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Creativity coach, writing and creative process instructor, speaker, author of Around the Writer's Block: Using Brain Science to Write the Way You Want (Penguin/Tarcher 2012) and Dancing in the Dragon's Den (Red Wheel Weiser), Teaching Artist at the Loft Literary Center.

How to Capture Creative Flow When You Have No Time

Rachel Vilsack requested a post on how to capitalize on creative flow at those times when “I come up with new, great idea that is exactly what I’ve been looking for, but it happens when I don’t have time to write, like when I’m at work. I get jazzed to work on the idea just as soon as I can and then… [sigh]”

Before I address Rachel’s request, I want to plant an image in your head: Visualize Captain Hook behind bars in the hold of heaving ship at sea. He smells of stale rum and unwashed sailor. He clutches a scrap of neon pink rabbit fur in his curved silver hook, which he strokes against the black stubble on his face, crooning “So soft, so soft.”

No Time for Inspiration

When you, like Rachel, have a great inspiration, but no time to write, you need to learn how to make the most of short snatches of time. Practicing 15 Magic Minutes on a regular basis is a great place to start.

When a great idea bubbles to the surface, take a 10 to 15 minute break at work. Pull over or park in a lot, lock yourself in the bathroom, or excuse yourself from wherever you are.

Even if you can’t get away physically, you can usually check out mentally. Use that studious, of-course-I’m-paying-attention-not-at-all-thinking-about-what-I’m-doing-just-as-soon-as-I-get-out-of-this-class look you perfected as an undergrad for the profs who paid attention to whether you were paying attention.

(If you didn’t have professors who penalized you for not paying attention, you missed out on one of the most important and least recognized life skills you can learn in college.)

Imagination Without Notes

Resist the urge to immediately record the great idea! Take your time to close your eyes and imagine the scene or concept fully before you try to take notes.

Even if you run out of time and have to return to your attention to your day job, driving, family or whatever before you get to write anything, it is far, far better to have imagination without notes than notes without imagination.

The fear is that you’ll forget the great idea. But you don’t need to worry about not remembering the words and phrases running through your head. The writing you do in your head often seems perfect, but it rarely actually is. Your first draft is always shitty whether it’s in your mind or on the page.

If you allow yourself to play with the images and fully visualize what you want to write, your unconscious mind will continue working on the concept even though your conscious mind has to attend to other business.

What you write later may be a vast improvement on what you would have written initially. This is particularly true if you give yourself images to work with, not just ideas.

Capture the Sensory Hook

A great strategy is to allow your imagination to stretch out and go as far as you can. You don’t need to record all that. You just want capture the sensory hook. What’s a sensory hook?

Remember Captain Hook and his rabbit fur? That is a captured Sensory Hook – pun intended.

(For Rachel and other students of the Entering the Flow class or readers who are familiar with Robert Butler Olen’s book From Where You Dream, this is an opportunity to call on the skills you gained practicing in the emotion/sense journal and writing the scene cards for your dreamstorming sessions.)

For those of you not familiar with Butler, a sensory hook is a short description of one part of a scene that is so full of sensory details that it can later trigger your memory of the entire scene.

Even though it is just a snippet of what could be a long and involved scene or a complex concept and fully developed argument, a good sensory hook will take you back to what you imagined even months later.

For example, the hook “she smells frying bacon in the hallway and knows it’s an hallucination” was all the reminder I needed to draft a five or six page scene I’d dreamstormed two months before I started drafting the novella this scene appears in.

The image of Captain Hook with his pink rabbit fur and a few select phrases from the inspiration I had during my morning walk was all I needed to draft this post in the later afternoon (after teaching a class, proofing a website, processing email and doing several other tasks that pushed the initial idea right out of my head).

Cerebral or Sensory?

If you’re thinking, “But my great ideas are more cerebral than sensory, more idea than image,” this is all the more reason to develop your ability to create sensory hooks.

When you do finally get a chance to develop and draft the idea that came to you at such an inconvenient time, you’ll remember the details more fully. You don’t need extensive notes if you have a good sensory hook.

Those sensory details will also help your readers translate your words into fuller, more vibrant images in their minds. They’ll have better recall of your great idea, too.

Trust your sensory hook to bring you back to your great inspiration when you do have time to do something with it.

If you give yourself a tiger by the tail – or as I did at the beginning of this blog, a pirate in a cell who’s likely to drop the rabbit skin and start clanging his hook across the bars and demanding release – you’ll remember.

Your unconscious mind, which has been primed by the imagining you did earlier, can invent what you don’t remember and elaborate on what you do recall.

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9 Comments on “How to Capture Creative Flow When You Have No Time”

  1. Lindagail Roy August 10, 2012 at 7:20 pm #

    I love this tip. I visualize in order to remember names, so I know it can work. I can’t tell you how many times I remember something I want to include in my writing, at some inopportune time, and then forget what I wanted to remember when I begin to write. Thank you Roseanne!


  2. Rachel Vilsack July 24, 2012 at 1:11 pm #

    “Your unconscious mind, which has been primed by the imagining you did earlier, can invent what you don’t remember and elaborate on what you do recall.”

    Thanks Rosanne! You captured exactly what I was missing. I think my sudden ideas need to be noted, but it’s always the sensory images that take me right back to the heart of the scene, and I always discover more detail. I might not get a chance to stop for 15 minutes at work, but I can take 15 seconds and fully visualize it!


    • rosannebane July 25, 2012 at 10:24 am #

      You’re most welcome Rachel. Thanks for the inspiration for the post.


  3. Joel D Canfield July 21, 2012 at 6:54 am #

    “it is far, far better to have imagination without notes than notes without imagination.”

    Before I read this article I would never have believed that. Now I do.


    • Joel D Canfield July 24, 2012 at 2:03 pm #

      Yes, I’m talking to myself on your blog.

      Three days ago I had an idea for an entire book when I was somewhere I just couldn’t make notes. Well, I could have, but I shouldn’t have.

      Instead, I made a couple mental images I knew I’d remember, and I do. Basic plot of entire mystery, based on a couple visuals in my head.


  4. jenowenby July 19, 2012 at 6:35 pm #

    Great post! I’ll try some of these suggestions.



  1. Vote for Your Favorite Post and You Could Win a Free Book! « The Bane of Your Resistance - August 13, 2012

    […] How To Capture Creative Flow When You Have No Time […]


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