Planting a Seed

When I was young each fresh piece of serious work used to seem to me for a time - perhaps a long time - to be beyond my powers. I would fret myself into a nervous state from fear that it was never going to come right. I would make one unsatisfying attempt after another, and in the end have to discard them all. At last I found that such fumbling attempts were a waste of time.

It appeared that after first contemplating a book on some subject, and after giving serious preliminary attention to it, I needed a period of subconscious incubation which could not be hurried and was if anything impeded by deliberate thinking. Sometimes I would find, after a time, that I had made a mistake, and that I could not write the book I had had in mind.

Having, by a time of very intense concentration, planted the problem in my sub-consciousness, it would germinate underground until, suddenly, the solution emerged with blinding clarity, so that it only remained to write down what had appeared as if in a revelation.

[Bertrand Russell]
Portraits from Memory and Other Essays, p.195

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1 comment:

  1. It is common for creative work to be accompanied by torment and distress. The accounts furnished by [creatives] are full of complaints about the difficulties they experience in getting started, the periods of frustration and dissatisfaction through which they pass, the false starts, alterations and revisions which have to be undertaken before the work comes 'right'.

    This is especially true of the initial stages of a new conception. Some creative people appear to embark upon a new project before it has completely matured in their mind; and thus make several starts and many alterations which might have proved unnecessary had they not resorted to precipitate action.

    As early as 1926, Graham Wallas pointed out that the solution of creative problems begins with a stage of 'Preparation', in which the subject is investigated and studied from a number of angles. This is generally followed by a period of 'Incubation', in which conscious thought on the problem needs to be abandoned. Nevertheless, during this period, important unconscious or preconscious processes take place in the mind; some kind of preliminary 'scanning' and rearrangement, which is absolutely necessary if a new and satisfying pattern is to emerge.

    Many creative people find this period of incubation extremely tiresome. Those, especially, who have been brought up to think that idleness is a sin, and constant activity a virtue, find it hard to believe that there are times when more is accomplished by passivity rather than by activity.

    It is often very difficult for people with a powerful super-ego to feel that they are doing anything useful in the preliminary stages of a new piece of work, when day dreaming, playing around with ideas, reading, listening, and passively hoping for the best, may all be part of bringing to birth the unformulated conception. As a result, such people make false starts, and aim at a premature perfection. It is important for them to appreciate the truth contained in the Chinese proverb 'There is nothing which cannot be achieved by non-action'.

    [Anthony Storr]
    The Dynamics of Creation, p.42, 43, 221

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