Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart has given us a wonderful description of percolation, the most enigmatic stage of the composition process: “When I am… completely myself, entirely alone and of good cheer — say, travelling in a carriage, or walking after a good meal, or during the night when I cannot sleep; it is on such occasions that my ideas flow best and most abundantly.
“Whence and how they come, I know not; nor can I force them. Those ideas that please me I retain in memory…[and] if I continue in this way, it soon occurs to me how I may turn this or that morsel to account…
All this fires my soul, and, provided I am not disturbed, my subject enlarges itself, becomes methodised and defined, and the whole, though it be long, stands almost complete and finished in my mind, so that I can survey it, like a fine picture or a beautiful statue, at a glance… What a delight this is I cannot tell! All this inventing, this producing, takes place in a pleasing lively dream.”
Percolation: The Challenge
To, in Mozart’s words, “fire the soul”. To create the conditions that evoke “the lively dream”.
Percolation: The Steps
Creative magic cannot be forced but it can be encouraged. Here’s how:
- Consciously adopt a creative approach. The creative process is messy, seemingly chaotic. Don’t try to rein it in, especially at the start.
- Establish a productive morning ritual. This is important at all stages of the process but especially at the beginning, when you are most in danger of wimping out, giving up or turning back. We all have rituals to our day, particularly our mornings. Become conscious of yours. Does they feed and foster your creative impulses? After much experimentation, I have settled on yoga, Creation Meditation (of which more next time) and F-R-E-E-Writing. Yours might be coffee and cigarettes: if it induces a dreamy, somnolent space where you can make an inner connection with your work, keep it; if not, chuck it and change.
- Do something strange/stupid. There’s a reason why creators are considered eccentric, mad, bad and dangerous to know. They don’t conform. They break the rules. WB Yeats was part of a magician’s cabal; film director Peter Jackson turns up for media interviews in bare feet; inventor-entrepreneur Dean Kamen owns an island off the coast of Connecticut that he calls North Dumpling, with its own flag, currency and navy; it also boasts a mutual non-aggression pact with the US signed by Mr Kamen and ex-president George Bush Snr. The same streak that causes such behaviour is what allows great poetry, movies and inventions. So go on, nurture your whacky side and see what yields.
- Move. Nietzsche said, “When my creative energy flowed most freely, my muscular activity was always greatest.” Think of the romantic poets tramping for miles across the lake district, Dickens prowling the streets of London, Joyce Carol Oates on her daily run: show me a prolific author and I’ll show you somebody who probably enjoys some form of aerobic exercise.
- Go on a word diet. “Prisoners who never wrote a word in the days of their freedom will write on any paper they can lay hands on,” says Dorothea Brande in her classic, Becoming A Writer. “Innumerable books have been begun by patients lying on hospital beds, sentenced to silence and refused reading.” While you’re incubating your project, forgo newspapers, books, magazines and the Internet as much as possible.
- Take up a solitary hobby. Horseback riding, floor polishing, solitaire, gardening, whittling… So long as it’s silent, repetitive and your idea of fun, it will help you percolate.
- Trust the blank page. Don’t push, don’t pull, just mull.
Eight Stages of the Writing Process
Eight Stages of Writing #1: Preparation