At times, when pressure mounts and you have to meet impossible deadlines, you set creativity aside and take the easy way out; you revert to clichés, breeziness, and other cheap tricks. After awhile, it becomes a habit and your integrity as a writer wavers. You become a hack. While the exact formula for creativity remains elusive, learning when, where, and how you are in the various stages of the creative process will help you get “in the zone” when you need to, and with practice, bring inspiration within your reach to get you out of that dreaded mediocre rut (or rot).
There are generally five stages in the creative process: First Insight, Saturation, Incubation, Illumination, and Verification. The duration for each phase may vary, depending on the person, the idea, or the material.
The first stage of the creative process is finding or formulating a problem. The tricky part about this stage is that it requires creativity in itself. As Albert Einstein put it, “to raise new questions, new possibilities, to regard old questions from a new angle, requires creative imagination.” One of the most effective techniques is rambling. Make a list of the words, phrases, or ideas that you associate with the topic you have to write about. Let your stream of consciousness and collective unconscious do the work. For example: Yellow pad papers. Yellow is a happy color. It’s the color of the sun and lilies. They say that it’s a bad color choice for a baby’s room because it’s psychologically disturbing and can make the baby insane. I heard yellow is a good color for pad paper because it stimulates the mind, makes you think. It’s mostly used in college and in the professional world. Happiness, insanity, intelligence: What do these three have in common in relation to yellow pad paper? Does the effect of writing on yellow pad paper differ with age? Why is it associated with adults and serious work, and why aren’t grade school kids using them in school? At this stage,forget about grammar and tense and making too much sense.
Once you’ve hit an interesting problem and narrowed down your topic, research what you can about it and saturate yourself with information. Anything and everything can be potentially useful. It’s better to get more than you need. Get the boring, inane, scientific, artistic, trivial, technical, physical, spiritual details. You’re unconscious mind can cook up amazing connections and patterns with all the information you absorb, things that your conscious mind may be too occupied to hold. Some interesting insights may just pop up while in the process of writing; they tend to do that. At this stage, write everything down: interviews, hearsays, embryonic insights, curiosities, stupidities, interesting bits and pieces.
Rest your mind after feeding it with a lot of information. Take a walk, eat a sandwich, take a nap, stretch, drink coffee, paint a picture, dance, cook, exercise, listen to opera, take a shower, refresh your mind. It’s better to do an activity that is conducive to incubation. Don’t do something that will just add clutter to you mind or stress your nerves such as watching TV, reading the newspaper or a magazine, talking to your boss or your boring colleague, and so on. Of course, what works for one person, may be totally useless for another. Find what relaxes you and puts you in a Zen-like state of mind.
This is the Aha! Moment, the Eureka, the brief cosmic alignment, the answer—the mysterious and elusive stage which is the point of this whole process and exercise. If you do get here, take note of all the things you did and did not do before this (especially the incubation stage). If you don’t get here, try again.
This is where the hard work comes in–projecting your inspiration to reality, into a creative body of work. This is where you put order out of all the chaos and tie everything together using the illuminated idea. Rewrite, rewrite, rewrite. Check for clarity, brevity, simplicity, and humanity.
One of the best advice I’ve read online that encapsulates the whole process is by Jon Ronson, author of Them: Adventures with Extremists. He says, “This is any writer’s greatest challenge: once you’ve chosen a story, investigate all the parameters, turn yourself insane, drown yourself in the details, then regain your sanity, and come out the other end with something …simple.”