Creative Process

creative process

Books, seminars, classes, DVDs, coaches, and others promise to teach you the keys to increasing your creativity, usually by giving you a certain set of exercises or activities designed to “unlock or unblock” hidden creative potential. Typically these programs or activities draw on the studies conducted by creativity researchers, or more specifically, on a particular area of research involving the process of creativity.

Process is one of six concepts that psychology researchers attempt to decode to understand how the brain enables innovative and original thought. The other concepts, commonly referred to as the six “P’s” of creativity are person, place, potential, product, and persuasion.

Focusing on one, two or more of the six P’s, researchers develop theories on how, why, and to what extent creativity occurs. One theory, for example, focuses on both person and process, attempting to understand the thought processes that enable creativity, and individual differences that produce those thought processes.

Another theory might combine place, person, and product, trying to unlock thought processes tied to creative personality traits, and how these connections lead to novel and original products or outcomes.

Regardless of the combination of P’s studied within a particular theory, those that include process in their frameworks are concerned with the following:

Process definition*

Theories that focus on creative process aim to understand the nature of the mental mechanisms that occur when a person is engaged in creative thinking or creative activity.

* From “The Cambridge Handbook of Creativity,” edited by James C. Kaufman and Robert J. Sternberg, 2010, Cambridge University Press, Chapter 2, Theories of Creativity, Aaron Kozbelt, Ronald A. Beghetto, Mark Runco, page 24.

While creativity is highly individual and idiosyncratic, and also depends on the domain or discipline, most researchers working in the field today recognize some common stages of the creative process across domains.

These stages are defined as follows:

  • Preparation
  • Incubation
  • Insight
  • Evaluation and Elaboration


For many viewing creative accomplishments from the outside, it often seems as if the discovery or outcome came mysteriously – as an instant flash of brilliance.

Many don’t realize, for example, the years of rejection letters that most writers receive before ever publishing a novel, let alone receiving a wide readership or commercial success. Best-selling author Stephen King pinned dozens of rejection letters to his wall before anyone would publish any of his short stories, and Jack Kerouac, writer of the classic “On the Road” received a rejection from Knopf, Inc. that said his novel was a “badly misdirected talent.” The initial rejection of France’s Impressionist painters, such as Claude Monet and Pierre-Auguste Renoir, is a well known and established fact, now turned into art folklore.

And many who are passionate about music follow the uphill battle of many artists, of all musical genres, who often play to small or nonexistent audiences before gaining acceptance or fame.

Preparation is the term that psychologists apply to the first stage of the creative process, when eminent individuals are starting out, struggling to succeed while perfecting their craft. Author Malcolm Gladwell wrote in his book “Outliers” of the 10,000 hour rule for success in any field, or 20 hours of practice each week for 10 years. This finding Gladwell took from the research psychologist K. Anders Ericsson of Florida State University.

For those working in the sciences, preparation often means years of advanced graduate and post-graduate study. But inspiration, according to renowned creativity researcher Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, usually starts at an early age.

In his book “Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention”, he wrote of how the physicists Max Planck, Werner Heisenberg, and Hans Bethe became intrigued with the movement of atoms and stars in their youth. The tallest mountains as well as the night were noted as major inspirations for these scientists.

Csikszentmihalyi (author of “Creativity: The Work and Lives of 91 Eminent People” and founder of the first positive psychology doctoral program at Claremont Graduate University) stated that inspiration is what drives the curiosity of both great artists and scientists to persevere through their years of hard work and preparation.


After an individual has started working on a solution to a problem, or had an idea leading to a novel or original approach to an effort, the individual enters the incubation stage. According to research psychologists, this stage can last hours, days, months or years. It is the stage where ideas “churn around below the threshold of consciousness,” according to Csikszentimihalyi.

Csikszentimihalyi, who once chaired the psychology department at the University of Chicago, and now heads Claremont Graduate University’s department of Positive Psychology, stated that when individuals try to solve problems consciously, it becomes a linear process.

When problems are left to incubate or simmer, however, that’s when unexpected combinations occur. And it’s these unexpected combinations that form domain-changing breakthroughs.

Oftentimes incubation occurs during sleep or in the dream state. Many inventors and artists have reported going to sleep and waking highly inspired. Paul McCartney, for example, has stated numerous times of how he awoke with the tune of one of his most famous songs, “Yesterday.” Here’s an excerpt from his online interview with Clash magazine:

“I dreamed the melody one day in London when I was staying at Jane Asher’s house, who was my girlfriend at the time, and I was staying there and I woke up one morning with the song in my head. So, I went round for weeks – first of all to John, and then to George, Ringo, George Martin, various people – and said, ‘What’s this tune, man? I can’t get it out of my head, what is it?’ And no one could figure it out, so for a couple of weeks I thought, ‘Well, I must have written it then’, cos all those people had pretty good knowledge of what songs were either around or had been.”

