The four stages of creativity, breakthrough, innovation, and transformation are accompanied by some key practices which can help navigate the difficulties, opportunities, and quick sand inherent in each stage.
The second stage, following wonder, is orient. This is where we do the work of finding our footing in a creative project.
We have been inspired to follow a curiosity, line of thought, insight, or flight of imagination. This is not a passing interest, a moderate commitment. It is more like falling in love. We are taken in by this thing that captured us, and we wonder at it and about it. Now we want to know much more about it and are finding our way toward or into a focus that will lead to a defined project or pathway of investigation and creation.
What are some core practices for navigating the orient stage? The actual practices will vary almost as much as do the possible types of creative project, but will serve a set of common purposes.
Seeking is the in-taking aspect of exploration. This may involve field work, research, absorbed reading, interviews, tinkering or model-making.
Manipulation is a more active and directed aspect of exploration. The purpose here is to learn more or develop a relationship by interacting with the object of your fascination.
What happens when I do this? What is the range of possible applications or effects?
Where exploring focuses first on gathering, seeking and noticing in a somewhat more passive sense, manipulation begins to create more actively through experimentation or interaction. This could be through dialogue, draft writing, sketching, literal experimentation, rough stages of building, continued model-making, though experiment, active visioning, or any other form of playing with the concept, object or phenomenon.
With this practice you are integrating what you have discovered, through seeking and manipulating, about the object of your fascination. And you are coming to a clearer focus about the question, insight or vision that first grabbed you.
Now you are refining your thinking and envisioning, getting a clearer big picture about what you are trying to create or discover, and working to find a way forward. What are you after? What is this really about? How in the world do you really get started with this thing?
The actions of the practice of refinement may be the same as for exploring and manipulating, but you will enter more focused ways of approaching these activities. There will be more experimenting, seeking and interacting, but now it is more for the purpose of moving forward into a piece of creative work than about starting to get to know the conditions and boundaries, contexts and possibilities, of the object of your fascination.
Together, these practices embody the principles of exploration and play. Also, they are not actually separate activities but actually overlapping and integrated as well as iterative.
Consider how as a child you first became fascinated with something and then played with it to better understand how it work, what it meant, what it felt like to experience it, how you could relate to it. This is the work of the orient stage.
The four stages of creativity, breakthrough, innovation, and transformation are accompanied by some key practices which can help navigate the difficulties, opportunities, and quick sand inherent in each stage.
Getting started. Getting stuck. Getting done.
These are the rough hallmarks of the creative process. I’ve noticed we tend to have our own favorite segments for shining or falling.
Are you a great starter, but run out of something essential before the middle, or near the end?
Do you have trouble getting started, but once you have steam can count on yourself to hang in there for at least a good while?
Do you get close to the end, or all the way there, but can’t stop fixing or improving, or can’t bring yourself to put it out into the world?
In the four stages of the creative experience, there are some common practices that may help navigate the difficulties of the stage you’re in now.
Today we will focus on the first stage, wonder.
In the wonder stage we are finding inspiration. If you are here, these three practices are essential:
1. Make space.
If our days are always too full, our energies always depleted, our physical spaces too overwhelming or uninspiring, our heads always too noisy, how will the light get in?
2. Pay attention.
Improvements in space making will help with paying attention, but it takes more than letting the light in to actually notice and attend to what is standing in the light–the wisp or trumpet sound of an idea, question, vision, desire, or insight.
The tools of paying attention are so varied by individual and context, but tend to include stillness, documentation, and exploration: note taking, journaling, walking or walking around, breaking up routines, coaching, meditation, retreat, travel, sketching, tinkering, puttering, modeling, playing, discussing, photographing, class taking, teaching, reading, pinning, and even sleeping with or without dream journaling.
3. Follow fascination.
If there is enough space in your world to allow for moments of wonder, inspiration, insight, curiosity or imagination, and the way you live in some way supports paying attention to sources of inspiration as they appear, this is what remains in the wonder stage: follow fascination.
You know what it is to be serendipitously delighted when web surfing. You go online to find a piece of data, or an idea for a birthday present, or to register for a conference. A word, an idea, a link lights up for you, and you go there. Three to five hops later you’ve stumbled on something truly fascinating, or wonderfully useful to the thing you’ve been sort of paying attention without really knowing where it was heading.
