The Three Stages of the Creative Process
No matter what we desire to create - a painting, a poem, a book or a song - as soon as we take the first step to bring it into the world, we find ourselves knee deep in the creative process. If we don´t have a roadmap as a rough guide for the journey, we can easily get stuck, never finishing what we set out to do.
The creative process itself is often associated with nebulous terms like “divine inspiration” or “the muse” and while the process itself can be quite mysterious at times, one can also identify certain reoccurring stages that we pass through each time we create something.
An actual outline of these stages can help us not to get frustrated during the journey and prepare us for the upcoming challenges.
Stage 1: Conception
The conception stage occurs, when the first initial idea springs up in our mind as a thought. It´s not a full blown creation with full details yet - just the seed of a potential creation. It´s crucial that we learn to value these seeds and not instantly dismiss them as not good enough. If we take our ideas seriously (I have jumped out of the bathtub many times), we will become increasingly sensitive to them and at some point we will have difficulty to keep up capturing the constantly growing flock of new ideas. It´s helpful to always carry an idea capturing device to develop the habit of recording your ideas instantly. This could be your phone, a paper notebook or whatever else works for you.
I use an idea folder inside of Evernote when I´m at home and a notebook or piece of scrap paper when I´m on the go.
The next important aspect in the creative process is the awareness of your inner critic. The critic has many faces - it could come up as the school teacher who always told you that you would never amount to anything, or as your parents that were never keen to hear your innermost thoughts expressed freely. It does not matter what form it takes - when it comes up with negative chatter - simply ignore it and keep working.
Remain emotionally detached and remind yourself that those are only a bunch of thought patterns. Thoughts cannot harm you unless you identify with them and take them to heart. You don´t want to give them that power over your creative output.
Another essential part of this stage is to start making choices to create, what writers call, a first shitty draft. If you don´t start making choices to move the initial idea forward, your creation will end as a train wreck. Let´s say you found a few nice chords on the piano. You keep on playing them for some time and think that your progression sounds great…if you leave it at that and don´t start planning out a rough song structure to develop the idea further - it will never go beyond the conception stage and turn into a song.
To create a first shitty draft as the bare bone structure of your creation, you have to immediately begin to make draft choices. Draft choices are not supposed to create a masterpiece right then and there, they only serve to some build momentum. One reason why making choices is so hard for us during the creative process is that we don´t want to make mistakes. We want to have all the information right now, so we can make the best choice. If we feel that we can´t make the best choice - our of fear keeps us from making any choice at all.
Fact is, no one knows what the best choice is, so we have to move forward by making draft choices now.
Recap Stage 1 objectives:
- Keep an idea capturing device with you at all times and record ideas immediately
- Develop an awareness of your inner critic and observe negative thought patterns while practicing emotional detachment
- Keep working and move your idea forward by making draft choices to create a first shitty draft
Stage 2: Compilation
You should now hold a first shitty draft in your hands and you will now expand on it to create a second and third draft that look more presentable. This stage requires the most patience, because the initial excitement has worn off and the grunt work begins.
This part of the process mainly consists of fleshing out the rough structure by going through different variations of arranging the puzzle pieces of our creation. The biggest danger here is that of getting bogged down by trying out unlimited possibilities and not finding any pieces that fit well.
Most likely the inner critic will be back at this point and tell you that you are not talented enough to finish anything, and this can become a self-fulfilling prophecy if you believe these thoughts.
We have to realize that one of the main purposes of this stage is the development of clarity by trial and error. Every possibility we try brings us closer to what our final outcome should look like. By identifying more and more things we don´t want, we will at some point end up with what we do want. There´s no way around it - we have keep pushing through this stage, by assembling and reassembling the puzzle in a million and one ways, throwing everything against the wall to see what sticks. If we stop now and start something new, chances are we will never finish anything and we´ll get stuck exactly in the same place during our next creation. Falling into this trap can create a huge pile of unfinished creations.
I find this part of the process to be quite unpredictable. Sometimes it seems to take a superhuman amount of effort to move through this phase and finish a piece of work while at other times, it´s almost effortless, with all the pieces seemingly falling in the right place. How a stage unfolds does not say anything about the quality of the outcome though - we might think that effortless creation is somehow inspired and superior , but I have found this not to be true. It´s just like life - sometimes great hardship can be responsible for great beauty.
Stage 2 Objectives Recap:
- Flesh out the bare bone structure of the first draft by trying out variation after variation
- Develop more clarity on what works and what does not
- Rinse and repeat
- Don´t listen to the inner critic
Stage 3: Completion
Throughout the last stage you should have created a few more drafts of your work, each one giving you more clarity and bringing you closer to more finished version of your work. The idea will most likely have developed a kind of life of it´s own and you probably got some hunches as to where it wanted to go. You might have even ended up really surprised by how it turned out in the end!
You´re now putting on the final touches and enjoy the relief of having done gone work, bringing something into the world that did not exist before. This can feel quite strange for the first few times, because your work is an extension of yourself and you are looking yourself right in the eye through your own creation.
Throughout the whole creative process, your creation was yours, now it´s belongs to the people who can find joy in it - let it go and put it out there. What others create is for you, what you create is for others. Showing your creation to others for the first time is scary - it´s like getting naked on a crowded marketplace under fluorescent light.
The completion stage can also turn out differently…
You might have gotten the idea of what your piece really should look like and realize that you have to start all over again. This might at first seem frustrating, but you will be filled with a new type of enthusiasm that will carry you through this and it feels as if you now had a very detailed intuitive map laid out right in front of you, guiding you to your final destination. Even if you now have to start from scratch - all the previous steps were essential for you to gain the clarity that was needed to finish your work. Don´t be discouraged when this happens, this is normal.
Stage 3 Objectives Recap:
- Polish your work and create the final version
- Enjoy your creation
- Let it go and give it to others
This is a description of my creative process. I hope that you find it helpful as a rough outline to start discovering what yours looks like.