Secrets of the Creative Brain

In this week’s “Writing Wednesdays” post (“The Artist’s Journey, #10“), Steve discussed the two worlds in which artists reside, and how artists break through from one world to the other to access ideas and inspiration. But . . .

How does that happen?

Why does it happen?

AND, why can’t we make it happen on demand?

When I’m sitting in front of my computer, desperately trying to deep six Writer’s Block, why can’t I flip a mental switch to obliterate the bastard?

Why, instead, do ideas emerge when I’m teetering between the moon and the sun, when I’m taking a long shower, or driving along a stretch of highway, generally just zoning out?

Nancy C. Andreasen, M.D., Ph.D, has some answers. In her work as a neuroscientist and psychiatrist she has spent decades researching creativity and working with leading artists and scientists, to include Kurt Vonnegut, George Lucas, Jane Smiley, and William Thurston.

In an article she wrote for The Atlantic a few years ago, titled “Secrets of the Creative Brain,” you’ll find:

“When eureka moments occur, they tend to be precipitated by long periods of preparation and incubation, and to strike when the mind is relaxed.”

This would be an argument for studying and practicing—for “preparation and incubation.”

For example, Steve was reading the Bhagavad Gita when The Legend of Bagger Vance came to him, but in order for him to have the idea of using “the structure of the Gita to write a story about golf” he had to know the Gita and golf. If you’ve read The Authentic Swing, you know Steve used to read the Bhagavad Gita on airplanes and that he started caddying when he was 11. By the time the idea for The Legend of Bagger Vance hit him, he had a few decades of “preparation and incubation” under his belt.

You’ll find the same with other writers.

Ray Bradbury wrote of his experiences with ideas:

“My stories have led me through my life. They shout, I follow. They run up and bite me on the leg—I respond by writing down everything that goes on during the bite. When I finish, the idea lets go, and runs off.”

Ray started writing when he was 12. Decades of prep and incubation followed—as did Fahrenheit 451, The Martian Chronicles, Something Wicked This Way Comes, and hundreds of other stories.

Nancy includes similar commentary in her article:

?This narrative is appealing—for example, “Newton developed the concept of gravity around 1666, when an apple fell on his head while he was meditating under an apple tree.” The truth is that by 1666, Newton had already spent many years teaching himself the mathematics of his time (Euclidean geometry, algebra, Cartesian coordinates) and inventing calculus so that he could measure planetary orbits and the area under a curve. He continued to work on his theory of gravity over the subsequent years, completing the effort only in 1687, when he published Philosophiœ Naturalis Principia Mathematica. In other words, Newton’s formulation of the concept of gravity took more than 20 years and included multiple components: preparation, incubation, inspiration—a version of the eureka experience—and production. Many forms of creativity, from writing a novel to discovering the structure of DNA, require this kind of ongoing, iterative process.?

Her comments are also an argument for resting the mind. As anyone reading this knows, Creativity has her own hours. She does not work on demand.

What Nancy found in her work is that the association regions of the brain are “wildly active” during the state of rest.

So when you’re frazzled and on deadline, and facing the Ivan Drago of Writer’s Block? The best route might be a drive, a long walk, a shower, or a few minutes reading your favorite book.

I hope you read Nancy’s full article yourself. When you do, you’ll find that much of it is actually about the connection between creativity and mental illness. This piece from Nancy was familiar to me and I’m betting it is familiar to many of you:

“One possible contributory factor is a personality style shared by many of my creative subjects. These subjects are adventuresome and exploratory. They take risks. Particularly in science, the best work tends to occur in new frontiers. (As a popular saying among scientists goes: “When you work at the cutting edge, you are likely to bleed.”) They have to confront doubt and rejection. And yet they have to persist in spite of that, because they believe strongly in the value of what they do. This can lead to psychic pain, which may manifest itself as depression or anxiety, or lead people to attempt to reduce their discomfort by turning to pain relievers such as alcohol.”

When you’re working in a field that those around your don’t understand—or running down a dream that no one supports—it can be painful. Anxiety can be found driving the train instead of lounging in the dining car.