Internet serendipity happens elsewhere, too. We notice and turn down a different street, go to a new place for lunch or a different section in the bookstore, pick up an odd magazine in the waiting room, or sign up for an interesting class.
Often the first turn or two isn’t so significant. But if we keep following these little nudges or fragments of fascination, we often find serendipity–a place where our sense of wonder lands and takes hold. We want to stay here a while, play a bit, see where it takes us or what it means.
Sometimes this means we are entering stage two, orient.
In stage two we will need these three practices as much as ever. We can’t stop making space, paying attention and following fascination. The problems and objectives of stage two will require it’s own core set of practices, though. We will explore this further.
We can debate how much choice there is about this, but there is at least an opportunity for awareness going in:
Most outstanding creative projects with breakthrough potential are going to want to completely overtake the life of the creative person.
It takes a big idea or vision, and more importantly one that comes from deep within the individual. An assigned project, a simply good idea or sparkly vision, even one that is our own, rarely carries the fuel and light to carry us through an extraordinary major project. A COMPELLING project is required.
This project will be a jealous lover and will want everything you have and more.
Can you give it that? Must you? Will you?
If you don’t want to or cannot surrender everything, or what often feels like everything, to this piece of work, is it worth it to even start?
Can you keep the driver’s seat in the project, now making considered sacrifices on behalf of the project, and then also sacrifice the project for the sake of other priorities? Will that work for the project, for your life?
There are no predetermined answers. Certainly no ideal ones. But you probably have some valuable gut level responses which will help guide your decisions about levels of committing to various creative projects.
What matters is that process includes some conscious thought, self-examination, and counting the cost.
If this project is the one that bewitches you, you will know you have fallen in love. Is there room in your life, or could there be, to build that love and let it have it’s way with you?
A curse of the creative mind is the abundance of ideas that spring up. To some extent we love them all, for they are ours.
The common advice against drowning, becoming paralyzed, or spreading ourselves so thin we create nothing worthy of any of the ideas is to kill our darlings, or kill our babies. It is a ruthless and gruesome image, but one that resonates with the feeling if betrayal or even violence that creative people have when forced to abandon a raft of delicious possibilities in order to do justice to one or a few.
Resonant or not, the image can be counterproductive. Who are we to kill our darlings?! So we don’t.
While nearly everyone in the northern hemisphere seems to be longing for an end to this long winter, consider this image as an alternative to slaughtering the children of our creative activity:
Just thin the seedlings so a few strong ones may grow. Cull the volunteers in the garden so the specimens that are truly beautiful, productive, desirable can flourish. Prune the branches deliberately, even aggressively, so the tree can lose the tendency to scraggly and grow to majesty.
Gardening is a creative pursuit, a cultivation of the new, productive and desirable just as your own creative work is a work of cultivation. Gardeners and powerful creatives resist the temptation to let every shoot have a chance to do something. Instead we give the greatest chance possible to the creation we choose to pour our resources into.
We get to choose. Weaker, scraggly, confusing with unproductive density. Or strong, healthy, luxurious, a gift to the world.
Thinning, pruning, choosing become, with experience, more than necessary evils. They become practices of love and guidance for our truly creative work.
Major creative projects have a few key defining moments. Three that shape the work:
What were Einstein’s?
-A vision–Understanding the mind of God
-A question–What is the relationship of light, movement, and me, the observer?
-An eventual story–E=mc2
The Wright brothers?
-A vision–We can fly!
-A question–How to stay off the ground?
-An eventual story–We are free of our tether to Earth
What are mine? It depends on the project, of course. Here is a big one:
-A vision–A common understanding that extraordinary breakthroughs come from ordinary people
-A question–How do they do it?
-An eventual story–It’s a feeling-driven experience that belongs to those who don’t quit or get stuck in one place:
1. Wonder (fascination, pique)
2. Orient (disorientation, play)
3. Slog (I’ve come this far, I care this much)
4. Deliver (trepidation, exultation)
What do you suppose the moments of your project are, or will be?
-An emerging story–
If we are going to build the muscles of creativity, we are going to need a daily practice, one based on the best of what we know about creative processes and on our own creative intuition.
The latter, creative intuition, is at the heart of it our best guide.
So the first question is, do you know how your creative intuition speaks to you?
Where and how do you hear it, feel it, experience it when it seems to just come upon you?
