The Importance of Creative Incubation in the Writing Process

For years creativity experts have agreed that for most people, creativity comes to them in a cyclical fashion. It's a rare person who can create and create and create nonstop (people with hypergraphia come to mind...but that almost seems more like torture in many ways).

When it comes to creative effort, motivation goes hand in hand. Creativity researcher Raymond S. Nickerson explains his 1999 essay, Enhancing Creativity, that:

not only is motivation is essential to creativity, but internal motivation is a more effective determinant of creative productivity than is external motivation. In my view, motivation — is fueled, in part, by the desire for recognition of accomplishment.

Accomplishment. I do think that is true. I've always been driven by an inner desire to succeed and even more so when it comes to the one thing that I feel I do best — my writing.  Yet sometimes it’s not just a desire to accomplish that pushes people into creative mode.

Oddly, being creative often comes out of an initial creative burst that occurs in the first place.  That's right, creativity begets further creativity. A nice little catch-22.  It essentially gets back to the key thing that every artist and creator should be doing in the first place. Creating something every day even if it's just crap. Because one day it may be less crappy than the day before and perhaps the next day...that burst of flow that Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi describes in his must-read book, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience as "a state of concentration or complete absorption with the activity at hand and the situation."  In other words, that place that we all desperately wished came easy to each of us whenever we sat down to write, or in front of the canvas to paint or with the blank sheet of music waiting for chords. Endless creative flow.  The easiest way to get there is to practice and to create and to just start working.

But before I go in that direction, let's talk about the step that sometimes occurs before the creativity begins to flow, that of incubation.

Incubation, or the idea of sitting and warming an idea, is, in my mind, crucial to a successful creative process. In the days that lead up to a steady writing flow, I often spend a lot of time thinking and gathering my thoughts about the writing at hand. It might be a bit of research. It could be jotting down ideas and notes. It may even take the form of sucking down a few new books on craft just to help me regain a little perspective on better ways to present POV or to spice up dialogue. It could be reading anything I can get my hands on related to the story in my head. One of my favorite things to do during this time is to take a scene and think it over as I'm going to sleep--write it in my mind, essentially, until I just pass off into a dream world where sometimes my sub-conscious continues to work on the idea.

I've been doing a LOT of incubating as I am gearing up to work on book two while I’m shopping around the first book. It helps for me to take a lot of time when I start to feel the story. I need to consider all the angles and understand the characters.  

Note that an incubation period should not take the place of writing itself. At some point you commit to putting your backside into the chair and start filling up the screen. I find that putting a deadline in front of me—the starting deadline helps.  Having that date helps me to prepare for the work at hand.

That goes back to the bigger question--if you aren't creating, how do you get back into the creative mode?

For me there are only a few key steps:

  1. Define the goal. 
    Write it down. Journal about this for a few days if that will help you. Write down the START date, whether or not its tomorrow or two weeks from now.
  2. Prepare your space(s).
    It could be clearing off your desk. Buying new paper for your printer. Preparing a laptop bag with key essentials for your trip to the coffee shop or library. Downloading new software to take notes. You get the picture.
  3. Create and commit to a schedule.  Maybe you are a weekend writer. Is your day to write all day Sunday? Or are you a mother who can only write 30 minutes at naptime and 30 minutes after bedtime? Most of us have a good idea of our week ahead. Start with those 7 days. When will you write and for how long? Calendar it if you have to. Put it in your Outlook or Google calendar. And stick to it.
  4. Derriere in the chair. This is the most important step, of course. The previous three are meant only to help you get this far. It bears repeating. Sit, even if you don't get much in the way of substance. Sit, even if you are just re-reading your previous draft and taking notes. Sit, even if all you can manage to do is outline your next chapter. Sit and do SOMETHING related to your project at hand.
  5. Repeat #4.
  6. Repeat #4.
  7. Etcetera.

Flow will only happen if you are working every day to create. There is a mix of understanding the subject, mastering your tools and being at home with your story that is necessary before flow arrives—and that may take multiple days and multiple tries.

Not to be discouraging, but Malcolm Gladwell argues in his latest book, Outliers, that it takes 10,000 hours to be a master at your craft. He cites a million different examples ranging from the Beatles, to Canadian hockey players to Bill Gates and Beethoven. I don't agree with this theory completely, but I think that in many ways Gladwell is on to something. They didn't come up with the old adage "Practice makes perfect" for nothing, right?

All the more reason to tackle step #4 today. You and me both!



Image via Wikipedia


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About the Author

Crystal King is a 30-year marketing, social media and communications veteran, freelance writer and Pushcart-nominated poet. She is the author of the FEAST OF SORROW, about the ancient Roman gourmand, Apicius, and THE CHEF'S SECRET about the famous Renaissance chef Bartolomeo Scappi. Currently Crystal works as a social media professor for HubSpot, a leading provider of Inbound marketing software. Crystal has taught classes in writing, creativity, and social media at Harvard Extension School, Boston University, Mass College of Art, UMass Boston and GrubStreet writing center. A former co-editor of the online literary arts journal Plum Ruby Review, Crystal received her MA in Critical and Creative Thinking from UMass Boston, where she developed a series of exercises and writing prompts to help fiction writers in media res. Find her on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, or at her website:

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