The Creative Process: A Summation

Welcome back to the Creative Life Adventure.

I’ve been writing for this site for a bit over two-and-a-half years. Recently, the thought came to me that a summing up of where we’ve been might be in order. This is my current (most recent) take on the creative process. Like most things in life, this is not final, and probably never will be. So I expect to modify this as I learn and my own thinking evolves on the subject of creativity. More importantly, many will argue that creativity isn’t something that can be reduced to a process. I agree. Still, I believe describing a creative “process” is a way to begin understanding creativity and opening our minds to the experience. As Leonard Nimoy‘s Captain Spock says in Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, “Logic is the beginning of wisdom…not the end.” (Also, I like flowcharts.)

All two of my long-time readers may note that a very simplistic approach to this appeared in an earlier post.

Creative Process Flowchart

Inputs:

Like a living thing that requires nourishment or a computer that requires instructions and data, what we feed our minds with matters. Inputs may be formal, such as institutional education or self-directed reading in a chosen domain. Patty Jenkins, who directed the films Monster (2003) and Wonder Woman (2017), has a master’s degree from the American Film Institute’s AFI Conservatory. Or inputs may be informal, as when some life experience inspires us or redirects our life path. When did Jenkins decide to pursue a career in film? After watching Superman (1978).

Whatever the form or source of the input, it’s essential to go through life open to these experiences. The more receptive we are to new ideas and information, the easier it is to absorb and learn even more. The more inputs we have floating around in our minds, the more raw materials our mental filters have to create something new and exciting. Conversely, a little selectivity is necessary. Information overload can lead to stagnation and distract us from our goals. All those unique ideas in your head will want to take you somewhere, and if too many cooks spoil the broth, too many ideas can spoil the creative process. Learning the difference, when to be receptive and when to tune something out, is one of the great challenges of a creative life.

Preparation:

Here I’m referring to massaging and manipulating the inputs to begin a career or a specific work. This, again, can be formal or informal. Formal preparation might involve an apprenticeship or internship to begin applying previous learning. It could be self-directed practice. I’ve written several novels that will never see the light of day, but the experience made me a better writer. Informal preparation might something as simple as sitting around thinking about what’s next. A dress rehearsal for a play, making an outline for a novel, or creating a pencil sketch as warmup for a painting, are all types of preparation.

Work/Flow state:

Here I’m referring to the actual work, whether writing a novel, filming a movie, or completing a sculpture. This is the heart of the creative process, when you tune out all distractions and immerse yourself in the work at hand. Synthesize everything from Input and Preparation into a completed work. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi‘s book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience is entirely about flow state. Achieving flow state is relevant to all stages of creativity, but I feel it is most important here, and I also believe disruption has more potential value in the other stages of creativity (more in disruption shortly).

Revision of work:

Whatever you do, it will not be perfect. Your article will need revising, your painting might need some touching up, your business plan may have incomplete data. Revising might be done alone or in collaboration with others. For example, I recently completed a novel (for which I’m seeking representation, in case any agents are reading!), and worked with a professional editor on revisions.

Output and Feedback:

Outputs may be permanent. For example, if you’re a musician, once you release your latest album, it’s not generally practical to change the final product. Feedback from fans and critics may help you on the next album. On the other hand, if you’re on tour, every performance is an opportunity to get audience feedback to improve future performances. Like separating helpful inputs from distracting inputs, not all feedback is helpful. It is necessary, however, not only to help improve your future work but to maintain a connection with your audience.

Disruption:

Disruption overlaps with the input stage, because some disruptions are positive and help you in fulfilling your creative vision. Updated market data might force you to revise your business plan at the last minute, but you’ll be better off in the long run. Other disruptions are not so helpful. Someone may knock at your door while you’re in the midst of writing a beautiful poem; getting back into the poet mindset might take a while after that. Health problems, car breakdowns, weather, and any number of things can disrupt the creative process at any stage. This is somewhat a matter of luck: we can all endure some hardships, but we can’t endure all hardships, and some of us are born into lives that are easier to shield from disruptions. (This same privilege makes it easier to shield ourselves from potentially valuable inputs, so it’s a mixed blessing.)

Small blue and white bird perched on fence post
Cavorting with nature offers restorative disruption or inspirational input.

Experience applied to future work:

This closes the loop and makes creativity, like life, an iterative process. Like the other stages, it’s not as clear-cut as I’m describing it here, but every creative life should include the desire to grow by learning from past experience. I’m using learning as a vague concept that might simply involve a change in style based on your understanding of your craft and where your heart is leading you. Beethoven‘s work is often divided among early, middle, and late periods, with distinctive characteristics to each.

The point of a creativity flowchart is not to encourage you to adhere to a rigid process. Hopefully, this offers new perspectives on your own creative practice. Work flow, scheduling, and an overall framework are important in creative work. We need a starting point to discuss creativity, even if it’s something we can never completely pin down. I don’t expect to ever have a definitive statement on creativity (other than, I suppose, it’s importance), that’s one reason it’s such a fascinating topic. It calls to mind something rocket scientist Robert Goddard said on the subject of space exploration, that “no matter how much progress one makes, there is always the thrill of just beginning.”

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