Several months ago I was listening to this NPR interview with Linford Detweiler and Karin Bergquist, married singer-songwriters who form the core of the folk band Over the Rhine, and I was caught by what Karin says about inspiration:
Whenever I get to this spot where this tupelo tree stands, I get some kind of signal. I can’t explain it, but I pay attention, because I know something’s gonna happen; I’m gonna get some words or a song or something.
It’s a great interview, with lots of interesting things to say about nurturing the creative spark—the tupelo tree is on their farm property out in the country; when asked if it is a working farm, Linford says, “We grow songs”—but I was struck by this notion of a thin spot that takes one directly to the creative well.
The closest I get to a thin spot is when I’m behind the wheel of my car, which is not nearly as romantic as standing next to a tupelo tree expecting inspiration to strike. I’ve heard some writers say they clean house or do the wash or get in the shower when they encounter a bump in the writing road. Me, some of my very best thinking happens on the road; I’m barely out of the driveway, sometimes, before I’m scribbling notes. Problems I have been chewing on for days resolve themselves, I remember obscure tidbits of information, and, in particular, solutions to editorial puzzles seem to spring fully formed from my brow.
(It has ever been so. That Athena was the goddess of, among other things, wisdom, inspiration, strategy, is no accident—the mythology of her birth is an apt description of an aha moment.)
In his book Powers of Two, journalist Joshua Wolf Shenk notes,
Over and over again, we hear creative people recounting in their aha moments—the crucial advance, the illumination from the metaphorical light bulb—that an image or a line or an idea presented itself, that it came not from the “I” but as though from a distinct source. These visitations seem to produce far superior results than anything one consciously constructs or creates.*
One of my readers asked about my process for getting ideas for this blog, and I’d not really thought about it until then, but I can identify an unstructured, unrehearsed process I seem to cycle through:
- Something—an idea, an article, an adventure—intrigues me. Things I see on FB or Twitter** or read in books, magazines, the NYT, blogs I subscribe to. Sometimes I hear something on the radio that excites my imagination. I have three or four friends who feed me ideas and links—my “editorial assistants.” I draw ideas, too, from things I see in my day-to-day work that might benefit other writers. Sometimes I get direct requests to write about something. Those are the hardest because they’re someone else’s spark, not mine.
- I make a note about it so I don’t forget. Sometimes just a sentence or a paragraph, sometimes a whole outline. I might even research it a little. Now I’m conscious of it, but in an unconscious way. It is not on the front burner, just “rolling around in the back of my mind.” It can stay there for weeks or even months.
- The thin spot phase, inspiration, the a-ha, just happens. Often something else crosses my path—another story, a different article for example, and the elements begin to coalesce into something that might be an article, so I begin to write. As I do, a hook might suggest itself, or a personal story that will illustrate it. Often I rearrange paragraphs multiple times until I find where the piece starts.
- On rare occasions, the article “writes itself” in a short amount of time, but typically I work on it for a few hours, usually over a period of days. The starting and stopping and starting again is actually helpful to my process. I’ve written about that.
How interesting it was to me, then, to very recently discover Graham Wallas, a social psychologist who developed a model of the creative process nearly a hundred years ago—and my process seems to echo it. In his book The Art of Thought (1926), he proposed these five steps (much neater than my four above):
- Preparation (research, making notes, active thinking about it)
- Incubation (unconscious processing while doing other things)***
- Intimation (hints and “false” starts; briefly refocusing)
- Illumination (the flash of insight)
- Verification (fitting the inspiration into the big picture, or, in my case, writing the blog post)
Interesting, don’t you think? What Wallas calls incubation is probably the most important part of the process for me. The looking away. It simply can’t be forced.
Nor can the illumination phase. Joshua Shenk cites an interview with Paul Simon, in which the musician is asked about his songwriting inspiration. “You can’t control it or dictate to it,” Simon says. “You’re just waiting. You’re just waiting … Waiting for the show to begin.” Time—and patience—are key elements of the creative process.
Although I started making the notes for a post about my process BC—that is, before the crash of my hard drive—I didn’t discover Wallas until AC, six weeks later. I’d heard the NPR interview with Shenk BC but didn’t read the book until AC. So this entire post is an example of how creative inspiration works for me—and many others.
I suspect that tupelo tree on the Bergquist-Detweiler farm is a good little walk away from the house. Enough so that Bergquist’s unconscious has time to “assume the position” most receptive for inspiration. She’s looking at the dogs as they run out in front of her, at the leaves on the trees as they change colors, noticing birds or flowers. She’s looking away from songwriting, but she’s prepared the ground. She’s waiting.
* I transcribed this from pages 110 and the quote below from page 112 of the hardcover edition of Joshua Wolf Shenk’s Powers of Two (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014).
** I’m still trying to figure out how to build a blog around the phrase Not my circus, not my monkey. Got any ideas?
*** Wallas suggested that incubation happens best when we don’t consciously think but instead turn to other projects, allowing ourselves to be distracted from the one we’d most like to solve. This supports that when-you-least-expect-it theory of illumination.
Tweet: Time—and patience—are key elements of the creative process.
Tweet: You can “assume the position” for inspiration to strike. Day in, day out.
Tweet: Nurturing the creative spark: you just have to prepare the ground.
Tweet: Here’s a model of the creative process developed nearly 100 years ago—and it works.
Disclosure of Material Connection: I have not received any compensation for writing this post. I have no material connection to the brands, products, or services that I have mentioned. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”