“It takes a lot of time to be a genius. You have to sit around so much doing nothing, really doing nothing.” — Gertrude Stein
I always know I am on the edge of something big when I want to overhaul my entire website.
I slip down rabbit hole, spending days in a hazy Web search of new themes, artistic fonts, bold colors and innovative plugins.
I used to hate this period. The period of not doing the thing I need to do. It usually involves a big, creative endeavor that is calling to me. Something I’ve never done.
Years ago, when I was first working in the film business, I had the great fortune of being an assistant for the most brilliant editor, Jan.
We often worked 80-hour weeks in a dark, little editing room in Hollywood.
In the beginning of a project we’d screen the film, cut out the shots we liked and hang them on a little hook in a metal bin.
And then we would sit staring at the script for days.
I used to get so anxious feeling the deadline screeching up on us that I would sit behind her and sigh. I never noticed it until she hollered, “Stop sighing, you are ALWAYS sighing!”
Most likely I was badly in need of oxygen. I was either holding my breath or hyperventilating with anxiety waiting for her to begin working.
Periodically, one of our high-strung producers would fling open the door, shrieking, “How’s it going in here?!” Jan would casually look up from the purse she was cleaning out, or nod in their direction as she joked with a friend on the phone.
I, on the other hand, would jump up and start rifling through the film clips or start rewinding a reel on the bench to look like we were busy creating something amazing.
It took me years to realize we were. We were percolating. We were in the muck of creation. We were swimming around in the dark womb before the contractions started ramping up.
We were incubating.
“All the really good ideas I ever had came to me while I was milking a cow.” — Grant Wood
A spiritual teacher once told me this period is like the rich, fertile, muddy earth right before the first green sprout pokes through.
The days would churn by as Jan sat looking out the window with her cup of coffee, elbow resting on the idle editing table. I tried not to sigh as acid burned a hole in my stomach.
And then out of nowhere, all of a sudden like lightening striking, Jan would turn her long gaze from the window.
It was like a hurricane blowing in.
Film would be flying, the crashing sound of the splicer chopping up and down. “Get me the close-up of Dan in the fire!” she would yell. “Hurry up! Find the tail trim of Samantha running! Give me the Narration! Grab that music cue with the horns!”
I tried my best to keep up with the high speed of her muse.
To my surprise, where once there was only film languishing in a bin, Jan would splice together the most stunning scene. Her editing was legendary.
She could take the worst load of crap and turn it into a breathtaking masterpiece. Scenes that would make you cry or laugh till you collapsed in a heap on the editing room floor with tears running down your face.
I was so lucky to get that chance to learn from her, but unfortunately my creative process turned out to be exactly the same as Jan’s.
Years later, my executive producer would often call in the afternoon to check on the progress of the current music video I was editing. I would do my best to muffle the clip-clop of Bucky’s footfalls but after awhile he caught on and would ask straight out, “How’s your horse?”
All of my problems were solved on the back of my horse.
Before I wrote this piece, I decided once again to overhaul my website (procrastinate). I spent days obsessively researching new fonts, graphics and website themes because I am actually working (or not working) on creating a new coaching program.
There has been much written about creativity and the subconscious, courting the muse, and the mystery of the creative process, and we all have our own way of bringing things to life.
It’s usually somewhat painful and involves periods of writer’s block or shitty canvases or doing nothing at all but laying on the couch reading Oprah.
But trust me we are doing something, and all the stages of bringing something new into the world are important!
The not doing that some call “procrastination” is universally steeped in shame and guilt and treats this incubation period like it should be included in the list of deadly sins next to greed and murder.
It’s as if we are supposed to be creative machines. This is an old idea born out of the Industrial Revolution when factory work became popular. “It’s 8 a.m. I will now and be brilliant until 5 p.m.”
Creativity doesn’t work that way.
It never hurts to prepare for the muse by laying the guilt aside, cleaning our brushes, sharpening our pencils or turning on our laptops.
But usually it’s more likely that we’ll be standing in the shower with soap in our eyes, or walking the dog, or cleaning closets when the muse finally, blessedly, thankfully arrives.
So rather than procrastination I have renamed this mysterious period “incubation.” Feel free to use it the next time someone accuses you of sloth.
And please leave a comment below, and let me know how you spend your time incubating, and what happens when your muse finally arrives?