Het maakproces: verder dan fasen

The acts of creation represent a huge accrual of effort.

Sawyer komt in zijn boek met een geïntegreerd fasenmodel van het creatieve proces. Maar hij relativeert het voorkomen van fasen ook.

Going beyond stage theories

“You have these ideas, and then you work on them. As you work on them, you get new ideas … one makes the other one come out.” – Sculptor Nina Holton, quoted in Csikszentmihalyi & Sawyer, (1995, p . 353)

“In the daily stream of thought these . .. different stages constantly overlap each other as we explore different problems.” – Graham Wallas, (1926, p. 81)

The eight-stage model is a useful way of capturing all of the cognitive processes involved in the creative act. The eight stages are domain-general; the creative process in all domains, from science to technological invention to fine art painting, involves these stages. But creativity rarely unfolds in a linear fashion. The mental processes associated with the eight stages can overlap, or cycle repeatedly, or sometimes appear in reverse order. This is why some creativity researchers prefer to describe them as eight “disciplines” or “habits of mind” that are associated with highly creative individuals; some of the models I cited in Table 5.1 (p. 89) are presented this way, including Burnard et al., 2006, and Scott et al., 2004.

When we do intensive biographical studies of the origins of transformative discoveries and inventions, we see that creativity emerges over time in a complex, nonlinear fashion. Many creative products evolve over months and years, so these biographical studies involve a lot of work – poring over journals, notes, preliminary drafts, and letters. One of the most influential biographical studies was Howard Gruber’s close reading of Darwin’s journals. Gruber’s analysis of how Darwin’s theory emerged over 13 years filled a rather large book (Gruber, 1974). Most such studies require a book to tell the whole story – other examples include Seth Shulman’s story of the Wright brothers, Glenn Curtis, and the airplane (2002), and Tom Standage’s story of how the telegraph emerged from Samuel Morse’s 12-year effort (1998). Creativity researchers are still fleshing out theories about these long-term processes: how long creative periods are sustained, and how one multiyear period is succeeded by a shift to another research question or another style of visual representation (cf. Gruber, 1988; Feinstein, 2006; Nakamura & Csikszentmihalyi, 2003). These questions can’t be answered using the experimental methodologies that predominate in psychological research; they require more qualitative, biographical methods. These ontogenetic studies have found that creators work on many problems at the same time, and that in most creative careers, an insight often generates more questions than it answers. A creative insight that generates good questions is more valuable than one that conclusively answers every known question but doesn’t suggest any further research. The task of solving a good question leads to the reformulation of difficult problems and the generation of completely new questions.

Rather than coming in a single moment of insight, creativity involves a lot of hard work over an extended period of time. While doing the work, the creator experiences frequent but small mini-insights. Unlike the mysterious insight of our Western cultural model, these mini-insights are usually easy to explain in terms of the hard conscious work that immediately preceded them. We still don’t know exactly what goes on in the mind, but we do know that insights are based in previous experiences, they build on acquired knowledge and memory, and they result from combinations of existing mental material.

Psychoanalytic theorists were some of the first to explore the cyclical nature of mini-insights. Arieti (1976) noted that “complex works that can be divided into parts” involve a series of insights, with incubation occurring throughout the creative process, and he concluded that the stages of creativity aren’t separated through time (p. 18). Rothenberg (1979) argued that creation isn’t found in a single moment of insight but is “a long series of circumstances . . . often interrupted, reconstructed, and repeated” (p. 131). He criticized stage theories, arguing that “the temporal distinction made between inspiration and elaboration in the creative process is an incorrect one; these phases or functions alternate – sometimes extremely rapidly – from start to finish” (p. 346). And Vinacke (1952) argued that in many creative fields, especially fine art, the final work results from a series of insights beginning with the first draft or sketch and continuing until the work is completed. Incubation doesn’t occur in a particular stage but operates to varying degrees throughout the creative process. For example, poems and plays don’t emerge suddenly or completely but are gradually developed through a process of many incubations and insights (see Chapter 17).

At the end of our exploration of the eight-stage creative process, it seems clear that the moment of insight is overrated. It’s only one small component of a complex creative process, and it’s not all that mysterious. The typical creator experiences many small mini-insights every day, and these mini-insights can be traced back to the material he or she was consciously working on. We only think we see dramatic leaps of insight because we didn’t observe the many small, incremental steps that preceded it. Instead of the light bulb, a better metaphor for an insight would be the tip of an iceberg, or the final brick in a wall. Creative activities require problem solving and decision making throughout the process, and each one of these decision points involves a small amount of creative inspiration; when these mini-insights are viewed in the context of the ongoing creative work, they no longer seem so mysterious. Creativity researchers today agree that “creativity takes time . . . the creative process is not generally considered to be something that occurs in an instant with a single flash of insight, even though insights may occur” (Tardif & Sternberg, 1988, p, 430),

The mythical view of a moment of insight overly simplifies the complexity and hard work of most creativity. Instead of a single glorious moment, creators experience small insights throughout a day’s work, with each small insight followed by a period of evaluation and externalization; these mini-insights only gradually accumulate to result in a finished work, as a result of a process of hard work and intellectual labor of the creator.


“Artists of all kinds . . . work regularly, daily – some work every day of their lives, long hours, too – systematically and intensively . . . Most reach their end by repeated addressing of the problem, whether on the canvas, the poet’s notebook, or the composer’s score… Some continue to revise work even after it appears to be completed… In almost every case the acts of creation represent a huge accrual of effort, of second and third thoughts, doubts, hesitations, uncertainties and inner debate.” – John Tusa, (2003, p. 10)

Our three chapters about the creative process have given us a fairly detailed understanding of creativity:

• Creativity is not a special mental process, but involves everyday cognitive processes,
• Creativity results from a complex combination of basic mental capabilities.
• Creativity does not occur in a magical moment of insight; rather, creative products result from long periods of hard work that involve many small mini-insights, and these mini-insights are organized and combined by the conscious mind of the creator.
• Creativity is always specific to a domain. No one can be creative until he or she internalizes the symbols, conventions, and languages of a creative domain.

After eight stages

The eight stages lead up to the generation of a creative work: a product that can be shared, discussed, and communicated. What typically happens next is that trusted colleagues or mentors provide editorial suggestions, and the creator takes those to heart and returns back to the work. Revising and improving isn’t always a straightforward task; it often involves creativity as well, so the creator has to revisit the eight stages. Very little creativity research has focused on this process of revision, the dialog that occurs with the work itself after a first draft has been generated. This is a promising area for future research.

The eight stages of creativity focus exclusively on what goes on in the creator’s mind. But there’s substantial evidence that real-world creativity is deeply collaborative and embedded in social organizations, and creativity researchers have neglected the more collaborative elements of creativity (Mumford, 2003; Sawyer, 2007). For example, the product design firm IDEO has formalized an approach to creativity that’s based in real-world creative work processes (Kelley, 2001). It has five stages – understand the market, observe real people, visualize new concepts, evaluate and refine prototypes, and implement the new concept – and none of the five is purely individual. Social and organizational approaches to creativity will be the topics of Chapter 12 on group creativity, and Chapter 13 on organizational creativity.

Sawyer, R. K. (2012) Explaining creativity: The science of human innovation. Oxford University Press. [Chapter 5]