How to put incubation to good use – lessons from the masters

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Today is the continuation of the incubation theory, and how to use it: “How can we use incubation to get past writer’s block, without wasting time?” Examples of famous people who’ve put incubation to good use in their creative process.

If you’ve missed my past posts on incubation theory, and you’re wondering what I’m talking about, here’s the recap…

Young Businessman Thinking and Wondering While Writing a Paper Image Source: Writing and PR Studio (BigStock Images)

Young Businessman Thinking and Wondering While Writing a Paper
Image Source: Writing and PR Studio (BigStock Images)

Incubation – what’s that again?

‘Incubation’ is when you put aside the project or idea you’re working on and either work on something else or take a rest – i.e. you ‘incubate’ the idea and let it simmer in your sub-conscious or unconscious (if you have a nap!) mind. Incubation is usually used if you hit a roadblock in your project after dealing with it in an intense way for a while.

This break often leads to a “flash of insight” from the sub-conscious, either during dreams or during daydreams (Cai et al, 10130). There is a lot of famous anecdotal evidence for this model, from musical composers who woke up from a dream with a symphony fully birthed in their mind, to scientific discoveries made by an apple hitting one’s head.

What’s the best form of incubation? I talked in my previous post about how sleep can be a really effective form of incubation. REM sleep can improve problem solving (Cai et al, 10132). Sleep, not just rest, was the key. Taking time away from the problem was important and helpful, but taking time away to achieve REM sleep was even better. Only REM sleep, mind. Take a nap where you didn’t actually fall asleep, and your mind would not be “rested” enough to form new “associative networks” between old memories and new knowledge.

Examples of famous people who used incubation in their creative process:

Virginia Woolf abandoned initial attempts at writing Mrs Dalloway because she felt she was unable to recreate the book that she had envisioned in her initial period of inspiration (Gnezda, 2011, ‘Cognition and Emotions in the Creative Process’ in Art Education (Reston) 64(1):47, 49, citing Ghiselin, 1952).

Yeats once wrote in the preface to ‘The King of the great clock tower’, “A year ago, I found that I had written no verse for two years; I had never been so long barren; I had nothing in my head, and there used to be more than I could write. I rhymed passages from a lecture I had given in America; a poem upon mount Meru came spontaneously, but philosophy is a dangerous theme; then I was barren again.” (Ghiselin, 1954, 107).

Beethoven wrote fragments of themes in notebooks which he kept beside him, often working on and developing them over many years (Ghiselin, 1954, 115).

Writer Henry Miller said that the thoughts he had between times of writing, the interruptions that occurred, whether he chose to interrupt his work or someone interrupted him, all altered the original trend of his work until it sometimes became quite different to his initial idea. Sometimes he returned to the work towards the end to find that he had unconsciously continued that initial trend in some other book he was writing, long after he had forgotten the initial idea at all (Ghiselin, 1954, 188-9).

George Eliot often had gaps of a month to half a year in between an idea and something that reminded him of the idea. He would then mentally run over the facts and begin thinking about an extension of that idea (Ghiselin, 1954, 234).

Robertson Davies (novelist, playwright, critic, journalist, and professor) followed his father’s example; he wanted to run his own business and be his own boss because he wanted to have a nap after lunch (Csikszentmihalyi, 1996, 58).

Jacob Rabinow (engineer, inventor) said incubation for him is part of his working process, rather than being breaks that he took from his work (Cskiszentmihalyi, 1996, 62). When an invention required more endurance than inspiration, Rabinow says, “Yeah, there’s a trick I pull for this. I pretend I’m in jail. Don’t laugh. And if I’m in jail, time is of no consequence. In other words, if it takes a week to cut this, it’ll take a week. What else have I got to do? I’m going to be here for twenty years. See? This is a kind of mental trick. Because otherwise you say, “My God, it’s not working,” and then you make mistakes. But the other way, you say time is of absolutely no consequence. You just forget everything except that it’s got to be built. And I have no trouble doing this. I work fast, normally. But if something will take a day gluing and then next day I glue the other side – it’ll take two days – it doesn’t bother me at all.”

Writer Brad Leithauser works on many projects at once in order to fully utilise incubation of different ideas in his creative process (Shekerjian, 1991, 196). “When I can’t bear to look at my poetry, I turn to my novel in progress. When the novel makes me ill, I draft the book review I promised someone. If the book review eludes me, I may sketch out an essay that I’ve been thinking of writing. There is always something on my desk that I can turn to, always something to work on.” Using this method, Leithauser published five books in the 1980s. This method allowed him to keep going “when his spirit lags behind his purpose” (197).

An experiment was done with Chinese Chess players (Sio and Rudowicz, 2007). Both experts and novices had to solve a series of tasks under different conditions allowing them more or less incubation for their problem-solving. The study found support for the ‘spreading activation hypothesis’, which suggests that an incubation period helps the problem-solver to focus on only the relevant concepts in the problem. It found that participants who worked on something different during their incubation period performed even better than those who had an idle incubation rest period. The study did not support the ‘selective forgetting hypothesis’, which says that an incubation period helps the problem-solver to forget the irrelevant concepts in the problem. Similar studies have been done with baseball experts and with participants who had to solve a problem of a dripping candle (Sio and Rudowicz, 2007).

Let’s summarise. What are the take-aways from these famous people?

  1. Yeats: Don’t freak out if you suddenly go dry. It’ll come back.
  2. Beethoven, Miller, Eliot: Don’t throw out your old notebooks of ideas. You might use them in 5 years!
  3. Rabinow: Be patient with necessary delays in your process.
  4. Leithauser, Chinese chess players: When you’re incubating, don’t just rest – work on other projects!

Do you know other examples of famous people who put incubation to good use in their creative process? Let me know in the comments!


This post was written by TJ Withers-Ryan © 2013. Reblogging is highly encouraged as long as you credit me as the author.

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