Posted by: Liz Massey | November 15, 2007

How beautiful it is to do nothing…

My new (half-serious) litmus test for creative people is to watch their reaction to hearing me recite the Spanish proverb: “How beautiful it is to do nothing, then rest afterward.”

If they scrunch up their nose or launch into a sermonette on the value of hard work, I know we’re going to have an interesting conversation about the value of conscious effort in being creatively productive. However, if they just give me a sly smile, I know I’ve found a creative soul-brother or sister.

One of my favorite parts of the creative process is the “incubation” phase (often mentioned as part of the intuition (or preparation)-incubationinsight articulation of the creative process), because I can actually claim to be doing something productive by taking my mind OFF of a creative project or a thorny, challenging situation.

Such a period, which is often followed by an “aha!” moment of illumination, is the perfect embodiment of the Taoist concept of wu wei, which was explained to me as a teenager as “acting without acting” (which didn’t make much sense to me), but which I have seen translated in the last year as “effortless action” (which makes a lot more sense).

Today, I’m not so much between projects as “incubating” ideas and seeing which ones bubble up to the top of my mind. I’ve done a little idea riffing–playing with concepts, making little mental mash-ups between different ones and catching the results in my journal–but now I’m giving it a rest.

At a previous editing job I had, I always had to take a walk before I was able to write my editorial for the issue. I called the state I experienced before I went for my walk “pre-writing tension.” It was an expected part of the creative process for me.

I could have seen myself as blocked each time I experienced that feeling, but I didn’t. Maybe I really was blocking, but framing it as tension and having a healthy distraction seemed to help minimize any negative effects.

How do you incubate your best ideas? How do you distinguish between incubating activities and avoiding your creative work?



  1. Good questions, I guess because I have little time to produce anything these days, most of my time is incubatory! And I’m just dying to make things.

    and your test made me laugh healthily, do I pass?!!

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