While we can’t speed dial Creativity, if we do our work and rest our minds there’s a chance that Creativity might just show up uninvited more often than not.

Will you be ready when she arrives?

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Steve shows you the predictable Resistance points that every writer hits in a work-in-progress and then shows you how to deal with each one of these sticking points. This book shows you how to keep going with your work.

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A short book about the writing of a first novel: for Steve, The Legend of Bagger Vance. Having failed with three earlier attempts at novels, here's how Steve finally succeeded.



Steve shares his "lessons learned" from the trenches of the five different writing careers—advertising, screenwriting, fiction, nonfiction, and self-help. This is tradecraft. An MFA in Writing in 197 pages.



Amateurs have amateur habits. Pros have pro habits. When we turn pro, we give up the comfortable life but we find our power. Steve answers the question, "How do we overcome Resistance?"



  1. Melissa G Wilson on April 20, 2018 at 6:15 am

    If creativity is such an important skill to build why don’t we have stores or centers where we can go to build this skill? I’m not thinking of schools but places where we can gather every day if we want to and develop our creativity?

  2. BarbaraNH on April 20, 2018 at 6:25 am

    Lovely reminder, Callie! Perfect on a Friday morning that seemed to arrive with its own troop of worries. Thanks!!

  3. Mary Doyle on April 20, 2018 at 6:27 am

    What a perfect follow-up to Steve’s post on Wednesday – thanks Callie! I’ll definitely read Nancy’s article.

  4. Julie Murphy on April 20, 2018 at 6:41 am

    “When you’re working in a field that those around you don’t understand–or running down a dream that no one supports–it can be painful.”

    The artistic hallucination: seeing what no one else can see. It’s the bane and boon of the creative. Can we really trust our revelation and ourselves? If we, the crazies who don’t think like other people, figured it out instead of the accomplished scholars, are we truly seeing an elegant solution?

    When Steve said, “‘What is my gift?’ which is another way to say ‘Who am I?'” I think that’s the essence of the the obsession and aversion to creativity. We must get this gift out of us and yet will that giving reveal something about who we are that we may not want to know?

    I’m going to follow up on Andreasen’s work and this topic, Callie. Good stuff–thanks.

  5. Matt Nightingale on April 20, 2018 at 6:55 am

    Great post! This is why it’s important to show up everyday to write. It may seem like nothing’s happening, but you’re incubating. And then when the quitting bell rings, let yourself go home. I think these things like taking a drive, or reading your favorite book are similar to Julia Cameron’s concept of the artist’s date: a brainless activity that fills your well of human experience. I think that’s important to keep yourself grounded and relevant, and to help you put your high concept into an accessible package.

  6. Joel D Canfield on April 20, 2018 at 7:33 am

    From that article:

    I’ve been struck by how many of these people refer to their most creative ideas as “obvious.” Since these ideas are almost always the opposite of obvious to other people, creative luminaries can face doubt and resistance when advocating for them.

    Powerful realization from that: much of my reality feels like hallucination because I’m the only one who sees it. When you go through life seeing things no one else does, and being mocked or pitied or shunned when you admit it, it’s no wonder we lose our emotional and mental balance.

  7. Joe Jansen on April 20, 2018 at 8:03 am

    Should we question the use of the word “inventing” in regard to Newton’s relationship with calculus? Was he “creating” calculus, or was he perceiving hidden truths and structures of mathematics that existed independent of his or any other human mind, then translating and articulating them into human consciousness? Referring to Wednesday’s post about “shuttling from Level #1 to Level #2 and back again”? It’s been discussed here before, the idea of stories (paintings, sculptures, etc) already existing, and waiting for one of us to birth them into this world.

    When you talk about preparation and incubation, I was thinking of Dr Kary Mullis (1993 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his discovery of PCR, polymerase chain reaction). In his book, “Dancing Naked in the Mind Field,” he wrote about seeking a solution to a problem on how to amplify strands of DNA. After working in the lab, working in the lab, working in the lab, the solution exploded on him while driving on a mountain, at night. Excerpting and compressing:

    “Suddenly, I knew how to do it. ‘Holy shit,’ I hissed and let off the accelerator. I found an envelope and pencil in the glove compartment. I wrote hastily and broke the lead. Then I found a pen. I pulled back on the highway. About a mile down the highway, I pulled off again. The thing had just exploded again. A new and wonderful possibility.”

