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Creative Expression: Hard Work vs Inspiration from the Unconscious

One of the enduring ideas about creative expression is that it comes from sparks of inspiration out of our unconscious, breaking through to awareness.

A related idea is that creative “geniuses” like Mozart freely “channel” finished or almost finished notable work, that mere mortals like the rest of us can’t possibly hope to do.

But New York Times op-ed writer David Brooks has pointed out, “His early compositions were nothing special. They were pastiches of other people’s work. Mozart was a good musician at an early age, but he would not stand out among today’s top child-performers.”

From my post Grit and perseverance mean more than talent and high aptitude.

[Brooks is also quoted in my earlier post Practice, Practice, Practice.]

Artists themselves may promote myths.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge (photo; 1772–1834) is probably best known for his poems The Rime of the Ancient Mariner and Kubla Khan. He claimed in a preface to the latter, that the poem came to him in a dream during a nap, and he simply wrote down the entire finished work.

Creativity researcher R. Keith Sawyer, PhD refutes that and other myths.

In his chapter “Writing as a Collaborative Act” in the book The Psychology of Creative Writing (by Scott Barry Kaufman, James C. Kaufman), he notes, “Scholars who have examined Coleridge’s notes have discovered that he read many different books that contributed material to the poem. In some cases, word-for-word phrases from these books appear unmodified in his poem.”

He continues, “Creative writing is hard work; it involves a large amount of conscious editing and analysis, and it takes place over long periods of time with frequent revisions. Stories that make it seem otherwise, like Coleridge’s, are almost always false.”

The research of psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi includes extended interviews with five creative writers, and identified some features of creative writing – which probably apply in other areas of creative expression.

Sawyer notes, “First, the five writers could only be significantly creative after first immersing themselves in the domain of literature; they knew more about literature and the history of writing than non-writers. (Likewise, Coleridge read widely about Kubla Khan before writing his poem.)

“Second, the five writers emphasized the constant dialogue between unconscious inspiration and conscious editing, between passionate inspiration and disciplined craft. They all agreed with the importance of listening to their unconscious.”

One way they “listened” was to keep “notebooks nearby at all times, so that sudden snippets of text or dialogue could be quickly scribbled down for later evaluation. They constantly came up with small bits of text, little snippets of a scene or a character, that they wrote down in these notebooks, and they had no idea whether those ideas would ever be used in a finished published text.

“Novelist Anne Lamott is typical: She takes index cards everywhere, knowing that small bits and pieces of dialogue or character traits or events might come to her at any time. These cards are then stored in a folder or a notebook, are frequently read, and much later can be slipped into an ongoing story, one that was not even conceived when the original snippet was written.”

Creative ideas may not always bloom

“And like a photographer who ends up printing only a small percentage of all the photos she takes, Anne Lamott never uses most of her index cards. In this way, the process of creative writing is very much like the creative process in all fields – it involves a high degree of idea generation, followed by a period of selection.”

Sawyer points out, “Although many writers talk about a dialogue with the unconscious, this process is very different from our culture’s insight myths, as represented by Coleridge’s false story. A creative text emerges from a long process of hard work, during which the conscious and unconscious minds are in constant dialogue and during which many small sparks of insight emerge from the unconscious.

“So although unconscious inspiration plays a critical role, its role can only be understood within the context of these periods of hard work, including the hard work that precedes each spark, the hard work to elaborate the implications of each spark, and the hard work of weaving these daily small sparks together into a unified work.”

Also see my earlier post Creative inspiration – R. Keith Sawyer on myths of creativity.
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Creative Expression: Hard Work vs Inspiration from the Unconscious

Douglas Eby

Douglas EbyDouglas Eby, MA/Psychology, is a writer and researcher on psychology and personal development related to creativity; creator of the , and author of books including [link to book site with excerpts.]
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APA Reference
Eby, D. (2011). Creative Expression: Hard Work vs Inspiration from the Unconscious. Psych Central. Retrieved on December 5, 2019, from


Last updated: 8 Aug 2011
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