The next time you get stuck for an idea and find the whole process so frustrating you want to commit random acts of violence, stop and let things incubate. Nature does it so well. New life arrives in an egg but it needs to be warmed up to encourage growth. Even then, life needs to chip away at the hard shell that’s provided protection during the incubation process, until it finally arrives into the world.
Ideas don’t just happen, they need incubation too.
If you’re a fan of The Big Bang Theory, you’ll know this episode well. Sheldon tries to apply Wave Theory to a particular problem which eludes him. He tries all sorts of comical methods - using peas and lima beans then later, organising the plastic balls in a kids’ playcentre’s ball pit. In the end he takes on menial work (doing Penny’s job!) and, when he drops a tray of dirty crockery, the resulting mess provides the answer.
Sheldon used a method called Divergent Incubation. By taking a break from the creative process, to do something which doesn’t challenge the brain, the synapses continue the thinking process, undisturbed by new stimuli. Or from going around and around in frustrating circles. Refreshed and renewed, when you revisit the topic, your brain has caught up and found the answer.
Think of it like this: the brain is like a computer and sometimes we can demand so much of its processing systems, that it starts to buffer. It can’t cope with the pressure we place on it. As writers we demand a lot from our brains. Ideas that offer the next plot twist, the means to define a character or describe a location, the challenge of choosing the right words, reflecting on the story’s tone, pace and rhythms. On top of that come the emotional and personal issues that complicate everything: the crippling self-doubt, the stress of cramming your writing into the spare hour when family and work don’t demand it.
It's not surprising the brain starts to buffer, is it?
Divergent Incubation comes in different forms, it can include sleep. I know lots of authors have woken up with ideas or dreamed them. Paul McCartney conceived his hit Yesterday in his sleep!
If you’re a “pantser” I think that pressure is even greater. We force ourselves into situations in our story where we don’t know what’s going to happen next. John Keats called it Negative Keepability, the ability to stay in a space where you don’t know what’s going to happen next, it’s a willingness to chase down ideas that may lead somewhere. We believe (or just hope beyond all reason) that the experience of pursuing an idea will influence the next step in the story. It can generate as much despair as it triggers excitement but when that despair strikes – and it will – this is when you need to step back and give your brain that chance to process things, to buffer.
So next time you get stuck for ideas, let them incubate. Go do the washing up, clean your home, sweep the leaves off the patio. Not only will it benefit your writing, you may find your Significant Other is grateful for this sudden burst of industry too. When they ask you why – tell them you’re incubating - and watch their reaction.
It took eight years of messing around with his story before Phil Parker published it himself. It was only when he was selected to join the Curtis Brown Creative novel writing course that he developed the confidence to pursue this goal. Since then he's learned a lot. Some of it he's outlined in this post. He's still trying to make sense of the rest.