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What is Creative Incubation?

What happens when I let in-progress works incubate as long as they need, and withdraw attention from all internet media feeds long enough to give my deep-writer-mind carte blanche?

Most of my best creative work emerges when I retreat into my studio incubation space and stay secluded for a long time — ideally for several days or weeks. It's helpful if I can minimize online and IRL communications, and only venture out when it can't be avoided.

While working this way is its own reward, the key that unlocks the deepest creativity is the respite it provides from the low-level dispersed attention theft that plagues the modern world. Without that respite, the days will only get swallowed up into the gaping maw of an endless stream of internet honeytraps and nerd-snipe temptations, while my deep-work muscles atrophy and my neglected writer-self looks on in mounting horror.

But immersion in creative incubation space enables a sort of attention reclamation process to begin of its own accord, allowing deep-writer-mind to take the reins.

In this piece I'll explore what it's like when this unpredictable and non-linear process finds itself with sufficient room to proceed unimpeded — free of mini-interruptions and other structural micro-dispersals of attention.

Input Phase

  • Exposure to selected creative work. Read voraciously, online and off. Take notes. Highlight. Soak up details. Dig up biographical info about writers I like, and track down more of their work. Let curiosity and interest lead the way. Inspiration can come from virtually anywhere, and can strike at any time.

  • Re-reading. Notes, highlights, journal reflections, unsent correspondence, whatever speaks to deep-writer-mind: review and allow everything to sink in, trusting that it'll be sorted fruitfully in good time. If it takes 50-100 re-readings to fully percolate into the rich, loamy terrain tended by the writer-self, then so be it. Enjoy the process.

First Incubation Phase

  • Meandering. Let the writer-self wander aimlessly. Play. Do nothing. Think. Reflect. Go for walks. Sit under trees. Stare out the window. Deep-writer-mind needs time to chew on all that delectable input, and even more time to distill the nutrients needed for the specific forms of creative work entrusted to me and no one else. (How does it do that?)

  • Tidbits! Little tidbits can show up in my awareness anytime: inklings, inchoate yearnings, ideas, connections to other tidbits. Some tidbits plead: "Pay close attention to this!" Usually that heralds the arrival of important raw material.

  • Brain-dump. Get the tidbits on the page. Drop 'em on scraps of paper, Notion pages, temporary files, or whatever's handy. Don't interrogate. Just get them written down. Words on page. They can be arranged later.

  • Flooding. Some tidbits arrive fast and furious, and even at max typing speed, pieces still escape. Just get as much onto the page as possible. It's helpful to put the immersive dark ambient and drone music playlists on loop, as they keep editor-brain and the Watcher at the Gates at bay long enough for deep-writer-mind to take center stage.

  • Pattern detection. Over time, patterns appear: I notice that raw material tends to arrive more freely when I'm otherwise occupied with manual labor, or after a refreshing catnap. Useful knowledge.

  • Word-wrangling. Oddly, some raw material resists contorting itself into digital text, protesting as fiercely as if I'd shoved it into a straitjacket. Pen and paper it shall be, then: the tools of an intrepid word-wrangler.

  • Rough sorting. Next up is dropping (or transcribing, if handwritten) the tidbits into the writing software, sorting roughly by topic, author, and project.

  • Reduce input. When the tidbit collections start to feel unwieldy, that means it’s time to twist the shut-off valve in the other direction and close the input channels for awhile. (Note to self for future reference: when you realize you're here, just do what deep-writer-mind says and avoid the social media feed, OK? At this stage the balance is fragile, and even a trickle can leave "attention residue" that interferes with the incubation process. Choose to prioritize what you want most over what you want right now).

  • Structural sorting. Structural sorting of raw material demands high-level thinking, novel pattern detection, patience, and persistence. I reserve this work for early in the day, when I'm well-rested. Usually there’s a window of about four hours per available writing day before I start losing steam and must switch to less mentally taxing work. If I don’t, deep-writer-mind retreats and refuses to deliver.

