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Eureka!

This morning I caught a part of an interview with Jonah Lehrer, science writer and the author of the book Imagine: How Creativity Works. In addition to debunking the myth of brainstorming (turns out that the no-criticism, free-association, fill-the-whiteboard-approach to creative problem solving is not especially effective—a truth that I think many a solitary writer has always known) he talks about “the moment of insight.” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pQNoqrlWkrY&feature=youtu.be.  He says that studies reveal that a creative breakthrough is often achieved not by drinking a triple espresso, buckling down and focusing, but instead, by taking a hot shower, going for a walk, getting a good night’s sleep.  So I am curious, when you are stuck on a particularly thorny plot point or organizational dilemma, do you give it a rest or power through? How do you invite the moment of insight, and where and when have your eureka moments happened?

25 Responses to Eureka!

  1. Julia Pierce says:

    I think this is so true! I’ve found that even if you force yourself to buckle down, the stuff you come up with may feel exactly like you… forced yourself to buckle down. Things seem to work themselves out, and ideas just pop into my head, when I’m doing something else- driving, playing with my daughter, riding my bike, etc.
    For me, my subconscious is the source of my creativity. Sometimes- and I know how crazy this sounds- I will even literally dream the answer. So sleep is also a good way to let my mind do it’s thing.

  2. I don’t think I’ve ever been able to power through (although I’ve tried, and still do sometimes). But showers usually work, or driving, washing dishes…any time that I can’t write down my ideas basically ;)

  3. Silver James says:

    Oh absolutely, though I can brainstorm with my CP or husband by playing “What if?” That said, my biggest “ah-ha!” moments happen when I’m in the shower or driving. Usually. My husband has been known to glance over at me in the car (when he’s driving) and start laughing like crazy. When I rouse out of my daydream to ask what’s so funny, he gestures vaguely and says, “That light bulb over your head is glaring so bright I can’t see the road.” Then he reminds me to “write it down.” I always have pen and paper with me, except in the shower. I’ve been known to duck out and dash nonsensical words on paper that’s sodden by the time I finish. I keep thinking I’ll get some of those soap crayons so I can write on the tile and not have to leave the steamy confines. But I forget to write it down…

  4. It helps for to do some other creative thing. I collage the current work in progress, cutting card stock shapes of famous paintings, glueing photoshopped images over them. Sewing or building or gardening gets me to that Alpha state that Lehrer talks about. Surprisingly, anger helps. Anxiety doesn’t. Maybe it’s the adrenaline rush. Scary thought. I should probably work out more, huh?

  5. Kay says:

    A nice hot shower is best. It’s as if the deep pleasure it gives one also turns off some part of the brain and incredible ideas come forth. Also excellent is a Julia Cameron journaling technique. I write the problem out in the form of a question. And as I keep writing an idea will inevitably pop out onto the page. More than one idea too. Walking isn’t great for me because I get too distracted by my surroundings, the birds singing, the sunshine, etc. Meditation works too – it quiets the mind and the ideas flow forth.

  6. Eureka moments always seem to happen when you’re not staring at your outline or what you’ve written so far, but when you’re doing something else (usually something that prevents you from writing down your cool new idea, like showering–mine always come when showering, driving, or sleeping). I think our brains tend to work through problems when we’re not focusing on them too much, whether it’s that math concept you just couldn’t get in school until you slept on it or the next action your character should take.

  7. For easy things I just pace my house. For thornier problems I either go for a run or go play disc golf. This is particularly true when I am putting together my outline (I have to write from an outline or I go all over the place).

    It is also true when the character I had in mind doesn’t match my plot outline. That’s when I go out and ask the tough questions about my characters: Why would they do that? What experience from their past would make them passionate about this point? I frequently come back from my run and write a scene from the back story that not only describes that critical event, but informs all other aspects of the character. The unfortunate part of this process is that I frequently end up making significant revisions to previously written dialog. The great part is discovering the richness of the characters.

  8. Nathan says:

    I heard the same interview, and while I agree brainstorming isn’t the best way to bring about new ideas, it is and EXCELLENT way to teach or get consensus on a new approach.

    Often when you come up with a genius new approach to a problem it takes other people a while to come to terms with the new idea, and they have to come to it on their own.

    A guided brainstorming session with a team allows them to follow the though process you used to get to the new idea, and since they also followed it they feel a sense of ownership and are more amenable to following the new course.

    So don’t use brainstorming to find new ideas, but do use brainstorming to introduce and teach new ideas.

    Now for a walk and shower.

  9. Kaitlyne says:

    Exactly those sorts of things. I’ll also my own personal technique of working puzzles. It’s a brainless enough activity that my mind can wander, and it’s pretty much impossible for me to work a puzzle without thinking through whatever story I’m writing. It’s great for when I want to write scenes out in my head.

    I’ve also found that talking it through with someone else helps me more than anything. A lot of times it isn’t even about getting suggestions, though my friends have supplied me with great feedback and plot points. It’s often more about just talking through what’s working and what isn’t working and getting a good handle on the problem. A lot of times, having someone else there to point out something I’m not seeing helps put me on the right track.

  10. Teri Carter says:

    I’ve been known to take 2 or 3 or 4 baths in a day. I’m not even embarrassed to say that, because it works! In fact, I think I might go take one right now. This minute.

    When I walk my dogs I listen to books on tape, but I only listen to books I know well. There’s something about the walking and the rhythm of the language that makes me think about what I’m working on. I bet I’ve listened to Jane Smiley’s A THOUSAND ACRES 30+ times. Other favorites are BELOVED and ORDINARY PEOPLE and THE HOURS.

  11. Ryan Field says:

    I agree that it’s best to step away, get a good night’s sleep, and calm your mind for a while. I always wondered about brainstorming. I never thought it produced good results.

  12. Joelle says:

    I take a shower, get a good night’s sleep, and take long walks. I also read. And pray for help!

  13. Heather says:

    I write something else. I usually read a book or two and leave it for a day or so as well. Then I start to miss my characters and it all works again from there.

  14. Kim Smith says:

    Wonderful feedback. I’d like to thank everybody for taking time to share.

  15. The only time I find ‘sitting down to brainstorm’ helpful is after I actually COME UP with the initial idea. I also always have to have some sort of noise during a brainstorm or writing session, whether it be music or a busy coffee shop or just the TV turned on in the background.

    And like most other ideas, I tend to come up with my best dialogue while driving. Onlookers probably think I’m crazy and talking to myself, but I take advantage of the recording app on the iPhone and actually talk out scenes with dialogue, switching back and forth between my characters. I like to sound out everything to make sure the dialogue seems real and not forced. Being able to record it really helps when it’s spur of the moment (like while sitting at a red light), as does a handsfree bluetooth :)

    Oh, and @Silver James…soap crayons is such a good idea for jotting things down while in the shower!

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