The Most Important Step in the Creative Process

I liken the steps of creative insight to an image of a creator and a room. There is a room: at first the creator opens the door to the room a crack. They are very curious about what is in that room. They can see visually very little that is in Door slightlin openit, but they feel “there may be something there.” Then they open the door a little wider and can see more, and then wider, and wider, and many things in the room appear in their field of vision and become clearer.

Then the creator pushes the door open wide. They step boldly into the room , and  sensing there is something significant that will be revealed, explore every nook and cranny–the closet, the ceiling, under the bed, under the chairs, the floor, the light fixtures, the windows,  the window shades and curtains, the molding, the crack in the wall–until even the smallest detail of the room is known.

Excited now, feeling an urge, they get to work and sweat over their project, entering that room at will a hundred times, a thousand, five thousand, and whether they feel up to it or not, are happy or sad, healthy or sick, they go back to that room again and again. Then with a mixture of luck, timing, and skill the novel is acclaimed across the country, the etching is featured in a show, or the play is in a theatre where people applaud it. The creator is fulfilled.

 None of those things would have happened had the person not begun by thinking with an open mind, “Oh, I wonder very much what is in that room.”


If you are creative, I think you and I are very much alike because I am creative too, and the mystery I call my mental life is probably not very different from yours.  In my mid-twenties I was hired to work with a think tank of college professors at the University of Michigan–psychologists, economists, and sociologists, and their graduate assistants.  University buildingThey had been conducting research projects having to do with what were then in the sixties called “anti-poverty programs.”

I had written articles and speeches on that subject, and the institute contacted me to “do some writing” for them and to “put myself into the writing.”  I took the hour flight from my home in Chicago to Ann Arbor by way of Detroit to meet the directors. Specifically, they had written books that neither the government funders of the projects nor the target readers could understand because the writing was what they admitted to be a lot of academic mumbo-jumbo.

They wanted me to “clean it up”–something like a Hollywood script doctor–because I had a talent for turning difficult to understand academic textual concepts and badly written prose into clearly-written, understandable, serviceable, every day Anglo Saxon English. Most of my writing could be done at home–always a pleasure for me to be at home with my wife and children.

But I thought that it would be beneficial to start my project by working at the institute–studying their writing, meeting with staff, getting settled in a good work space. So I spent considerable time in Ann Arbor. I like college towns–like the bookstores, the activities, the restaurants, and the comfort of being where learning is occurring. The institute’s chief writer was out of commission with writer’s block, so I would be writing on my own.

The first week I was walking down the street on the way to dinner with a prominent economist and he called out “Congratulations” to a man across the street. Then he said to me,” He just won the Nobel Prize.” I very much like and feel most comfortable working with very intelligent people. With my mind filled with what I had read and gotten from discussions with staff, I began the writing stage by doing no writing at all, not even doodling.

Just sitting in my office at the institute, being imaginative, I let information I had acquired free-float in my brain, holding off committing my fingers to a pad of paper or a keyboard till I was ready and eager to start. I looked out the window at a pond where mallard ducks were floating, a peaceful, lovely little scene. In the background I could hear cricketpeople coming and going, talking, and laughing, and one day couldn’t help but hear the chirping of thousands of leaping crickets that had escaped from their cage where they were being kept for someone’s scientific project. I have no fear of chaos and disorder and thought the crickets were fun. (A major characteristic of creative people is physical and mental messiness, a mind cluttered with ideas, and a disorganized environment which can frustrate to no-end neat freaks they may be working with).

The directors would visit me from time to time and ask how the writing was going, reminding me not to forget the deadline I was working under. I said the writing was going fine. Though I hadn’t written a word, I knew without a doubt I would meet the deadline because I always meet deadlines. I like deadlines. I knew that time pressure, though it can be an impediment to creativity at times, usually facilitates it. For example, I have a writer friend named Stu who is able to produce what he has been procrastinating over when he knows that friends are coming over in an hour,

When I did not turn in a word of copy, the directors got nervous. They had had enough experience working with people in the act of creation (most of the people involved in the projects) to know that creative people are lousy with details and pay little attention to them. But I said everything was under control, and they gave me leeway because they were used to the eccentricities of creative people.