  • Alignment. The structural sorting process reveals places that need changes in order to align the raw material with the right component parts: deletions, new category additions, splitting off into two separate projects, and so on.

  • Connecting threads. Eventually deep-writer-mind identifies novel connections among several of the structurally sorted and re-aligned tidbits. On good days, this process leads me to the exact puzzle pieces necessary to complete a long-dormant section or transform a lackluster page into crisp, cogent prose.

  • Solid draft. At some point the work begins to feel substantive; it’s clear to my writer-self that the core material has taken its initial shape. Lots of editing will follow, usually with big slabs of sub-par material ending up on the cutting-room floor. Nonetheless, there's something solid to work with.

  • But what is it? The draft is incubating. It could shapeshift into a journal entry, article, letter, blog post, or haiku. Or maybe it'll stay in endless essay territory forever-and-a-day. Nobody knows. Respect that not-knowing; it's actually a deep form of intelligence.

  • Respect the process-intelligence. The creative incubation process (including the fallow time, as Matt Cardin writes) is intelligent in and of itself. As long as I demonstrate respect for this intelligence — trust it, avoid coercion or force, and listen to what it asks of me — it leads the way into the next phase at the appropriate time. If I try to get too far ahead of deep-writer-mind, chastise it for its "failures," or force it to deliver through a channel it doesn’t like, that’s treated as a breach of trust. It will respond by retreating into hiding and refusing to work with me until I reestablish a foundation of respect.

Second Incubation Phase

  • Simmering. Next, the draft goes on the back burner to rest and simmer for as long as it demands: a day, a week, a fortnight, a year, five years, even a decade. If I want deep-writer-mind as my partner in the process, I don’t have any real say about the length of each phase. Attempts to short-circuit the process will only result in half-baked material that, while technically adequate, lacks the crucial elements that only incubation can deliver.

  • Renewed interest. Sooner or later my writer-self gets a nudge of renewed interest toward a draft that has been on the back burner. Back to work.

  • Re-reading with fresh eyes. With sufficient time passed since my previous review of the incubated draft, I now perceive the work differently than before. It seems ready for the next round of edits.

  • Edit edit edit EDIT. Edit to within a short distance of its life, if need be. Cut-and-paste. Slice-and-dice. Sort. Track down missing references. In extreme cases, a draft may require 50-100 rounds of revisions before it's ready for publication.

Third Incubation Phase

  • Late-stage simmering. Between each major phase of editing, the draft must simmer yet again. Could be an hour. Could be overnight. Could be weeks. As always, it simmers for as long as deep-writer-mind needs to do its thing without interference.

  • Checking for expiration. Even a finished piece, if it remains unpublished, might “expire” and never see the light of day, for whatever reason or none at all.

  • Finishing up. Finally, I return to the drafts that survive the whole incubation process. At long last, it's time for finishing touches, polishing up, and formatting. Only then can they be considered for publication.

Note that at every stage of the process, any in-progress work is at risk of being scrapped, outgrown, or otherwise rendered obsolete. Probably 75% of what I write never makes it into a finished piece at all, let alone a publicly released finished piece.

In some cases I track the timeline from the arrival of the first kernels of raw material to the published work. These words you’re reading right now? The first raw material for this piece surfaced in February 2021. Over two years later, this piece is now among the 25% that managed to make it all the way through. Perhaps it was starting a digital incubation space that finally completed the cycle.

When I navigate the entire creative incubation process successfully and manage to resist all outer and inner pressures to interfere with its indwelling intelligence, sooner or later the floodgates open. Deep-writer-mind speaks with increasing clarity, and intrinsic motivation takes over. On the best of these rare floodgate-days I can somehow transcend my usual limits and write and edit for 10-15 hours, with breaks only for food, rest, and movement.

I can’t predict or control the timing of the floodgate-openings. All I can do is prepare myself to receive the raw material, and sharpen my skills so I might shape it into something worthy of publication.

The rest is handled by the mystery of creative incubation.

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#creative process#creative nonfiction writing#creative incubation