Psychologists have identified a stage in creativity known as ‘incubation’. This is the period between the first inkling of inspiration and its realisation in a piece of creative work. Many writers experience incubation as writers’ block. Instead of recognising – even welcoming – it as a natural part of the creative process, they (we) are often thrown into a panic and may end up abandoning the idea they’re working on.
ambling is the pace you should be aiming for, passive is the state of mind to cultivate
I want to persuade you to make space in your life for the unconscious processes that take place during incubation. And one of the best ways of doing this is to learn to waste time. What my partner calls the ‘creative dither’ is especially good for this. Based on the notion that creativity flourishes in the marshy margins of consciousness, it harnesses the restlessness creativity engenders without forcing its pace.
The idea is to do absolutely nothing in a vaguely active way. Everything about it should be unfocussed and open-ended; half-hearted and goalless. If you’re walking somewhere, go the long way round (better still, don’t aim for anywhere; just walk). If you’re cycling, stay off the main roads and follow your nose. If you must have a destination, choose somewhere that fosters creative dithering when you get there: a graveyard or a gallery; a church or public park.
You don’t have to walk, but it helps. If you’re wandering along the towpath you’ll be less tempted to sort through the newspapers or pop another load in the washing machine. Ambling is the pace you should be aiming for. Passive is the state of mind to cultivate. The late great poet U A Fanthorpe found that a good walk – she recommends uphill– was wonderful for this. Selima Hill swears by a walk in the country, but don’t underestimate the benefits of a city meander.
Try to steer away from your usual haunts. Where does that road lead? What does that row of houses look like from the back? Browse (no buying, mind) in a specialist shop you’d ordinarily never dream of entering. Order a toasted tea-cake in an unfamiliar café. Sit on a bench you’ve never noticed before.
Don’t read. Just sit and soak up the atmosphere. You’re not gathering material for your writing – though that can be a pleasant side-effect. The idea is to step off the tramlines of your life and give your mind a chance to breathe and expand.
It goes without saying that you need to do this alone. Social responsibility is anathema to this process. You may push a sleeping baby if you must, or throw the odd stick for a tactful and self-contained dog.
Deliberately doing nothing is particularly difficult for time-starved multi-tasking women. It can seem impossible to set aside all the things that need doing and wander aimlessly for an hour in the middle of your busy schedule. The trick is to timetable your daily dither just as you would any other important aspect of your life. You need to make space for your creativity to develop. This is a necessary process. You are dowsing for gold.