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How to Access the Hidden Stage of Inspiration

This is the first post in a 3-part series about Graham Wallas’s “Stages of Control” for the creative process. 

It was 5 am, and I was hungry, exhausted, and chilly. I could’ve been meditating or eating or snuggled in bed, but instead I was scribbling so fast my fingers ached, because I’d just had an Illumination about Intimation, and I’d be damned if I was gonna let it get away.

“Intimation” sneaks between the third and fourth of Graham Wallas’s “Stages of Control”, which he describes in his 1926 book The Art of Thought. Almost a century later, it’s still one of academia’s most-cited works on the creative process.

Wallas outlines four official stages to the birth of an idea: Preparation, Incubation, Illumination and Verification. People who write about his theory almost never mention Intimation, but harnessing it is key to creative control.

1. Preparation

“At the Preparation stage we can consciously accumulate knowledge, divide up by logical rules the field of inquiry, and adopt a definite ‘problem attitude'[…] Our mind is not likely to give us a clear answer to any particular problem unless we set it a clear question, and we are more likely to notice the significance of any new piece of evidence, or new association of ideas, if we have formed a definite conception of a case to be proved or disproved.” 

Preparation involves formulating a question and immersing ourselves in the search for answers.

It’s not just for writers. While researching content for a “Practical Creativity” course I delivered last spring, I spoke with the painter Richard Dotson, who said that before he brings an unfamiliar subject into a larger composition, he explores images of it and then paints several smaller pieces containing only that subject.

The question I started with for this post was, “What should I write about?” I Googled the creative process, stumbled across an article on Wallas’s ideas and thought, Maybe I should test this.

I read academic abstracts and posts from other blogs, and then I read The Art of Thought.

2. Incubation

“At the Incubation stage we can consciously arrange, either to think on other subjects than the proposed problem, or to rest from any form of conscious thought. This second form of Incubation is often necessary for the severer types of intellectual production, which would be hindered either by interruption or by continuous passive reading.”

I just discovered Lightroom for the iPhone. Life will never be the same.

I find drinking frappés on the beach is a very effective way to Incubate.

Two things happen during Incubation:

  1. We consciously ignore the thing we were just obsessing over.
  2. The elves in our subconscious keep playing with it.

To remain productive while allowing for Incubation, Wallas suggests shifting among multiple projects.

If you’re working on something big, though, you need to build actual rest into your workflow:

“In the case of the more difficult forms of creative thought, the making, for instance, of a scientific discovery, or the writing of a poem or play or the formulation of an important political decision, it is desirable not only that there should be an interval free from conscious thought on the particular problem concerned, but also that the interval should be so spent that nothing should interfere with the free working of the unconscious or partially conscious processes of the mind. In those cases, the stage of Incubation should include a large amount of actual mental relaxation.”

Work too much, he advises, and you’ll never be inspired; work too little, and your inspirations will go nowhere:

“There are thousands of idle ‘geniuses’ who require to learn that, without a degree of industry in Preparation and Verification, of which many of them have no conception, no great intellectual work can be done, and that the habit of procrastination may be even more disastrous to a professional thinker than it is to a man of business. And yet a thinker of good health and fertile mind may have to be told that mere industry is for him, as it was for Trollope in his later years, the worst temptation of the devil.”

Wallas encourages exercise during Incubation, and cautions against “passive reading”: go ahead and dive passionately into a book, but if boring or trivial things hijack your attention, you’ll regurgitate other people’s ideas instead of having your own.

Facebook, in other words, is out.

After several hours of Preparation, I still felt like I had nothing original to say about The Stages of Control. I filed the idea in Evernote and directed my attention to other posts, and to short story assignments for Holly Lisle’s “How to Write Flash Fiction That Doesn’t SUCK“.

I also went to the beach, read Memory of Fire, and watched Stranger Things.

The unfortunate thing about Incubation is that you never know how long it’ll take. After Incubating on The Stages of Control for a few weeks, I started to get impatient.

I wrote in my journal: “There are too many questions to answer about all of it! But I suppose walking forward without answers is a fundamental part of the creative process, this fumbling around in the dark.” When I’d finished writing, I went into my evening meditation.

3. Illumination

And then it came: I could add to the existing knowledge about the Stages of Control by illustrating how they manifested in the writing of a post about them – I could “go meta”.

I finished meditating, made excuses about helping with dinner, and scribbled this:


The results of the first Illumination I had for this series.

Illumination is the sexy part: the apple on Newton’s head, Archimedes leaping from the bath, angels yelling into Jack Kerouac’s ears.

It’s the part everyone thinks happens automatically, and pretty much never does (I’ll post later about how it really went for Kerouac).

4. Verification

“In Verification we can consciously follow out rules like those used in Preparation,” Wallas writes. He quotes Henri Poincaré’s  Science and Method:

“‘It never happens,’ says Poincaré, in his description of the Verification stage, that unconscious work supplies ready-made the result of lengthy calculations in which we have only to apply fixed rules… all that we can hope from these inspirations, which are the fruit of unconscious work, is to obtain points of departure for such calculations. ‘”

Illumination, in other words, only gives a starting point. We have the idea; now we have to determine if it’ll function.

It’s where the real work begins.

After reviewing my notes, I knew something was missing. I’d read Wallas’s “Stages of Control” chapter three times, and I still didn’t understand Intimation. I had the sense, though, that it was the cornerstone of the whole creative enterprise.

Check out Part 2: “How to Get Intimate with Intimation“.

PS: I’m changing my posting schedule from Monday and Friday to Wednesday and Friday. This Wednesday, you’ll hear from Broadway jazz pianist Ron Drotos about how to recapture the joy of creating when it seems to have disappeared.

Featured image: Photo by Kevin Urbanski

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