The Hidden Key to Creativity


If you’re a highly creative person, you probably don’t know exactly what makes you tick. Your ideas come from…somewhere, without you knowing most of the time where that really is. But you do know one thing for sure. You want more. More creativity, more original ideas, more zings of inspiration every day. As a creative writer, this is what gets you off and keeps you fulfilled in life. A dynamic, satisfying relationship with your Muse.

Most of us aren’t clear on where our creativity comes from because a lot of it runs beneath the surface. It’s frequently the unconscious realm that supplies us with the images, symbols, and intuitive feelings that function as the seed of our story. Many writers have told me that they see a flash of their main character, or groups of characters, in their mind and the narrative unfolds from there. Or that they suddenly “know” the ending to a story they haven’t even begun yet.

That very important realm of the unconscious is part of every writer’s creative process. There’s a theory of creativity that calls the unconscious processing phase the “Incubation” stage. This is when you take a break from consciously focusing on your ideas so that your unconscious mind can nourish and grow your inner creative ground.

Letting your subconscious mind incubate works best if you can occupy your hands with a distraction that your brain finds creative, soothing, and fun. As writers, we are artists, and that means we are creatively tied to our hands. So even if we’re not in the act of writing, if we’re making something beautiful, something that has personal meaning to us, our creative impulse is still being fed with nourishing light.

Here are a few ways you can incubate at your best, and I do recommend that for the best incubation, you do each of these activities alone.

Getting your hands in the soil and spending time outside, in the sun, is highly beneficial for writers. Gardening is a tactile activity, with lots of opportunities to experience rich textures and smells. It can also be gently repetitive, which helps your brain to relax, and it can be done in solitude, which encourages more of those precious “ah-ha!” moments to show up.

Great cooking comes from a place of mindfulness and balance. When we spend an afternoon in the kitchen, bringing thoughtful presence to each pinch of spice we add, or the careful, steady kneading of dough, we enter a state of flow. As we savor each step in a recipe, we give our busy minds a chance to rest. And as we focus on bringing our ingredients together, the other half of our mind can focus on bringing together everything else.

This is a great exercise if you’re a visual-type of person. Check your local library or thrift store to find old magazines and then go wild. Tear out any image that appeals to you. Bright colors, striking faces, beautiful landscapes. Use a glue stick and some poster-board to create your very own masterpiece. I like to pick a theme before I start tearing out pictures and then go on a specific hunt for images that resonate with that theme. Even if you’re not an arts-and-crafts kind of person (and I’m really not) this works well for writers because our artist-hands get to be busy while our artist-eyes are entertained with beauty.

Walking Long Distances
After walking continuously for a while, our bodies find their own motion and rhythm. Our breathing becomes measured and engaged, repetitive. Our circulation gets going, and so do the undercurrents of those ideas bubbling in our heads. It’s most helpful to walk outdoors, where the mild distractions of your neighborhood noises or the transformation of the evening sky at sunset can occupy the forefront of your mind, letting the creative seeds of your next masterpiece to root down deeper and take hold in the core.

If you’re interested in sounding the depths of your own creative process, check out the Four Stages of Creativity according to Graham Wallas. And if you’re looking for more creative inspiration check out my list of 5 Best Writing Prompts. Remember, most of this whole writing thing is supposed to be fun. When you make time for your unconscious mind to incubate, you can get more work done while you play.

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  • Reply Steph Shangraw 4 September, 2013 at 10:25 am

    Absolutely. In my case, the long walks, generally after dark when it’s quieter around here (I’m in a smallish city), and generally with music – preferably a wide range of it on my player, so I can flip through it as I go and find songs that fit the scenes in my mind. The music also helps bring those scenes into focus more clearly sometimes.

    My other personal quirk, while something new is stewing in the back of my brain, is making cat toys out of yarn. Fun with colours, but not a whole lot of direct brain power involved now I’ve worked them out.

    As wonderful as it would probably feel to be on that writing high all the time, I’m not sure it’s possible – and if it actually were, it would probably lead to massive burn-out. Better to just relax and enjoy the quiet parts of the cycle and recharge for the next upswing. 🙂

    • Reply Setsu 4 September, 2013 at 10:56 am

      Cat toys! Brilliant! Everyone’s got their own ritual. 🙂

      • Reply Steph Shangraw 4 September, 2013 at 11:14 am

        😆 They keep my cats happy and distracted when I want to do nothing but write, and the local shelter can always use extras.

