Friday, October 26, 2012

The Five Steps in the Creative Process

I wonder... if a picture is worth a thousand words and I have writer's block, am I short a few pictures?

I have a book by Anastasia Suen called Picture Writing. It's all about using visualization to create more interesting children's books. One of the things she included in the book is a list she calls the Five Steps in the Creative Process. I don't know if she got it from someone else -- she quotes quite a few creativity researchers in that section -- or whether she complied it from several sources, but it's interesting. Here are the five steps (from page 7 of the book):
  1. Preparation: You get a new idea and gather information about it.
  2. Frustration: Your project gets stuck.
  3. Incubation: Your subconscious works on the project.
  4. Illumination: The A-Ha! moment of insight.
  5. Translation into Action: You take your insight and put it to work.
I don't know about you, but I find that second step very interesting... because I tend to spend so much time there! She quotes from a book called The Creative Spirit: "Frustration arises at the point when the rational, analytical mind, searching laboriously for a solution, reaches the limit of its abilities." She adds, "When logic doesn't work anymore, you have to rely on your intuition."

Suen says that frustration actually comes very early in the creative process. That surprised me, since I always felt that I got most frustrated near the end because that's when I got stuck most often. If frustration happens early, does that mean I didn't really have things worked out to begin with? Did I try to start the project too early, before I really knew what it was going to be?

Sometimes part of that frustration phase involves just sitting down and writing to see what we get. But we have to be careful not to mistake this "thinking on paper" for the actual creation we intend to make. To use a sculpting analogy, sometimes we think we're shaping the statue when we're just digging clay.

It's easy to get depressed when you read about established writers who sit down and turn out a certain number of pages a day. You need to keep in mind that there can be some different things going on here.
  • One, that writer may just be digging clay. Every successful writer can tell you about pages of material they wrote that never saw print.
  • Two, the writer already had some clay. This is particularly true if the writer works in an already established "universe" -- either theirs or someone else's. If you've ever tried it, writing fanfic (stories about existing TV or literary characters you like) is much easier than creating a universe of your own. Much of the dirty work has already been done for you -- not only do you already have characters and a world, but those characters have a history. What happens going forward is based in part on what has already happened.
  • Three, the writer may already be at step 5 in the list. At that point, it may (I stress the word "may") simply be a matter of typing as fast as they can to get the story on paper.
On those bad days when the words just won't come, it's good to remind yourself that creation is a process. It takes time... and some of that time is spent in the frustration phase. I think the trick is to simply relax and accept the frustration... then try to do something else. If that third step -- incubation -- is going to happen, you've got to give your mind time to play with the idea.

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