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How to Get Intimate with Intimation

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

Last week, I wrote about the 4 official stages of the creative process according to Graham Wallas: Preparation, Incubation, Illumination and Verification. To test Wallas’s theory, I decided to “go meta” and write about writing about it. When I reached the Verification stage, though, I was unsatisfied.

I wanted to write about Intimation, the semi-stage between Incubation and Illumination, because I sensed it was important, but after reading the relevant chapter in The Art of Thought three times, I still didn’t understand it. Here’s some of what  Wallas writes about it:

“If we are to consciously control the Illumination stage we must include in it the ‘fringe-conscious’ psychological events which precede and accompany the ‘flash’ of illumination, and which may be called Intimation. We can to some degree control Illumination by making ourselves conscious (as many poets are conscious) of Intimation; and both by encouraging the psychological processes which Intimation shows to be occurring and protecting them from interruption.” 

The point of Wallas’s theory is to control the creative process, and awareness of Intimation is key to exerting that control.

Here’s why: Illumination is a “flash” so fast it’s hard to manage it. Intimation is more subtle, but it lasts a lot longer. It always comes before Illumination, it always remains for awhile afterwards, and it happens a lot more often.

Imagine you’re in a dark room with the door closed, and every so often, someone with a lamp walks by outside. Intimation is the strip of light under the door.

The person with the lamp might barge in occasionally, but you’ll be Illuminated a lot more often if, when you see that little glow, you haul your ass up and burst from the room.

In other words, if you can recognise Intimation, you can be reliably inspired.

In the throws of Illumination, we tend not to remember the Intimation part, which is why so many of us never get the hang of it:

“Just as it is very difficult to see the sun’s corona unless the disk is hidden by a total eclipse, so it is very difficult to observe our ‘fringe consciousness’ at the instant of full Illumination, or to remember the preceding ‘fringe’ after full Illumination has taken place.”

You can start to grasp Intimation, though, if you become alert for twinges of mental discomfort, which Wallas says are a symptom. He describes his own experience with Intimation in the period before his political views shifted: “I had a vague, almost physical recurrent feeling as if my clothes did not quite fit me.”

For me, it sometimes feels like the mental equivalent of possibly having to barf.

The impatience I felt before the journal-writing session mentioned in my last post was Intimation. So was the anxiety I felt outside the guest house in Tirana, and my unease while staring across the beach in Vlorë.

When you identify such discomfort as Intimation, instead of getting drunk or stuffing your face with cookies (ahem), you can get to work instead.

Then, the process of working throws the door open.

It’s delicate, though, which is why Wallas advises that, once we’ve begun to tease an Intimation into the light, we avoid interruptions.

“All thinkers know the effect of the ringing of the telephone bell, or the entrance of someone with a practical question which must be answered, during a promising Intimation… And, besides such negative precautions against the interruption of an association-train, it is often necessary to make a conscious effort of attention to secure success.”

Once my initial Verification determined I still had work to do, I went back to Preparation. I read the chapter two more times. I still didn’t get it.

I guess I’ll try Incubating again, I thought. I picked up Memory of Fire again, watched another couple episodes of Stranger Things, and went to bed.

I woke up at 3 am with a jumble of images in my head that seemed unrelated, but something told me they weren’t. Maybe this is Intimation, I thought. Instead of getting up and investigating, though, I told myself I’d do it later, rolled over, and went back to sleep.

When I woke up again at 5, the images were gone. All that remained were shreds of something that might’ve been a green dragon, but I’m not sure.

Shit, I thought, I lost it.

Then something began to gel: This is what Wallas was talking about when he said Intimation was delicate. As soon as we get the smallest inkling, even if it seems ridiculous (because really – a green dragon?) we have to go after it, or it could leave. I started to jot down what I thought were a few quick points.


Two of 20 pages of notes I wrote between 5 and 7 am.

I wrote without stopping for two hours, and when I’d finished,  I understood Intimation.

Here’s the unfortunate part: remember how I said Intimation can feel like mental nausea?

Sometimes the resulting product genuinely does seem to resemble a giant puddle of puke.

When I sat down a few days later to compile my handwritten notes into something that might make sense to other people, I faced a steaming mess. What’d seemed brilliant when scrawled while half-asleep was apparently, in fact, gobbledegook.

It wouldn’t stay that way, though.

Check out Part 3: “What to do When Your Art Sucks.” In the meantime, I’d love to hear from you: can you remember the last time you experienced Intimation? What was it like?

Featured Image: Adobe Stock Images, ©

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  1. Loved your funny and honest approach to describing your experiences! I’m loving your articles!! I can’t think of my own examples but I will be watching out for the nauseous cues of inspiration!

  2. Claire says

    How bizarre, I think I might have experienced this today. After a very inspiring, validating, professionally important meeting today, I came home and shed a tear. Melancholy happiness is a weird feeling when you’re busting with intelligent ideas to add your already good idea. Is this intimation?

    • Sounds like it could be, for sure! I’m so glad to hear your meeting went well! And so amazing that your ideas are flowing! I can’t wait to hear more about it.

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