Brain Pickings

The 10 Stages of the Creative Process


Listen to your hunches, sponge up ideas, let them marinate, and know when you’re done.

The question of what creativity is and how it works will perhaps remain humanity’s most unanswerable — but that hasn’t stopped us from trying. On the heels of Neil Gaiman’s recent reflection on the subject comes one from filmmaker Tiffany Shlain, founder of the Webby Awards and daughter of the great Leonard Shlain of Art & Physics fame. In this short installment from AOL’s The Future Starts Here series, Shlain offers ten steps to the creative process based on her own experience in film and art, expanding, perhaps inadvertently, on Graham Wallace’s famous 1926 model of the four stages of the creative process and incorporating other notable theories of yore, like John Dewey’s emphasis on hunches and T.S. Eliot’s insistence on idea-incubation.

  1. The Hunch
  2. Any project starts with a hunch, and you have to act on it. It’s a total risk because you’re just about to jump off a cliff, and you have to go for it if you believe in it.

  3. Talk About It
  4. Tell your family, tell your friends, tell your community … they’re the ones who are going to support you on this whole treacherous journey of the creative process, so involve them, engage them.

  5. The Sponge
  6. I’m going to tons of art shows, I’m watching a lot of movies, I’m reading voraciously… and I’m just sponging up ideas and trying to formulate my own idea about the subject.

  7. Build
  8. I love the world “filmmaker” because it has “maker” in it. My team and I are … building an armature — the architecture for the project.

  9. Confusion
  10. Dread. Heart of Darkness. Forest of fire, doubt, fear… [But] as hard as it is — and it is really hard — any project … gets infinitely better after I’ve rumbled with all of my fears.

  11. Just Step Away
  12. Take a breather — literally just step away from the project… Let it marinate — don’t look at it or think about it.

  13. “The Love Sandwich”
  14. To give constructive feedback, always snuggle it in love — because we’re only human, and we’re vulnerable… Set expectations for where you are in the project, then ask questions in a way that allows for “the love sandwich”: First, “What works for you?” Then, “What doesn’t work for you?” Then, “What works for you?” again. If you just ask people for feedback, they’ll go straight for the jugular.

  15. The Premature Breakthroughlation
  16. You’ll find in a project that you’ll have many small breakthroughs — and you have to celebrate those breakthroughs, because they’re ultimately going to lead to the Big Breakthrough.

  17. Revisit Your Notes
  18. I always do this throughout the project, but especially during that last home stretch… I revisit all my notes and think back, and always find a clue — that missing link that brings it all home.

  19. Know When You’re Done

Complement with a five-step “technique for producing ideas” from 1939 and Arthur Koestler’s famous “bisociation” theory of how creativity works.

See more of Shlain’s films here.

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