My mind then began the vital and intriguing process of what I have named “Pre-Compositional Lilt,” which I believe is the most important step in the creative process. I think you too know it well. It is semi-dreamy aimless state when ideas bubbles floating on colorful backgroundfloat lightly as bubbles through the mind, coming and going,  bursting and dissolving, some more promising and useful than others, a few sticking that will became a permanent part of your thoughts about the thing you are about to create–the painting, the essay, or story, or symphony.

It has been known for a long time that there are two types of thoughts, one of which is creative. The less creative type is under active control of your conscious mind, and the other is involuntary. The involuntary type is called Primary Process Thinking. It is the source of your creative inspirations. It is my Pre-Compositional Lilt: a disorganized drifting and succession of fragments of images and ideas in which a number of ideas fuse themselves with other ideas so that sometimes strange or extraordinary links are made between images and ideas that are not usually linked, but are unrelated. That’s when you have something original, or, in other words, creative–a practical, useful product of a wild ranging of the creative mind. (A creative idea–if it is truly creative–must have a practical use).

Almost all accounts of creativity by scientists, mathematicians, artists, and writers indicate that they feel that unconscious processes are passively revealed to them rather than delivered up to them by conscious thought. For example, novelist William Makepeace Thackeray said, “I don’t control my characters. I am in their hands and they take me where they please.” A common phrase of artists is, “It came to me; I hadn’t planned it.”

It comes at the conclusion of Pre-Compositional Lilt.  Walking alone often seems to spring creative ideas from the splashing water with floating bubblessubconscious. Poet Wallace Stevens composed his poems in his mind on the long walks between his home and his office. For me, a single word I may see in a book or on a sign on a store front, or in my notes, a word that has a special relevance for that text, may pop into mind and straighten out all my thinking about a text. And I know that once I get the first sentence right–and I can always tell l if ii is right–basically the whole thing, however long it will be, is as good as written.

Creative intuition, which works in a non-logical realm, is not simply in-born as it is often thought to be, but is developed and made stronger, beginning with “Lilts” and then enhancing your ability to bring together a wide range of relevant information without even being aware of what items of information you have used or how you have integrated them. Knowledge of your art or discipline is essential. In fact knowledge is not everything in creativity, but it is almost everything.


Creators typically have an obsessive side and often have few concerns other than their creative work. Most of their Door opening onto a colorful sceneconscious and subconscious thoughts are directed toward that work. Creators keep the subject of their work consistently before them and wait patiently or impatiently till the work opens slowly, little by little, into full and clear awareness.

The creative artist’s mind (like the inventor’s and mathematician’s) even during a day at the beach, even during a vacation in the mountains or a night at the theatre, is immersed in her art and consciously or subconsciously is always working on it and never takes a break. A sentence or paragraph that will convey exactly the mood she is seeking to communicate may elude a writer for days or months, only to suddenly appear when she is having sex or petting a dog because she is an artist and her mind never rests. Mozart jotted down pages of notes while waiting his turn at billiards. It couldn’t be otherwise.

I wanted my work to be as elegant as highly creative works such as paintings, musical compositions, and literary works. One test of a scientific theorem is: “Is it elegant?” I talked to my wife, who is also my editor, about that, and she was in agreement that having that goal would make the work more fulfilling for both of us and a bigger challenge. Why not always aim for beauty, so you may pause over a sentence or paragraph or musical phrase you’ve written or a painter’s right brush stroke and say, “That’s just beautiful, if I do say so myself.”



I finished the books on time. They were published, distributed, and highly regarded. The material was put to use by people fighting poverty in many places in the world, and I was hired to work with the institute again on another project, and then others. I developed strong friendships with the people I met.



