“Where do you get your ideas?” is the most-asked question of creative people. I’ve been paying attention to my own #writing process since people started asking me that more often. I now know I have three distinct phases for my creative process, but they are not entirely linear in sequence.
Without even consciously knowing I am in it, I am often in the incubation period, phase one for all creative endeavors. This assumes ground zero is pre-phase one, the part in which I determine I’m open to creating and what I want to create, in a general way.
For me, the incubation period is highly receptive. I am like a sponge; I am seemingly almost indiscriminate in my voracious appetite for information, as in Short Circuit‘s Johnny Five’s demands for “more input.”
Phase one includes: getting cognitive but silent input from reading fiction and nonfiction books and magazine or ‘zine articles and blog posts; visual/emotional/audio content input from watching films/TV, TED talks and videos via Facebook, youtube, Google+, blogs and other sources; musical inspiration gleaned from radio, Spotify and other online music players, playing piano, singing; conversing with friends, family, strangers and acquaintances. All of this sparks thousands of ideas.
Next comes the internal percolating, still incubation, from all input and other connections being made. Percolating occurs while: dreaming, meditating, thinking, contemplating, swimming, walking, driving. I love this part: although most of it is invisible, it is palpable. I feel buzzed: re-routed, re-programmed, inspired, electrified. I often feel as if I am in a remembering or retrieval mode, recalling and almost hearing or seeing what I’m about to write as if it’s already written.
Inevitably, I get woken up from sleep or can’t fall asleep because these first gems of ideas are starting to surface and I MUST write them down. I hear them narrated or see them in paragraphs. I make lists, gather URLs and quotes, write down remembered dreams and conversations, make mini-outlines, generate summaries and plot intentions, describe characters and do many other cultivating things with the seeds already planted.
I have to move quickly; these deliveries are clear and sharp at first, but the longer I wait or the longer it takes to put them into form, the weaker the connection or recollection gets. This phase is very exciting but also quite frustrating. I feel as if I only get to write down or collect about half of what I receive.
I am now in phase two: full writing mode. I’m generating and composing my ideas into text. Organizing, whittling, deciding, creating connections are now dominant. Characters, plots, dialog, events, circumstances, facts and conflicts all converge in seemingly random and chaotic ways until I can sift through and wrest them into some order. It feels as if I’m gathering spiderwebs, tantalizing aromas and musical notes and transforming them into particular words, coherent paragraphs, comprehensible stories.
Once I start writing them down as lists or collect ideas into documents and folders for later use, I am compelled to follow clues, leads, research trails. These lead to more input and ideas, and those lead to further incubations, more percolating, etc.
These first two phases loop many times until the ideas erupt from me, birthed into existence as writing. I hate to be interrupted when I’m on a trail.
However, I love and crave, even make my own interruptions in the next part, the testing period of writing. I reach out to people to talk things out, hear ideas or dialogue aloud for the first time, getting first bounce-back reactions and more ideas from these interactions. I call certain people many times: my son, my mom, my sisters, a niece, some friends. I post questions and comments online and get responses from strangers/acquaintances. Suggestions, critiques, future-use ideas all welcomed, here.
Eventually, the input receiving slows down and the output starts to take precedence. I spend more time writing than researching. This is the highest output part of the process, generating most of the writing. Much of what I generate may not get used, or not used for this immediate project, but I keep it all.
I have dozens of drafts, pieces, drafts of chapters and whole volumes for The Spanners Series in folders that may be mined for future Volumes if not used for the one I’m currently writing. I leave myself gifts and find them later. When I was ready to write Volume II, I was shocked to discover that I had already written large chunks of it while writing Volume I and didn’t even remember having done so much writing for that Volume!
Phase three involves combining, rewriting, generating, refining, selecting, drafting and completing the work. I spend more time revising than creating, which means I’m in the third phase. I do get new ideas and do more research during this final phase, in many of the same ways, but the proportions reverse from the earlier phases.
Some people call these three phases Prewriting, Writing, Revising. Works for me.
Steven Johnson’s TED talk from 2010: Where good ideas come from, in which he ends with “Chance favors the connected mind,” describes a lot of what I experience. I love that quote.
Good luck with your writing!