Imagine this: You’ve got an idea for a story you’ve been itching to write, and you set the whole day aside to chip away at it. You open up your laptop, sink into your desk chair and then…nothing happens. Nothin’ but tumbleweeds rollin’ around in your brain.
I used to do this. I’d play hooky from my day job, stock up on snacks and expect all the stories that had been building up to gush from my subconscious. Most of the time, I’d end up disappointed instead.
There’s a good reason why we produce less (or nothing at all) during a long stretch of time, versus working within time constraints. According to British educator Graham Wallas, there are four distinct phases of creativity: preparation, incubation, illumination and verification. And here’s the good news: Most of the creative process happens when we’re not sitting at the desk.
Wallas’s theory goes like this: After we get an initial idea, we enter into the preparation phase when we start researching. For example, if we want to write a poem about winter, we may look up photographs of snowy fields or forests, read other poems about the cold or simply read any work by our favorite poets. Once we feel like we’ve got a good hold on where we’re going, Wallas suggests that we walk away from our work. Yes, that means abandoning our writing while we go about our daily lives instead of trudging through. We’ll know we’ve hit the illumination phase once we get that classic bolt of inspiration, or “point of departure”, that lets us know our next move. Then, we review, revise and share our work in the verification phase.
Wallas’s theory makes sense. How many times have you struck “idea gold” when you’re shoveling the driveway or going for a walk? It turns out that letting go of our projects is the only way to move them forward in an authentic, organic way.
The next time you find yourself in front of a blank computer screen, try these tips before you type:
Acknowledge the Barricade: Look, you can’t get around an avalanche by pretending it’s not there. The same goes for writer’s block. It’s okay to tell yourself that you’re stuck, that this isn’t going well, that you need a break. Only when you accept what’s in front of you can you start digging yourself free.
Move in the Opposite Direction: Like Wallas points out, we can make this whole process way more efficient if we step away from the work for a while. Take your dog for a walk. Wash the dishes. Give all those thoughts time to bump into each other in your subconscious to form something new.
Find a New Departure Point: Recognize that the insight you receive may not be some bold flash of light. It may feel soft or tentative. It may seem like something small—a color, sound, seemingly insignificant details—but even the most minute ideas matter here. Once you’ve received an idea that excites or challenges you, sit back at the desk and see what happens. It might just be better than you thought.
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