© 2018 David J. Rogers

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Filed under Creativity, Personal Stories, Pre-Compositional Lilt, The Creative Process, The Nature of Artists, Writers, Writing

16 responses to “The Most Important Step in the Creative Process

  1. Marilucas Casarrubias

    Hi David,
    Very interesting the analogy you do in your post:
    Creativity vs A room
    Meanwhile I was reading I felt I was in the room for


    • davidjrogersftw

      Hello Marilucas. Your feeling that you were in that room as you read the post is the kindest compliment you could have made. Thank you.

      It’s so good to hear from you. I hope you are still writing as often as you can.

      Best wishes,


  2. Good morning David.

    This post has really hit the spot for me. It speaks to me in a language I completely understand. So many thoughts come from it. I need more time to absorb and take it all in.

    However, the points that jump out at me are your fabulous analogy of ‘entering a room’ feeling that there might be something in there….and then re-entering thousands of times, (which is certainly the case for me).
    Given this I need to carry a small note/sketchbook with me at all times, so that when a little gem reveals itself I can immediately record it.

    Having an open mind is I believe one of the most important things for a creative, and as you say it is when we walk, sit quietly, suddenly see a word, a colour, or an image or often the most unexpected thing – something ignites deep within. What wonderful moments these are.

    I really like the terms, Primary Process Thinking and Pre Compositional Lilt…..perfect descriptions of what actually happens. Interestingly, you mentioned William Thackeray. I have just begun watching an excellent TV drama based on his brilliant novel ‘Vanity Fair’ and it is clear to see when reading the book or viewing this production that Thackeray became one with his characters. I believe that when we have that sensation of becoming one with a painting or something we are writing etc. that’s when we have hit the preverbal spot.

    You talked about once you get that first sentence right (by right I interpret that to mean deep down in your soul right) you know the rest of the book will work. It is the same with a painting, especially a spontaneous painting…if those first marks are right….I know I have it. When painting portraits, I always begin with the eyes….and know almost instantly whether or not I have managed to get under the skin of the sitter, rather than producing a technically proficient likeness. I am learning more and more that the writing process is the same.

    I laughed when you talked about the creatives ‘obsessive side’ The returning to the room thousands of times is of course part of this. The mind never rests. A good friend of mine says my mind is like a computer which never switches off….. In many ways this is true.

    Woe betide the non-creative who marries a creative thinking that life will be normal!:) What can I say.

    Thank you so much for this. I will be repeating your words many times.

    Best wishes for a most creative day….janet 🙂


    • davidjrogersftw

      Janet, what a pleasure for me to wake to your exciting mind in action and such pleasing comments. You amaze me–a tremendously busy woman-and yet you make time to read posts and make sensitive, thoughtful, and always kind and generous comments. You’re something. It doesn’t surprise me that your mind never switches off. That’s apparent in everything you write and paint. I love your mind. It’s young and vibrant, always curious, always wondering.

      You make so many trenchant comments here. (In college my Shakespeare teacher constantly used that word. I thought it was a stuck up word. But it’s an accurate word for your ideas). You point out that non creatives who marry a creative expecting normalcy in their life to come may be disappointed. I might add from Diana’s many years’ experience with sometimes troublesome me and my writing: surprised, shocked, appalled, frightened, threatened, confused, devastated, but also at times, impressed, delighted, and moved. Thank God she loves me.

      I’ve found that creatives married to other creatives can have exceptionally volatile relationships too, always teetering on disaster. Maybe it’s just hard to live with one of us, Janet, no matter who you are. Sometimes I regret–I think you may feel the same–that all my life people have treated me with kid gloves because of my moods–those of a temperamental creative. I’ve “gotten away with murder” in my life, surrounded by such kindness. Sometimes I wish people had said, “Cut out these nutty moods.”

      I love you artists and your painter’s talk, such as you describing your beginning a portrait with the subject’s eyes and feeling that through executing the eyes to your satisfaction you manage “to get under the skin of the sitter.” I like that idea and am trying to relate it to my writing. I’ll give that more thought.

      Thank you, friend.

      Thank you for re-blogging this post. It’s very kind of you. It’s a good feeling to know your friends are looking at my post.

