5 Steps of Creativity

In his book The Art of Thought (1949, Watts; Abridged edition), Graham Wallas details what is one of the first models of the creative process.  The implied theory behind Wallas’ model — that creative thinking is a subconscious process that cannot be directed, and that creative and analytical thinking are complementary — is reflected to varying degrees in other models of creativity.  Where Wallas’ theory breaks the process down into five steps (preparation, incubation, intimation, illumination, verification), my personal work with creatives has revealed a variation on those steps.

  1. Inspiration – Through our senses, we perceive the catalyst for an idea that comes to us in a seemingly unbidden way, though in fact we’ve spent a lifetime time ripening our perception for just such an idea.  Our personal histories influence what we perceive, how we perceive it, and how we process that initial spark.  In this step, both the right and left lobes of the brain are receptive and collaborating.
  2. Preparation – The preparatory process is unique in every individual.  In artists, it resembles a problem-solving mode in which an idea has been sparked in the mind, but the execution of the idea has logistical issues that must first be figured out.  In writers, this is a story idea that has not been fully thought through.  In this way, the idea or problem enters through the consciousness and sinks into the subconscious in preparation for the next steps.  In this step, the left lobe of the brain is doing its homework.
  3. Incubation – Whether we acknowledge this step in the creative process or not, it’s present in everyone‘s process and is a purely subconscious mechanism in which the gestation and maturation of ideas takes place.
  4. Illumination – This is the “Aha!” moment many creatives live for, that moment or series of moments in which the idea emerges into our consciousness, seemingly sparked by the most mundane of external/internal factors.  For many centuries, this step was considered that certain flash of genius that only artists possessed, but in truth is the hallmark of every human.  Creatives spend many years training their minds to recognize this moment and have learned the skills to actually do something about it.
  5. Implementation – The step that has derailed many an idea.  The inner heavy lifting done by our minds must come to a point where we can put into motion the idea that was sparked days, months, or years before.  We must have the resources at our fingertips to put the idea into play.  If our skill levels are not where they need to be, we find that we hit an invisible wall which either deflates our momentum, forcing us to reconsider the idea, or – if we’re practicing organized thinking (as opposed to chaotic thinking) – we know to record the idea as it is and set out to acquire the tools/knowledge/skills we’ll need to see the idea through to fruition.

One of the basic tools I encourage every creative to carry is an IDEA BOOK, in which ideas and inspiration had at inconvenient times (standing in line at the grocery store, sleeping, washing the car) can be readily recorded for later access.  This can be an inexpensive notebook, an electronic device (iPad, etc.) or a specific place where all scraps of paper can be easily stored and not lost.

Those who are more fully tuned in to their process can more readily determine at which step in the process they’re in, especially if focusing on one idea at a time.  Lately, I’ve encountered people who tend to work on several ideas concurrently.  One client calls her process “putting it in the hopper.”  (A hopper is a chute for incoming work or material to be processed.)  I think of it as a fictional committee that exists in my head that handles each step of the process in accordance with their specific skillsets.  Some people don’t think of it at all, but allow it to happen organically and without external input.  As we get to know ourselves on ever-deeper levels, we become more aware of our individual steps.