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Creativity really screws you up.

Anna is a world-class expert at talking her way out of a creative idea before she’s even started. She can complete the entire creative process in her mind without ever releasing an idea onto paper or into the world. 

She talks herself out of ever making an idea reality with her anxiety about “creating land fill”—making something that will ultimately end up in a skip when she dies. 

I get it. I was brought up on green principles and the reduction of waste. But when Anna gets out of her head long enough to actually make something real, what she crafts is beautiful. Her creativity is not waste. It contributes to the quality of life of anyone who encounters it.

Whether it’s a family of clay figures whose bulbous eyes and small stabbed mouths stare up at you with surprise, embroidered feminist portraits on lavender bags, or a story told using an overhead-projector and 35mm slides found in the local flea market, Anna’s instinct as a storyteller and creator is unparalleled.

Even the shelves of button jars and rows of embroidery thread in her studio are beautiful. 

Anna is not unusual in the pressure she places on herself to produce something of worth.

Neither is she is not unusual in the pain she experiences in the creative process. She’s alarmingly normal.

Some seventy years ago, James Webb Young penned the briefest of books “A Technique for Producing Ideas”. The text of a lecture given to advertising students at the University of Chicago in 1949 outlines the process by which Webb, as an advertising man, generated ideas.   

The text of a lecture given to advertising students at the University of Chicago in 1949 outlines the process by which Webb, as an advertising man, generated ideas.   

The process he outlines is pretty much the same as that involved in implementing an idea—once you have it. 

This then is the whole process or method by which ideas are produced.

First, the gathering of raw materials—both the materials of your immediate problem and the materials that come from a constant enrichment of your store of general knowledge. 

Second, the working over of theses materials in your mind.

Third, the incubating stage, where you let something beside the conscious mind do the work of synthesis.

Fourth, the actual birth of the Idea—the “Eureka! I have it!” stage.

And fifth, the final shaping and development of the the idea to practical usefulness. 

James Webb Young, “A Technique for Producing Ideas”

Like all great, simply explained ideas, Webb’s process has been around the block a few times—reformed, re-written, regurgitated. 

None of the 190 million Google search results for “stages in the creative process” add much to Webb’s system or state his process any more clearly than he did in 1949. (And yes, I have read every single one of those results and verified this statement. Honest(ish))

But the simplicity of Webb’s process belies the horrible complexity and pain of actually implementing it. Something he freely admits, even giving this as the reason why he gave away his process so readily.

“The formula is so simple to state that few who hear it really believe in it. … While simple to state, it actually requires the hardest kind of intellectual work to follow. Thus I broadcast this formula with no real fear of glutting the market in which I make my living.

This is what the Google results (at least the first page) miss. How fucking hard this process is.

Don’t let anyone tell you creativity is easy.

I know.

I’m not supposed to tell you that.

I’m supposed to tell you it’s simple if only you follow my patented, impossibly-simple, impossible-to-replicate system. To sell you a “quick win” process that will turn you into JK Rowling overnight.

Yeah. That’s crap.

The creative process is difficult, messy and at times, soul-destroying.

It is also joyful and at the root of everything worth doing. What Brené Brown calls “the messy middle” is an inevitable part of any worthwhile process—whether creative, personal or professional. 

Every idea, every system, every seemingly functional process, every thing and every concept, design and plan owes its origin to creativity—to someone somewhere doing the hard work and pushing through the messy middle. 

Implementing Webb’s five-step creative process is not tidy and it invariably includes many, many iterations of the same steps—revisiting old round to the point of nausea.

My own creative process

Written when I was in the “essential distraction” phase of another project of my own is as follows:

  1. Starter’s Enthusiasm Excitement about an idea and gathering related ideas that seem to pop out at me from everywhere I go and everything I read, listen to or see.
  2. First Draft Outline What is this all about and how do I structure it?
  3. Joyful Research. Everything is fabulous. This is the most extraordinary idea and will change the world!
  4. Drowning in Research a.k.a. Sudden Abject Terror I am descending down multiple rabbit holes and have lost sight of what the hell I’m writing and why anyone would ever give a flying duck about it.
  5. Second Draft Outline. An attempt to reason my way out of the rabbit hole. What the duck is this really about and how can I find any structure in the chaos of notes and ideas that are in my brain and scattered across multiple documents in variant forms?
  6. Distraction Research Brief and painful retreat into the (dis)comfort of further research while I put off the evil moment when I must actually write something. 
  7. Beer
  8. First draft Pull all assorted notes and ideas into one place. Look at the monster document in horror as my brain seizes up and slowly cranks through the process of making rational sense of multiple iterations of the same idea, tangential ideas that don’t belong here but might belong in a subsequent project, and illegible notes that have been auto-corrupted and no longer make any sense. 
  9. Reality check Quick word count reveals I have 10,000 words that need to be  cut down to 500.
  10. Cry Into Beer
  11. Walk Dog Clear head and remind myself that none of it really matters anyway and I’m bloody lucky to do what I do and make some kind of living at it.
  12. Review Outline Try to current content back to the original idea.
  13. Second Draft Savagely attack the mass of notes and delete anything and everything that does not answer the original question.
  14. Panic Consider the very real possibility that I’ve spent x time gathering irrelevant crap and I have nothing left.
  15. Second Beer NB I am in no way advocating the use of alcohol as a creative crutch. 
  16. Sleep
  17. Third draft Find a basic structure and the content that moves the story forward 
  18. Walk Dog Again
  19. Eat Olives
  20. Essential Distraction Binge watch Big Bang Theory on Netflix
  21. Review Third Draft Discover that it kind of sort of does make some kind of sense, and it doesn’t completely suck.
  22. Tweak & Edit Finalise final draft.
  23. Procrastination Find a new rabbit hole called “fear” and sit in it watching for wolves who will devour me and my ideas if I ever hit “Publish”
  24. Get Another Beer
  25. Publish Be sure to wait until midnight when no one will be checking their notifications.
  26. Retreat Back to my rabbit hole and obsessively check for comments within 30 seconds of publication.
  27. Rinse and Repeat

Yeah. Do as I say, not as I do.

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