inner critic out. But remember to keep that sucker on a short chain! Otherwise it may throw a nasty tantrum.
It can be scary to ask others for feedback, but I recommend doing so because other people will often offer valuable insights. Someone else’s comment may make you wonder why you never thought of it before. How could you have missed something so obvious? For my first book, Style Meister, when I was trying to find the best way to communicate the stylistic choices writers and editors need to make, a woman in my critique group suggested a format that made total sense to me.
However, take others’ suggestions only if they make total sense to you and fit within your artistic vision. Don’t change anything if it doesn’t feel right because it probably won’t be. Don’t adopt someone else’s artistic vision for your own. Remember, this is your “baby”!
Consider how well your creation captures the feelings, images, sensations, patterns, and analogies you want to communicate. Does your solution fit the problem? Does everything “click”? If not, try another approach. Put another way, it’s back to the drawing board. But, before you go back, lock up your inner critic tightly so it doesn’t burst back out before you’re good and ready to let it loose again.
Creativity Phase 5: Incubation
During the incubation phase, you let your subconscious ponder potential solutions. You stop concentrating on the problem and step back a while. Incubation supplies the spark and magic for creating.
Walk around the block, sit on a porch swing, call a friend, savor the moment. Your subconscious will supply interesting observations, urge you to notice different patterns, and suggest new analogies. It will will work hand in hand with your “Muse.”
Incubating may occur throughout the entire creative process. If possible, don’t try to start or stop a project at some predetermined time.
The imagination needs moodling, long, inefficient, happy idling, dawdling and puttering. If good ideas do not come at once, or for a long time, do not be troubled at all. . . . Put down the little ideas however insignificant they are.
~ Brenda Ueland (1891–1986), American writer
Enjoy this time away, but don’t keep incubating forever! When you’ve moodled as long as you can or want to, return to your work. If you don’t yet have a new solution to your creative problem, it will come if you give it a bit of space. If necessary, set the project on the “back burner” and start a new one.
The biggest mistake you can make is to stop until just the “right” inspiration appears. That could keep you from ever starting! Your “Muse” will come when it’s good and ready – usually sneaking up and surprising you while you’re hard at work. Stick with the process and keep moving forward.
Creativity Phase 6: Modification
Now is the time to cut or expand, reshape, reorganize or replace your most recent solution. If a new inspiration surfaced during your moodling, see how well it works. Again, ask yourself how well your creation captures the feelings, images, sensations, patterns and analogies you’re trying to communicate. Is the new solution a better fit or are you relatively satisfied?
When I wrote Bipolar Disorder Demystified, I wanted to put ”normal” people in the shoes of those who have the disorder. To experience the struggles and feel what we who have bipolar disorder feel. I began writing knowing I wanted to start the book with an analogy other than the standard rollercoaster, but nothing I came up with felt right.
I plowed on without the answer. Then when waiting for a friend to show up for a lunch date one day, my “Muse” popped in with an answer. The inspiration was to use a tightrope walker to demonstrate the difficulty of maintaining balance when you have the disorder and the danger of not treating it. This image sped my momentum.
Try not to get discouraged when your creation doesn’t turn out exactly as you’d envisioned it. I must admit I’ve had to overcome perfectionism many, many times. It’s been so bad that my husband claims if I were to have a painting hanging in the Louvre museum and didn’t think it was “perfect,” I’d fly to Paris, sneak in with my paintbrush and “touch it up”!
Of course we all want what we create to be the best it can, but expecting perfection can stop you cold. Obeying the “perfection police” could mean spending the rest of your life modifying a creation rather than completing and sharing it! Worse yet, you might give up your creative dreams entirely. Please don’t let that happen!
Creativity Phase 7: Completion
During this phase of the creative process you apply the final polish and declare your work complete. You frame that piece, hold that concert, send that baby to print. It may not be “perfect,” but you must learn to let it go — and keep creating!
As you finish more and more projects, you’ll keep honing skills, refining your technique and recognizing how your unique creative process works.
Finally, celebrate your accomplishment. Remember that no one else could have done exactly what you’ve done. So give yourself credit. You’ve earned it. Don’t simply move on to another project. Once you’ve put this creative effort “to bed” you can start dreaming up your next creative solution!
I hope you’re now inspired to examine – or start – your own creative process. To develop new preparatory rituals. To go easy on yourself while in the midst of creating. To moodle a bit. To accept only the feedback that makes sense to you and fits your creative vision. To be more creatively productive and to have lots more fun with the process!