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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.

Only Writing Is Writing, Right? Wrong!

When E. L. Doctorow observed that planning to write, outlining, researching or talking about you’re going to write is NOT writing, I think he meant we can’t just hope to write or dream about writing, we have to take action.

Unfortunately, many of my students and clients have interpreted that mindset (wherever they know the Doctorow quote or not) to mean that if they do not have their fingers on the keyboard or pen on the page putting words into sentences, what they’re doing doesn’t count.

I can’t tell you how many students have come into a class and said “I haven’t written at all this week.”

When I ask them what have they done, they have an impressive list of exploring ideas, research, brainstorming, organizing or attempting to organize, and so on. They should feel satisfied, even triumphant about the progress they’re making; instead they feel disappointed.

Writing Is Writing, But There’s So Much More

This is why I talk aboutProduct Timeinstead of “writing time.” There is so much more to a writing project than drafting, revising and rewriting. There are six stages in the creative process and only in the fifth stage do we actually get our fingers on the keyboard or pen on the page.

You have to give yourself credit for all the things you need to do before you get to the “writing” stage! Losing motivation and momentum because you assume (incorrectly!) that you’re not really writing are just two of the significant dangers in rushing to the drafting stage.

You need to know that the time you invest is worthwhile, especially during Incubation, which is arguably the most important stage and yet the stage that looks the least like “writing.”

Don’t Underestimate Incubation

Incubation is challenging; don’t make it more difficult by failing to appreciate the effort (and hidden progress) you’re making.

Frustration is the hallmark of Incubation, the stage between active investigation/research (Saturation) and the A-ha moment/ flash of insight (Illumination).

In the research stage, you had a pretty good idea what to do: go look for answers, look for related questions, look at what others have done. You knew whether you’re doing your research or not.

Even if you make the mistake of thinking research isn’t “real writing,” you at least know you’re doing something.

By the time you get to Incubation, you’ve finished the research or reached a point of diminishing returns that tells you it’s time to move on. But until you reach Illumination, you don’t have the insight to move on with.

You have so much information in your head from all that research, but you can’t yet see how to combine the pieces into a cohesive new whole.

You need to move, but you can’t. You want to move, but you don’t know where. You are in fact moving and making progress, but you can’t see it. Hence the frustration.

Look Away

The more you focus on the problem, the less you can see a solution. This is not hyperbole, it’s a brain fact.

Outward focus on the problem is antithetical to the brain state needed to receive the insight. You need alpha waves; struggling to solve the problem generates beta waves. Research shows that the brain generates alpha waves 8 seconds before we become conscious of the insight.

Which is why the best thing to do in Incubation is some form of nothing. And oh how we struggle to do nothing! (This is another reason Process is so valuable – it teaches us how to do nothing playfully.) Incubation is a Zen or Yoda-like state of being where you do-without-doing.

What Does Nothing Look Like?

Staring into space is better than pushing for an answer. Leaving to take a walk would be even better.

Staring into space is better than pushing for an answer. Leaving to take a walk would be even better.

When you’re in Incubation, Product Time can include:

  • going for a walk
  • taking a nap
  • daydreaming
  • watching clouds (the sky blue color is very conducive to alpha waves)
  • taking a shower (warm water is also very conducive to alpha waves)
  • swimming
  • dancing
  • staring out the window
  • or other ways of “procrastinating.”

It could also include freewriting or brainstorming, but only if you can do that in a dreamy, diffuse way, not with laser focus.

Sometimes explaining the situation to someone else can help. But again be wary of the desire to solve the problem.

Your conscious mind will probably resist and dismiss these kinds of Product Time activities. So many of them feel like a waste of time, it’s tempting to do something else instead. “If I can’t do anything productive on this project anyway, I may as well go focus on something else.”

But if that something else engages your conscious mind, you generate beta brain waves and still can’t get the alpha waves you need to reach Illumination.

Protect Your Nothing Time

It’s essential you preserve Product Time while you’re incubating.

The most effective approach to generating the alpha waves that precede the A-ha moment is to consistently, intentionally give yourself 15 minutes to do “nothing.” Don’t succumb to the temptation to do something “productive.”

For more information about the stages of the creative process, see Chapter 4 of Around the Writer’s Block. For more information about the alpha wave connection, see Chapter 2 of Jonah Lehrer’s Imagine: How Creativity Works.

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2 Comments on “Only Writing Is Writing, Right? Wrong!”

  1. Glynis Jolly June 3, 2017 at 11:06 am #

    Rosanne, this post has eased so much tension in me. I had never heard of an ‘Incubation’ stage before but now that you have brought it up, it makes perfect sense.


    • rosannebane June 12, 2017 at 12:50 pm #

      Thanks for your comment Glynis. Learning how our brains work and how the creative process unfolds is so important and such a relief.


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