    So was the “explosion” caused by his neurons rapidly making connections inside his brain box? Or was the explosion the arrival of some truth and knowledge from Level #2. And where do our stories come from?

    Fun to think about. Thanks for another good one, CO.

  8. Bing on April 20, 2018 at 8:43 am

    Great writing today from everyone. I have been thinking about all these things mentioned in today’s post like who am I, how does one stay on board, being alone, no one getting who I am, etc. I find it a balance between mystery, paradox and beauty with all three increasing daily. When I make art and my pen makes a mark, my intention is for beauty the whole way. Its beauty that floors me and keeps me coming back. Thanks Callie

  9. Joanna Marsh on April 20, 2018 at 8:56 am

    I really needed this reminder today! Thank you!

  10. Gwen Abitz on April 20, 2018 at 1:44 pm

    LOVE THIS “When you’re working in a field that those around your don’t understand—or running down a dream that no one supports—it can be painful. Anxiety can be found driving the train instead of lounging in the dining car.”
    I do not know of any other author that has ever shared the Notes From The Writings Of A First Novel. I wonder if the movie The Legend Of Bagger Vance would have been more successful if the screen writer had kept more to the story line of Steven’s book.

  11. Peter Fritz on April 21, 2018 at 4:21 pm

    My ideas always come to me in the shower or on the road. Faced with a complex problem, I’ll usually jump in the car with my voice recorder app open, and just drive. North seems to work best. Once I feel I’ve dumped everything into my phone, I stop somewhere pretty and transcribe my ideas. I’ve done this for two decades, and it never fails me.

    Lately, though, I’ve had little sparks of inspiration while reading a book or listening to a podcast, and I’ll start writing – right there and then. Twenty minutes later, I’ve written a whole blog post!

  12. Elise V Allan on April 24, 2018 at 12:09 pm

    Wonderful post. Thank you!

  13. Erik Dolson on April 25, 2018 at 5:15 pm

    “AND, why can’t we make it happen on demand … When I’m sitting in front of my computer… why can’t I flip a mental switch to obliterate the bastard?”

    Why is resistance?

    Because we evolved to fear what lies outside the fence, beyond the firelight. Hard wired and wet ware programmed to sit and groom each other, validate each other’s perception of “what’s real,” to wear the same clothes and live between the lines.

    Aritists wear their freedom not just from society, but from sanity, a state defined by the predictable.

    Anxiety is the process of change viewed from within.

  14. Paul Rutherford on April 28, 2018 at 2:13 am

    This is a good article because Callie is insightful and an astute editor. She choose well.

    Consider the omitted Andreasen’s reference to Jamison’s work in Great Britain. Andreasen brings ‘artists’ into the sample of 47 when the study was only of poets. If that seems pedantic, think on this: Andreasen fails to mention that the subjectslived 1705 – 1805.

    And OVER 38% suffered some mental disorder. How many? Perhaps 40%? 57%? 99%?

    None of these are likely, otherwise then be described as ‘four in ten’, ‘over a half’, and ‘virtually allt’.

    ‘Over 38%’ is possibly 38.3%, as known as 18 out of 47. Not as impressive. Ditto Joseph Schildkraut’s analysis of 15 abstract expressionist, and the conclusion that HALF suffered. 7.5? My bet is 7, but describing it as HALF implies a greater proportion.

    And by the way, both references come from the same book, “Touched by Fire”, but this ‘expert’ on creativity fails to mention that too.

    However, the most irritating aspect of the essay is not misquoted samples and dodging of percentages. It’s the sections overrun with the pronouns “I”, “my”, “me”, and “mine”.

    Then again, if depression and anxiety are signs of writer’s and painters, perhaps egocentricity can be correlated to neuroscientists?

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