What ways do you have of accessing your creative intuition intentionally?
Some of us wait for inspiration before getting down to creative work. Others of us plug away at it, for better or worse, inspired or not. Perhaps most of us do a little of both.
But how many of us ignore inspiration when it comes?
Inspiration sounds like something that comes in a flash, a beam of light pointing straight at it, accompanied by a swell of music that only we can hear. That can be true, and delightful when it happens.
We get so much other inspiration though, often either not recognizing on it, not capturing it, or not acting on it.
Do you know what the quieter forms of inspiration feel like when they come to you?
Mine is often a slight sharpening of awareness of something-an object, an event, a phrase, a random thought. Other times inspiration is a juxtaposition of two different things, ideas or occurrences, something I almost don’t notice and don’t know what to make of. Sometimes it is a fleeting, half formed question, a small hankering after something, or a barely quickened pulse when my thoughts, my reading, a conversation, some casual writing starts to turn in a new and oddly interesting direction.
These inspiration seedlings seldom appear in a form or context that makes a lot of sense. It’s not clear that this is inspiration, much less that it applies to a specific creative action or project or problem.
It’s a shame that we sometimes simply cannot stop what we are doing and attend to inspiration seedlings. It’s a far deeper shame that we don’t respond to them when actually we could take three seconds and capture a thought, or pay closer attention to what wants our attention.
The bottom line is that we have no excuse for complaining that we need inspiration but it won’t come to us. We are complaining that the wow of ah-hah with trumpets sounding isn’t lifting us from our seats to run to our creative work, burning with clarity and desire, direction and solutions that wait only for our hands to move over our materials and bring this brilliance into being.
When we start noticing and giving some credit and gratitude to the flecks of inspiration that fall around and through us throughout the week, we are receiving some of the inspiration that is all around us.
What will you do about this inspiration today?
The satisfying state of creative work often is in the way it makes us feel when we are immersed in it. We feel the opposite of constrained, bound up or colorless.
The delight of the feeling of creative immersion is partly from the pleasure that comes when we stop beating our heads against a brick wall–it feels good when we stop. It feels good when we seem to rise above the binding feeling of some of our other experiences, and we want to spend more time here, in a place where we can instead expand.
I can think of days that felt rich with the freedom, purpose, rightness, or delicious focus of what I intended to do with that day.
If I had the memory capacity, I could count those days.
The days that felt tight and hard, fraught or crazy, limp or wasted, or simply engine-driven from one damn thing to another are of a number I would rather not count.
But more often our days fall in between, not soaring, not miserably confining. We’ll call them not-so-satisfying days that weren’t bad per se, not exactly regrettable, not even anything to complain about.
We might even call them good days. Good enough. They were going-through days with decent highlights and not-too-low points, though in the end nothing particular to remember them by.
It probably felt good to go to bed at the end, but it probably also felt fine to get the day going at the start as well. But nothing really soared, nothing glittered with possibility, nothing flowed for long enough in the state of grace that is immersion in work or play that feels open and unconstrained, that feels large enough to grow and expand into, explore to find out what is there in the work, in the play, in ourselves.
If the days felt relatively like we were living in freedom, freedom to expand a bit, or explore, or respond naturally and well to what happened, there was a nice glow of satisfaction even if they weren’t red-letter days.
If the days felt relatively constricted, less at choice, more obligated or straining or making regrettable trade-offs and watching moments flit by that we would have loved to follow and call our own, there wasn’t such a glow at the end, unless it was the glowing undercurrent of resentment, disappointment, or confusion about why a decent day didn’t feel better.
Creative work comes from creative thought and, arguably, creative being. Creative being feels expansive, like we have a little room to spread our wings, to grow a little taller.
What we have or produce generally comes not from a magical ether of fate but from what we do.
What we do comes from who and how we are being: our patterns of thought and feeling, what we are paying attention to, what we believe, what we actively (not just in principle) care about, desire, fear, and give credence to.
If it all starts with patterns of thought and feeling, then puzzle me this:
Is your world today feeling like a place where you can expand, leap, play, stretch in various directions? If yes, why is that?
Or does it feel constricting? Do you feel you must play smaller than you are, either because if how others might react to your being larger or doing more impressive things, or because of what feels possible in the tight bonds of overwhelm?