      Best wishes,

      Liked by 2 people

      • Thank you David and I am so glad you enjoyed my comment. By the way I do agree that two creatives getting married can be the cause for must volatility. I think it’s wonderful that you and Diana have found the right formula.

        I forgot to mention in my previous comment, that I am in the middle of watching ‘Genius – Einstein’ It’s really well done and especially captures all the things you talked about in this post. I think you would enjoy it.

        By the way I do like deadlines….they seem to focus the mind.

        Have a lovely evening…Janet 🙂


  3. Wow, David… you really had your work cut out for you with that bunch. (Although I admit I’m envious of the setting.) Translating the words of clinicians, and the unformed “sentences” of software engineers (which involves contending with the egos of both) is difficult enough. I’ve never worked with a think tank — not that I’d ever be invited to do so. However, I have a pretty good idea of the challenges you faced.

    Yes, always aim for beauty. I should print that out because the quote itself is beautiful. I try to also aim for a smile — or at least a snort. 😉
    Hugs on the wing.


    • davidjrogersftw

      Tegan, you make me laugh out loud–aiming for a smile, or snort. Now that’s a quote.

      I can imagine working with people you do can be trying. But I’m guessing that you’re a woman with lots of patience. I love working in think tanks–smart people often doing comical, eccentric things, tons of ideas floating around the place, excitement (oh how I crave excitement like that). I’ve always been given great independence, which I like. I would think you do too.

      Someone here saw your comment and said, “Who is she?” I said, “She’s a woman with so much imagination you wouldn’t believe it.”
      Thanks for coming by.

      Best, David

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Inspiring and thought provoking as always! thank you David!


    • davidjrogersftw

      April, you are kind. Thank you. How are you? How is your work going? Do you still have a beau? It’s always a pleasure to hear from you. Send me an email if you have time.

      Best wishes,


  5. As I look round my room I am glad that messiness is a sign of creativity as one is not allowed to be like that by relatives who say,can’t you get books from the library…. and these books cannot be found except in a University library.Clearly they have never looked at the titles.
    It’s a great article.I’ve never seen anyone describe that way of letting words or images flow into your mind uncritically knowing that the unconscious will wash up in its tides what you need when you begin to write.Sometimes there is an uncanny feeling as if someone else is there,
    Late at night I say, can’t you call tomorrow? But I know I have to write it donw then or lose it.
    I’d have found that job very hard but being in Ann Arbour I would love if I was there with someone who knew it
    I enjoyed your piece and hope you share these parts of your life now and in the future.


    • davidjrogersftw

      Dear Katherine,

      I’m so happy you wrote to me because I enjoy the way you think–impressionistically, an idea here and one over there and there. And I didn’t feel like doing what I was supposed to be doing. Yes, I’m a believer in having the patience to wait for the right moment to begin a written work, not starting a moment before. I dream and putter with this and that and waste time liberally, all the time alert to the wait for a mind that is sharp and ready to go. There is no sense trying to force things in this life. That doesn’t work.

      Today my messiness caught up with me. Within three feet of me somewhere is a sheath of papers I need, but I can’t find it. My dear wife says that looking for it is an opportunity to clean up my office. But well…

      Thank you for the wish that I continue writing these posts, as I hope you continue writing yours. I hope too that you are well and haven’t had accidents lately, and everything is going your way.

      Best wishes,

      Liked by 1 person

  6. David, Part III of you post resonated with me. I can’t turn my brain off. Thoughts of my novel in progress are at the forefront of my mind most of the time — even when it’s only that little voice in my head telling me to stop whatever I’m doing and get my attention back on my book. There are times when I’m not aware I’m thinking about the story line, when my brain suddenly connects the dots. Thank you for another thought-provoking post.


    • davidjrogersftw

      Janet–me too. This morning my wife and I will go for a walk through Chicago’s Botanic Garden-very beautiful–with a friend, and then to lunch–very nice–and my brain is tabulating how long the drive will take, the walk, and the lunch, and the drive back before I can get back to writing, at which time my real day will begin and I will be back in my happiest element. I know you will understand.

      Thank you for your comments and for following my blog.
      Best wishes,


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