What is the creative process?

How does a creative idea come to you? Where does it come from and why does it occur?

These are questions we – as humankind – have been asking for centuries, primarily because the process continues to mystify us. We can do a lot of incredible things, but we just can’t quite figure out what’s going on in our brains when we happen upon an idea that is novel or stumble into a solution for a problem.

For a very long time in the history of human thought, creativity was thought of as just that: mysticism, magic, incomprehensible.

The ancient greeks used to believe that creativity was bestowed upon you from a higher, otherworldly being. If you were suitable for acting on an idea, the gods would grant it to you and expect you to follow through. Muses would visit you if you begged for their gifts.

The romans believed that a creative muse was a spiritual guide that would visit those who were open to receiving them, in order to perform great work or feats.

Many people today still believe that creativity is granted through some devine power. Maybe creativity is an otherworldly gift, but for the sake of this article we’ll focus solely on information that we can prove in one way or another.

So, in exploring the creative process we need to answer these questions: where do novel ideas come from, and (more interesting to explore, I think) where do the ideas reside once they make themselves known?

What we know today is that the brain works through connections of neural pathways.

You experience something (through any of your five senses) and networks in your body all react accordingly.

When those networks continuously become active, they create a type of “memory” And these memories are formed for many, many, many things; including things we don’t consciously acknowledge (like the sound of a distant car horn in the city, or the chirping of a bird at the park, or the color of a stranger’s shoes on the subway).

This all becomes extremely important for the creative process in a later step.

But the first step to the process has nothing to do with your experiences or knowledge. Instead, the first step to the process – believe it or not – is intent.

Imagine you’re putting a puzzle together (a process we will relate to often while exploring that of creativity), and you have the box of pieces sitting out in front of you.

The first step to figuring out the puzzle is to want to solve the puzzle. That’s the first step to creative thought as well, though the difference between the creative process and the process of putting a puzzle together is that, for creativity, you don’t have to consciously have the intent.

It’s enough to have an inkling of intent to have new ideas for the process to start, your subconscious can take care of the intent for you (and it undoubtedly will, if you let it).

We know this is true because the brain is making so many connections and continuously running through network processes on it’s own, even when we’re asleep. So if you have an problem to solve, or a project you need to work on, or a deep desire to fulfill some creative need, you can count on your brain to naturally want to work on that.

So we have intent, we know that we’re going to want to put the creative puzzle together in front of us, now what do we do?

The next step in the process is to explore/gather.

Like putting a puzzle together, we need to gather all of the pieces into one place. In this example the pieces of a puzzle are simply memories or our experiences with various objects or situations. Colors and shapes, sounds, movies, people we know, books we’ve read, food we’ve tasted, clothes we’ve tried on, relationships we’ve had, dreams we’ve dreamed, all count as pieces for our puzzle.

Your brain naturally sorts through pieces that may look like they fit and those that won’t.

For creativity, our brains are naturally doing this gathering process already (again: by creating memories of things that we experience through-out our day). But we can add to the process by exploring, which is where real creative talent lies (identifying where pieces may be that we don’t have already, or where unique pieces might fit even though they don’t show up on the puzzle box that is our intent).

Maybe there are some additional pieces to our metaphorical puzzle under the table, have we checked there? Or maybe there are pieces that are more obvious about where they go than others, have we checked for those?

The first step to the creative process is intent (knowing we have a puzzle to solve and wanting to solve it), and the next is gathering information (or the individual pieces that may be part of the puzzle) and exploring (looking for pieces that might be missing or could help put the puzzle together more effectively).

What happens next is the part that creatives love most: action.

Now that you have intent and pieces to work with, you have to start putting pieces together; physically seeing where things fit together and where they don’t. This is the step of connecting/experimenting.

Often during this phase of the process you’ll start seeing things that don’t work and things that absolutely will. You’ll notice when there are gaping holes in what you have and what you hope to end up with (maybe some pieces went missing or maybe you need to find substitutes).

The purpose of this phase isn’t to critique however, which many people mistakenly do while trying to create.

You can’t accurately critique a painting that is only half-way done, that’s not fair to what the final painting could be.

This is true of ideas as well. Until an idea is more fully flushed out, you may be doing yourself a disservice to try and critique it. So, like putting a puzzle together, don’t step back from what you’re working on until you’re closer to the end and sure it’s either what you were hoping for or too far off.

Once you have started to create something from all of the experimentation and seeing where various pieces can go, you can finally step back and do the last step of the process: evaluate.

Without evaluation, your brain doesn’t know whether it’s on the right track or not. And how could you anyway? If you don’t take time to evaluate a mostly-complete idea that’s like putting a puzzle together blindfolded: how do you now if you’ve done it well or not?

The real magic to all of this is that it’s a process that occurs so often in our subconscious, without us having to do anything at all.

If we’re providing the right materials for our mind to pull from (e.g. all of the right pieces for any particular puzzle), it will often do much of the work for us. Which is why ideas seem to “strike us” when we’re least expecting them.

So, to recap:

Where do ideas come from? Our experiences and knowledge. Creative ideas are the result of a broad intent and a lot of connecting/experimenting on the part of your subconscious. Our brains want to come up with original thoughts, we simply have to get out of the way.

And where do ideas actually exist? As romantic as it sounds: in us. In our neural networks, which are formed and strengthened by our experiences and thoughts.

That’s it!

In conclusion: if I had to give you one tidbit of advice on how to improve your own creative process, it would be this: make sure you have a lot of varied experiences and knowledge for your subconscious to utilize, then get out of it’s way (read that carefully, it means: stop thinking about the project or problem).

Your brain will run through the process on its own and before you know it you’ll have some insight into what action you need to take in order to make that creative idea a reality.

And that, in an extremely large nutshell, is the creative process.