Many people have flashes of creative insight. Not as many sustain the innovative process from insight to completion. People who achieve excellence in their life work are often creative, whether in art, science, or human relations.
To understand my own creative efforts I learned that creativity has stages that I could navigate with reduced stress.
I particularly like a paper written by James Vargiu 1 that envisions creativity unfolding in these stages:
1. Preparation: Here you gather information and attempt solutions. These activities may or may not yield an original result.
2. Frustration: After much effort, you may not be coming up with an elegant solution. You can find yourself increasingly frustrated. This is a good time to put the problem aside. At this stage, Vargiu wrote that if you relax your mind, you may realize an elegant, original solution, skipping to step 4.
3. Incubation: Setting the problem aside allows it to incubate. Vargiu likens this to letting iron filings organize themselves into a pattern that has been magnetized by an invisible energy field. I think of the field having been being energized by your concentrated efforts so that each thought has an emotional charge. Leave the thoughts alone, and they will attract, repel or influence each other. If you’ve made sufficient effort in the preparation stage, this should yield creative illumination.
4. Illumination: Here, you arrive at an elegant solution that may seem obvious in afterthought. In Vargiu’s metaphor, the iron filings have shifted into a new and unified pattern. It’s likely to be a more innovative solution because it synthesizes the many aspects you considered in the preparation and frustration stages.
If you’ve given a solution sufficient time to incubate and you’re still not coming up with an inspiring result, it may be time to go back to the preparation stage, gathering more information and considering alternatives before letting your efforts incubate again.
5. Elaboration: You’ve realized the overall shape of your solution. Now you make it real in a useful form.
Working with Creative Block
Most creative people have encountered creative block or writer's block. This is central to trying to come up with a new solution. Feeling stuck is no fun and can lead to a variety of negative thoughts and feelings. Once you recognize that the creative process includes a frustration stage and there's something you can do about it -- relax long enough to let inspiration emerge -- you may enjoy taking on new challenges. Creative people who have learned this flow are often celebrated for their talent, but creativity is as much an objective process as a personal talent. That talent is something you can nurture by developing skills and practicing them. An example is musical creativity that is made possible by mastering an instrument, learning to write musical scores, and performing with others. Talent is a part of this mix, of course. You'll need a good ear that discerns different musical notes and emotional sensitivity to hear and play the feelings that make musical performances a soulful experience.
If you feel stuck, by all means find a mentor, work through negative thoughts and feelings with a psychotherapist, and learn to be patient with yourself. Developing your creative talents is rewarding in many ways.
1. Vargiu, J. (1977). Creativity. In Synthesis, 3-4, 17-53. Redwood City, CA: Synthesis Press.