It must be noted, however, as Malcolm Gladwell articulates in “Outliers,” that The Beatles performed live in Hamburg, Germany over 1,200 times from 1960 to 1964, totaling more than 10,000 hours of playing time. This experience he credits with the preparation needed to reach the pinnacle of the Beatle’s success, and to its ability of band members to write their distinctive and highly original songs.


The insight stage is also called the “aha” moment, or the Eureka experience. Some psychologists call it illumination. It’s the exact moment in time when a problem that a scientist has been trying to solve – for days, months, or years – comes together in the scientist’s mind to form a clear resolution. Or it’s the ending of a story that a writer has been rewriting for months that finally makes sense. Or it’s an architect’s environmental solution to building that has kept his firm working for months to solve.

Howard Gruber, an American pioneer of the psychological study of creativity, known for his work on the creative process, said that these moments are not simply flashes of illumination, but the momentous coming together of pieces of knowledge. This combining of complex, diverse pieces of data only emerges after a complex and lengthy process.

Additionally, many creativity researchers theorize that insights usually come when individuals are not consciously thinking of the problem or project. For instance, many eminent individuals describe insights arriving as they walk their dogs, hike, or exercise. Other researchers describe how travel and vacations also aid the creative process in producing those insights that lead to significant breakthroughs.

Evaluation and Elaboration

During the final stage of the creative process, individuals must decide if their insights make sense, and if they’re original or novel. In other words, they must analyze the insights to determine if they’re truly worth pursuing. If the insight continues to excite and motivate the individual to go forward, then the hard work of turning the creation into a reality begins.

Some creativity researchers, such as Harvard University’s Teresa M. Amabile, cite motivation as the key factor in creative process. Regardless of the ingenuity, novelty or originality of an idea, artwork, or scientific invention, if the creator is unmotivated the work will never become a reality.

And throughout the creativity literature, of all those who have created products that literally changed their domains or disciplines, all state the necessity of hard work. Yet at the same time, they also state that it doesn’t seem like work at all but more like play. Additionally, the opinions of others, even great awards and fame, mean very little in the end. It’s the process of creating that drives them forward.

Robert Pinsky, Poet Laureate of the United States from 1997 to 2000, and author of over 19 books of poetry and criticism has stated in various interviews that he follows the poet Ezra Pound’s dictum: “The highest form of criticism is actual composition.”

In an online interview with Every Writer’s Resource (, Pinsky explained this reference as based on the Greek krinos, meaning “to choose.”

“I take Pound to mean that the poet must choose constantly– what word to use, what grammatical construction, how to order the parts, which is the best rhythm?”

And that is both the hard work and play that spark the motivation of creators.

If you are interested in studying the process of creativity, you should consider a psychology degree with a focus in creativity. Many fields apply the findings from creativity studies, from business to the arts and technology. For more information contact schools offering psychology programs.

Research and consulting positions are both options for those with the knowledge and understanding of creativity. Many fields in psychology offer opportunities to focus in creativity, including Cognitive Psychology, Social Psychology, Educational Psychology, and Media Psychology.

The Flow of Creativity

Many creative individuals talk of “losing themselves” in their work. Distractions are nonexistent because the individual loses a sense of time and place. Renowned creativity researcher Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has termed this experience “flow.”

In the “Moveable Feast,” Ernest Hemingway’s memoir of his early years as a writer living and working in Paris, he perfectly describes flow. During the 1920s, Hemingway often worked in the cafés. Sometimes he gets angry because certain friends or others claiming to be friends interrupt his work – distractions that all artists must learn to handle.

However, in this particular instance, Hemingway is at first distracted by an attractive woman, yet this distraction does not seem to affect his work and in some respects, inspires him:

The story was writing itself and I was having a hard time keeping up with it. I ordered another rum St. James and I watched the girl whenever I looked up, or when I sharpened the pencil with a pencil sharpener with the shavings curling into the saucer under my drink.

I’ve seen you, beauty, and you belong to me now, whoever you are waiting for and if I never see you again, I thought. You belong to me and all Paris belongs to me and I belong to this notebook and this pencil.

Then I went back to writing and I entered far into the story and was lost in it, I was writing it now and it was not writing itself and I did not look up nor know anything about the time nor think where I was nor order any more rum St. James.

It’s the pursuit of the creative activity, and the sense of accomplishment achieved from these flow states that keep creative individuals pursuing their passions, according to Csikszentmihalyi.

He writes states in his book “Creativity: Flow And The Psychology Of Discovery And Invention,” that it’s not necessarily the happiness one feels while in a state of flow that gives meaning to the pursuit. He even states that happiness can be a distraction.

Happiness does not enter into flow because the individual is not thinking of anything but the equation he or she is working on, or the writing one is completing, or the brushstrokes needed to complete an image. But happiness is nevertheless the result of such a pursuit.

“It is only after we get out of flow, at the end of a session or in moments of distraction within it, that we might indulge in feeling happy. And then there is the rush of well-being, of satisfaction that comes when the poem is completed or the theorem proved,” Csikzentimihalyi states.

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