Incubation and Creative Blocks

Note: I am often asked to recommend books and resources related to the topics I write about. Invariably, the list ends up being too long to be useful. In this post I decided to try including links to these resources when possible. If this proves successful, I’ll continue to do so in future posts. By way of disclosure: if you end up purchasing a book on Amazon using one of the links I provided, I will collect a small affiliate fee. Please don’t take this to mean I have any other financial interest in promoting these specific books.

Creativity involves not only years of conscious preparation and training but unconscious preparation as well. This incubation period is essential to allow the subconscious assimilation and incorporation of one’s influences and sources, to reorganize and synthesize them into something of one’s own. ~Oliver Sacks

The muses have not visited with me in a while—a predicament I’m sure is familiar to anyone involved in creative endeavors. When the well runs dry, we become anxious and seek reassurances: we remind ourselves of the inevitability of blocks and our past experiences with them, but as the days turn to weeks, or months, anxiety and doubt keep building up. We look for tips and strategies to break the block, we try to force ourselves to work despite the malaise, we wish for things to go back to the way they used to be. But there’s another way to look at blocks: not as hindrances to creativity, but as harbingers of creative renewals.

Psychologist Eric Maisel speculated that to a creative person, creating is a way of making meaning. When we are not productive, according to Maisel, we lose our sense of meaning and spiral into depression. In The Van Gogh Blues Maisel writes, “This is why creating is such a crucial activity in the life of a creator: It is one of the ways, and often the most important way, that she manages to make life feel meaningful. Not creating is depressing because she is not making meaning when she is not creating. Creating but falling short in her efforts is also depressing because only insufficient meaning is produced if her products strike her as weak or shallow.”

I am no stranger to creative highs: the sense of flow when immersed in the creative experience, the sense of accomplishment and pride when completing a satisfying photograph, an article, a book, or a portfolio. The more original and personally significant the work, the greater the satisfaction, and the more energized I feel to tackle my next challenge. Still, I’m not sure that the reverse is true: that my life loses meaning when I am not productive. This would imply that work is the only source of meaning in my life, or at least the only source powerful enough to keep me from spiraling into dark moods, which is not the case. Some of my most meaningful experiences involve the assimilation of experience, awe, beauty, and contemplation, leading to sensations, emotions, and ideas whose usefulness may not be immediately apparent, and that are not associated directly with any product (although there is no doubt in my mind that they are essential to the conception of future creative expressions).

Certainly, those indoctrinated into associating such things as duty and self-worth with work may instinctively associate lack of productivity with such feelings as shame and distress. This is unfortunate. Susan Sontag observed this effect among photographers, especially, writing, “Using a camera appeases the anxiety which the work-driven feel about not working when they are on vacation and supposed to be having fun. They have something to do that is like a friendly imitation of work: they can take pictures.” In a larger sense, as Bertrand Russell put it, “a great deal of harm is being done in the modern world by belief in the virtuousness of work.” Especially in the case of art, as Timothy Egan put it in a New York Times opinion, “Creativity comes from time off, and time out.”

The connection between depression and lacking productivity, while true for me at times, is not quite so definitive or exclusive. On occasion I may spiral into dark moods even when I’m otherwise highly creative and productive. This seems a common theme among artists and creativity researchers. In an interview with John Gruen, painter Francis Bacon said, “[people] naturally think that the painting is an expression of the artist’s mood. But it rarely is. Very often he may be in greatest despair and be painting his happiest paintings.” Similarly, Oscar Wilde, at one of the lowest points in his life, after being betrayed, humiliated, and thrown in prison, wrote, “Truth in art is the unity of a thing with itself: the outward rendered expressive of the inward: the soul made incarnate: the body instinct with spirit. For this reason, there is no truth comparable to sorrow.” And psychologist Rollo May wrote, “Now, I believe in life, and I believe in the joy of human existence, but these things cannot be experienced except as we also face the despair, also face the anxiety that every human being has to face if he lives with any creativity at all.” Indeed, my own experience with depression and creativity is aligned with that of Thomas Merton, who wrote, “My moments of depression and despair turn out to be renewals, new beginnings.”

Look up the term “creative block,” or any of its permutations (e.g., “writer’s block”) and almost all results likely will belabor speculations about causes and “solutions,” which are often incorrect, ineffective, or untenable; but there is one aspect of creative blocks that I have not seen mentioned, and that I believe may be of great value to creatives: not so much how to resolve the blocks and return to “normal,” but how to endure the blocks—to persevere through them, perhaps even to find value in them—in the hope that they may lead to some “new normal.”

Creativity involves a great degree of subconscious processing—the brain working “behind the scenes” while the conscious mind may attend to other things, oblivious to the process of generating ideas until these ideas reach a level of maturity and bubble to the conscious surface, seemingly appearing out of nowhere. This process is known as incubation. Incubation is one of the stages in the Creative Process as characterized by Graham Wallas in 1926 (and accepted today, nearly a century later). According to Wikipedia’s explanation of Wallas’s model, incubation is, “where the problem is internalized into the unconscious mind and nothing appears externally to be happening.” In a TED talk, psychologist Adam Grant explained the importance of incubation to creativity, saying, “It’s only when you’re told that you’re going to be working on this problem, and then you start procrastinating, but the task is still active in the back of your mind, that you start to incubate. Procrastination gives you time to consider divergent ideas, to think in nonlinear ways, to make unexpected leaps.”

Creative blocks, when they are short-lived, can be unpleasant, and often lead to a sense of relief when productivity and the flow of ideas return to their normal levels. Still, I think that there is something unique about those persistent blocks—the ones that refuse to yield for weeks and months, no matter what strategy you attempt. I believe that such blocks generally accompany significant change in one’s life, especially for artists committed to self-expression in their work. When the self—the person—changes, former styles and routines that fit the person one was, may no longer express the person one has become. It may be that these prolonged and difficult blocks in fact are indicative of the subconscious mind exploring new ways to assimilate changes in personality, outlook, lifestyle, philosophy, etc. It’s no longer about finding creative ways to express what one already knows how to express, but adapting to new knowledge, which by necessity takes longer and may be contingent on rare moments of insight.

My advice to those in the throes of prolonged creative blocks is to cut yourselves some slack. Meditate on changes in your life, open your mind to novel ideas, become comfortable with letting go of older formulas that may no longer satisfy. Most important, don’t make an already vexing situation worse by interpreting what may well be a natural phase of incubation and creative growth, as any indication of self-worth, and certainly not as reason for self-flagellation. As psychologists like to say, give yourself permission to use this time to rest and renew, to explore possibilities, to indulge. If the time has come, not just for new work but for new ideas, epiphanies, directions, or style, don’t stand in your own way. Give it time. It happens to all of us. Likely, it has happened to you before, too. And yet we bounce back, every time.

Also, one commonly suggested means of grappling with creative blocks… is writing about creative blocks. Just saying.


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3 thoughts on “Incubation and Creative Blocks

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  1. Dear Guy – your writing is so graceful and always seems to express things I feel I know but have never put into words or understood with such insight. Thank you so much. Along with books of yours that I have, your blog never fails to have me thinking afresh about my photography and my painting.

  2. I once had another artistic guru tell me to think of creativity as a stream or river that followed its’ own course, not mine, and that sometimes it will make twists and turns that are unexpected, and ones that I might be unwilling or unable to make because I might have to make radical changes in myself in order to keep up. Judging by your resume’ you’ve been willing and able to make the leaps necessary to stay with the flow. Thank you for articulating your journey. Enjoy your writing and photography.

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