Is there too much of a lot of things and way too little of some other critical things? Is the audience wrong, the schedule laughable, the number of people pulling at you unbearable, the deadline ridiculous, the energy a faint whimper?
You know something about what is binding you, keeping you from feeling that here, this day, this world, is a place you can expand.
You and I may not have utter clarity about what is taking up the space we need to expand into or what we can possibly do to turn it around. But we know enough to start doing something to shift the pattern, and this is all that is required.
If we wait for perfect clarity and feasibility and confidence about changing things, the expansiveness will probably never come.
Is it worth it to wait?
Can’t you taste those days that opened up to receive you, your imagination, your play?
How many more of those would you like to have before the game is up?
Sometimes creativity needs a trigger. I’ve generally liked a writing assignment–an essay or report with an assigned topic, or sometimes a creative writing prompt, though I seem to be less creative with those, or perhaps just less interested.
Does your creative well respond to occasional or regular assignments?
These may come from a class or a coach, a book or other program of prompts or steps that explore some topic or build a skill or perspective.
DIY prompts are richest for some. Whatever your creative media or context, try giving yourself prompts. These may be spontaneous or thematic–you will photograph the unfolding season daily for 90 days, or lead a team discussion about the innovative product or creative genius featured in headlines once a week, or pre-assign yourself a different angle from which to begin your research or writing project the next day.
Focus is powerful for every creative genius, and it may not come spontaneously, but need a little nudge.
If you could tweak or redesign your way of life to inspire and support more of your own kind of productive creativity, what would your life design look like?
Would you need to be rich, or to ditch your day job? Or change your bedtime and rising time to give yourself another productive hour in the day?
Would you need to get married and get your family started, or get the kids into school or grown and gone? To be in love again, or be free of entanglements and dependents entirely? To be more intentional about how you spend the hours you have been given?
Do you need a retreat, artist’s colony, or sabbatical? A grant, a sponsor, tenure, or complete independence?
Do you need a bigger house, a studio apartment, a private office, better furniture or tools, a better view, a massive mahogany desk, a new computer/tablet/phone/software suite/fine ink pen? Or the courage or persistence to create a few minutes or hours of quiet, uninterrupted time in your day?
Do you need to become a minimalist or a connoisseur of inspiring artifacts?
Do you need investors, an agent, a guru, a flesh and blood muse, a therapist, a coach? A better boss, or to be your own boss? A housekeeper, an assistant, a manager, programmer, web designer, or a master teacher?
More support from your family or respect from your friends? Or do you need to be more honest, kind, or serious with yourself?
Nature or nightlife? People or privacy? Grit or glamour?
Do you need to be healthier, wiser, younger, older, from a different family or state or country or zip code?
Do you need to live in the country or move to the city? Or rearrange the space where you currently work, give it a fresh coat of paint, or get the clutter out?
Do you need a degree, or another degree, or a different one?
Do you need reviews, or better ones? More experience, or to be just starting out again with the fresh energy of a beginner?
Or do you need to just get to work, or take a break, or a real vacation?
Any of these may be useful to your creative life, though many might also be creativity killers in the wrong hands. A few of them might be absolutely necessary for your creative life.
We must figure out which is which.
So go ahead, design the fantasy version of your best creative lifestyle. Probably there will be something useful to learn from that fantasy, and perhaps even real goals to work toward, sacrifices to make in order to get there, sweeping changes to be made in order to live the way you want to live.
Then design your best creative life from the one you have today. The people, resources, obligations and opportunities that are in it. Within this life, is there some important editing or adding that needs to happen, within your present capability?
There may actually be people or major habits changes or big commitments that really need to be let go of, or brought on board, and you may need support to figure out what’s what and how to make it happen. If so, do that. If your life is standing in the way of your life, it’s best not to stay asleep about that much longer.
Or the life you have now may turn out to surprise you with its potential to support a delightfully productively creative life. There will be tweaks, repairs, and enhancements on your list. You will have to prioritize them and work on them as you can.
In the meantime, work. Which really means play, if you are doing creative work that is your own.
Let these dreams, plans and insights inform what you do to shape your creative environment going forward. But don’t let it fool you into thinking that once these changes are made, you will finally be able to do your true creative work.
You can start it now, continue it now, give it life with the life you gave. This is how every creative producer has done it, and how you will, too.