        I agree, picking the wrong activity or getting carried away with it can work the wrong way and hijack the creative energy that should be happily bubbling in the background turning into a new story. Website work can do that to me: I like making my various sites look pretty and organized and do find it creative, but only in small doses. Beyond that, it saps too much.

    • Reply Lauren Sapala 4 September, 2013 at 3:02 pm

      I love the idea of making cat toys out of yarn. And I also have a cat who would quite enjoy my labors! I also use music to inspire the scenes I see unfolding in my mind. So interesting to see that another writer does as well.

      • Reply Steph Shangraw 4 September, 2013 at 3:25 pm

        These are the toys I invented and make: (really need to do a decent video one day on how to do them…)

        Music is absolutely essential for me when I’m incubating. Oddly, once I’m actually writing, I may not even notice whether there’s music on at all, but during the early formative phase, the music tends to feed and colour what I come up with.

        It’s fascinating, how so many things can be so individual, but some things work for others too. Feeing original is great, but knowing that you have things in common with others is, too!

  • Reply Setsu 4 September, 2013 at 10:55 am

    It’s crucial that whichever activity you pick, you enjoy it but don’t go wild with it. Whenever I cook I feel like I’ve lost those hours, and whenever I sing I feel drained of the emotions I’d rather put into my writing. Another ritual activity (if you’re any combination of OCD and physical) might be cleaning/organizing or re-arranging furniture.

    • Reply Lauren Sapala 4 September, 2013 at 3:03 pm

      I wish I used cleaning as a ritual activity. Cleaning or any sort of housekeeping is, ahem, let’s say a challenge for me. As I think I’ve told you before, haha!

      • Reply Steph Shangraw 4 September, 2013 at 3:26 pm

        “A challenge” – that’s a good way to put that. I think I’ll remember that one. 😆 (I mean, write or do housework, really, what’s going to win?)

  • Reply K.M. Alexander 4 September, 2013 at 11:37 am

    For me it’s reading, designing, and hiking, but reading especially. These days if I am not writing I am probably reading something.

    Great post Lauren.

    • Reply Lauren Sapala 4 September, 2013 at 3:04 pm

      Hiking is a great one! I just always end up hiking with a companion and then I lose myself in conversation 🙂

  • Reply Margit Sage 4 September, 2013 at 1:56 pm

    I have a big “inspiration board” that’s basically a big collage. Whenever I see something inspiring in a magazine I happen upon, or someone gives me a beautiful or whimsical card (usually my mom), I pin it to my board. I have a few sayings pinned up there too, and the list of values I printed out after going through the exercise of articulating them a few weeks ago.

    I also enjoy walking my dog nearly every day. I often go with my husband or a friend, but often I enjoy walking alone the most, when I get a break from everything. I carry a small notebook with me in case any ideas pop into my head while I walk.

    I also knit and make art quilts. 🙂

    Cooking and gardening exhaust me, but in small doses, I do enjoy them.

    • Reply Lauren Sapala 4 September, 2013 at 3:05 pm

      I love the idea of an inspiration board. Another of my writer friends, K. Michael Alexander (who has also commented on this post), was telling me about writers using Pinterest to make online inspiration boards. I thought this was a fantastic idea, especially for fantasy writers.

  • Reply Craig Jones 5 September, 2013 at 6:05 pm

    I really like the idea of an inspiration board as well! In one of my jobs, my boss painted an entire wall with that white board paint so we could draw on it and be creative, which was a great experience!

    For me, many of my great story twists or solutions to writer’s block end up coming to me while I’m trying to fall asleep at night… I find myself scrambling for my phone and blindly typing in ideas in a sleepy stupor. Maybe the act of trying to fall asleep and reaching that dreamy state is part of the unconscious processing that you mention.

  • Reply Margit Sage 6 September, 2013 at 9:18 am

    I keep a pad of paper and a pen next to my bed for just that reason (and to record interesting dreams if I remember them when I wake). I can’t stand looking at a bright phone screen when I’m tired (although I can’t always decipher my drowsy handwritten scrawls). 🙂

  • Reply Friday Link Pack | I make stories. 6 September, 2013 at 10:39 am

    […] The Hidden Key to Creativity Lauren Sapala writes a quick article about how to get out of your head and refresh yourself creatively. For me it’s reading, designing, and hiking, what works for you? […]

  • Reply Frank Monti 8 September, 2013 at 11:22 am

    You’re absolutely correct about the gardening Lauren. When I finish writing in the morning I go check my “crop” for this summer: tomatoes, peppers, potatoes, dill, strawberries—-actually, not bad for New York, LOL.

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