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The Creative Process in 3 Simple, Mystical Steps
I was speaking on a panel about the creative process last week, and someone asked about where my ideas come from, how I face the terror of the blank page and blinking cursor.
I‘ve been stewing on that question, and the larger notion of creative process, for a week.
There’s a reason that Mad Men, which did a pretty good job at depicting the messiness of the creative process, ends with Don Draper seemingly walking away from everything, having a transformative experience, absorbing it in stillness while meditating on the beach, and then boom: he’s hit by the greatest idea of his career.
Creativity and new ideas come from mess, immediacy, a kind of unstructured precariousness, novelty, and an ineffable dance between abundance and scarcity.
Let me explain.
Step one: gather things to connect
When I say new ideas come from mess, I don’t mean chaos, though god knows it descends from time to time. And I don’t mean a purely physical state of untidiness. I mean a sort of spiritual and mental abundance.
A surfeit of disparate ideas, information, insights, words, images, trends, observations, and emotions, all hanging out in a room together and forging strange alliances.
Gathering all those things takes time and energy. Reading, traveling, watching documentaries, going down digital rabbit holes, subscribing to too many magazines, checking out stacks of books from the library, seeing plays, listening to music, following your curiosity wherever it leads — all that can feel like wasted time. It can feel passive. You’re not producing anything yet, but you’re stocking your spiritual shelves with provisions.
Because creativity is about making connections.
“Creativity is just connecting things.” — Steve Jobs
In a culture that prizes output and productivity, taking the time for this phase of the process can be a hard sell (though it’s reason #412 I’ll never again go to work for anyone else.)
Step two: let the things you’ve gathered have an unsupervised sleepover
Now you gotta make like a chill parent at a high school party, turn off the lights, go to bed, and hope for the best.
Your subconscious needs space to make those connections.
There’s an art to knowing when to turn the grow light onto fragile seedlings of ideas, and when they still need the shelter of darkness. This is an intuitive dance, and one that also can look passive. But when you’re impatient like me, waiting is active, and tough.
As an idea is taking shape, its outline may be delicate and tenuous. The bright glare of light can scare it back into nothingness. Letting your awareness brush up against it in the dark, then retreating so it can keep forming, is a process steeped in trust. And even then there’s no guarantee that it will grow. But seizing a baby idea out of fear before it’s ready is almost sure to smother it.
You have to quiet (or distract) the busy conscious mind and let the worms in the fertile sub-layers go about their business. For me, this translates into long walks, long drives, meditation, and paying attention to my dreams.
One of my recent projects was coming up with a name for a new small business. I had spent a couple of hours diligently brainstorming, hitting the thesaurus, trying to wrangle something lyrical and true with sheer mental muscle. It wasn’t going well.
Then I closed my computer, went into a different room, and meditated. I freed my mind from actively working on the problem. And somewhere in the middle of that 25 minutes, it simply arrived: the name, fully formed on my mind’s doorstep. The client loved it.
Sometimes it works like that — steps one and two are all you need. But for bigger projects, bigger blinking cursors that require more sustained output or execution, step three comes in. It’s the most uncomfortable, and it’s also the most active.
Step three: push-me, pull-you
Even this part of this post is the toughest to write.
This part sucks. Executing a creative idea through concrete action is hard, it’s messy, and it’s full of fear and self-doubt and a longing for that gentle gestation period when the worms and microbes and cells were doing all the heavy lifting.
But at this stage, something has got to pull or push this thing into the world — a deadline, a gig, an agreement to convert creativity into product.
For this freelancer, financial scarcity and/or the desire for a client’s approval are pretty good pullers. If I don’t produce, I don’t eat. That’s effective motivation to get past the blank page.
Other times, though, there’s an urgent need to expel something that’s intent on clawing its way out of you whether you like it or not.
Often my proudest work is the stuff that pushes its way out. There’s no pre-existing net waiting to catch it, no to-do list item it will cross off — and no paycheck on the line. No one will know or care if I never create it. But by gosh, this thing formed in me, and it wants to see the world.
Ideally, we’re all at various points in this three-step process with multiple ideas and projects, all the time. While I’m pushing this one out, another is busy percolating out of sight, where I may not yet even be aware of it.
What I ended up telling the audience at that panel discussion was that, to some extent, creativity is inversely proportional to security and comfort. If you can’t get away with pulling a Don Draper and wandering off to Esalen, start by simply getting out of a mental space in which the next step on your journey is likely to be identical to the last.
Cultivating unpredictability, a sense that your next footfall could land on sand or stone or cloud, can create the immediacy, presence, and agency that are prerequisites to great ideas. As a freelance writer and actor, a lot of that unpredictability is baked in to my life. For people with full-time jobs (like the folks in the audience at that panel discussion), you might have to be more intentional about creating it.
Creativity is a mystical process. The best we can do is create the conditions for it to unfold, and commit ourselves to being good stewards to the ideas and visions that arrive; dedicate ourselves to urging them toward the light, again and again and again.