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Understanding the creative process

Blog
09 November 2011

Some of my most creative clients have come to me with worries about their creativity. These have ranged from a feeling that they simply don’t have the same spark anymore to serious concerns about burnout.

I’ve found it helpful to take a two stage approach – to reflect with them first on what the creative process involves and what creative people need; and then to think about what they can do to nurture their creativity.

In this blog, I want to look at the process itself, and next time I’ll set out some hints and tips that can help you to help yourself or the creative people you work with.

“I don’t know where the ideas come from….I sit down and it’s almost as if I’m in a trance. The subconscious is producing these ideas based on impressions and its own activity.”
Alexander McCall Smith on the process of writing novels

“Inspiration is the beginning of a poem and it is also its final goal. It is the first idea which drops into the poet’s mind and it is the final idea which he at last achieves in words.” Stephen Spender

Studies of the psychology of creativity tell us a lot about both the creative process and the creative personality. There is also a large number of first hand accounts of the act of creation, from pre-eminent creative people in both the arts and sciences (from Coleridge and Einstein to John Cleese and Sam Mendes). In these subjective accounts the creative person describes a process of focusing on the problem (“priming the mind”), then disengaging from it, often by sleeping or doing something completely unrelated (“incubating”), and then finding that the creative vision springs into their mind fully formed, as an outline which can be worked on and developed or as a new and better iteration of something they had previously been thinking about.

John Cleese describes working on a screenplay, losing his work, and very reluctantly having to start again and try to recreate what he had done, then finding the first version again, and being astonished by how much better the second version was. His mind had continued working on it while he was searching for the first version.

The creatives and the psychologists agree about the conditions necessary for the creation of something truly original. The creator must be steeped in the domain in which they are creating (whether science, music, poetry, or film-making), so as to have the necessary “vocabulary” in which to express their ideas.

They also need to be able to think in a certain way - to be able to see patterns and new relationships between widely diverse ideas not normally seen as linked. Metaphor and wit are key illustrations of this style which is a hallmark of the creative personality.

But the sources also emphasise the vital role of inspiration – a process of which creators are not consciously aware and are not in conscious control. Cognitive and neuro-scientists hypothesise that what is going on during this process is the fast processing of large numbers of links and associations in the brain, many of which may be stored at deep levels in the unconscious. Highly creative people seem to be able to store more ideas and information, see broader patterns, and bring them into consciousness more easily than others.

So, to create, creative people must inhabit their own internal worlds. They need time and space to take in new inputs and incubate and develop their creative ideas. This process is unconscious and cannot be forced or done to a timetable.

The creative person must prime their mind with the task and then disengage and wait for the unconscious processing to take place and the vision to pop into the front of the mind.

In contrast, the creative industries are extravert, fast moving and deadline-driven. Their culture emphasises hard work and unremitting activity, reinforcing the notion that everyone must be moving at top speed, 24/7 to achieve anything worthwhile. The combination of this environment with the passion and drive which the individual creatives apply to their work has generated a self-perpetuating culture of frenetic activity.

There are clearly serious tensions between such an environment and the needs of the creative person. So how can creative people working in this industry nurture their creativity? In my next blog, I will provide some hints and tips which my clients have found useful.

The author: Janet Evans is an executive coach and consultant on strategic planning and leadership, with an MSC in Organisational Psychology and a Diploma in Coaching and Mentoring. She works mainly in the creative media industries and the public sector, having been a senior leader in Whitehall for many years. She runs her own consultancy, Adsum Consulting Limited, and can be contacted on janet@adsumconsulting.co.uk

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