Trying to grasp the creative process is like trying to grasp water. The harder we try, the less we hold.

The creative process is not linear but for certain purposes we can treat it as if it is, and break it down into seven stages.

Everything we create always and invariable goes through these stages on its way from imagined want into material existence.

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Understanding these stages is useful no matter what we’re making, but becomes essential when we’re engaged in a large project.

If what we’re making comes easy to us — family dinner, f-r-e-e-writing, a dollar — we can pass right through some of the  stages without noticing them. When it’s more challenging — conference catering for 300, a published novel, a million dollars — awareness of the process becomes a real boon.

It helps us to avoid overwhelm, and all the other kinds of fears that can so easily derail our intentions.

Awareness of the seven stages also helps us to understand what’s being asked of us at different points of the process.

Each stage has different requirement and calls for different kinds of mindsets and behaviors.

Understanding which stage of the process you are in at a particular time allows you to catch hold of a process that is amorphous, spontaneous and difficult to pin down.

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The seven stages, divided into three phases, are:

The Vision Phase

  • Intention -> Choosing
  • Incubation> Germinating
  • Exploration -> Investigating

The Making Phase

  • Formation -> Drafting
  • Elaboration -> Deepening

The Revision Phase

  • Clarification -> Refining
  • Completion -> Finishing

After completion, there is often a presentation, a going public, ceremony of some sort.

One of the main reasons that creative projects become derailed is because we bring in thoughts and behaviours appropriate to a different stage of the process.

A common example is writers who try to edit (clarification, stage 6) their early ideas and insights too soon, before they have allowed them full formation (incubation, investigation, formation & amplification, stages 2, 3, 4 & 5).

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Laying the stages out in a row like makes the creative process look more linear than it is. Language is not exact, it is only a representation and there is always a gap between a word, a phrase, a concept and what it represents.

And never more than with complex concepts like this process.

Each of the seven stages melds into, interweaves with, and loops around the others, in an interactive dance, like a ceidhlidhe or barn dance. Knowing which stage of the process we’re in allows us to follow the right steps at the right time — and enjoy the dance.