Can I Take a Break?


It’s been a minute since my last newsletter, six weeks, in fact. Three weeks ago I was sitting in a cafe, attempting to write a draft, but couldn’t get past the first sentence. Because sometimes writer’s block comes in the form of a 100 degree fever. My body was rebelling against my intention to keep this practice. I tried haggling: What if I just wrote a short piece about the need for a creative break? It would be a meta excuse for a low quality newsletter, but at least it would be something. And then my body retorted with a dizzying headache and the mic was dropped. I gave up on sending the newsletter and crawled into bed for a week. 

But I still felt guilty. I have always reserved the title of “artist” for someone with a dedicated creative practice. I highly respect those who commit to their craft. As discussed in the last newsletter, it takes years of deliberate practice to become an expert in your field. I know that any visual artist has spent countless hours drawing boxes and sketching silhouettes in order to make their art. This is why I have only recently started calling myself a writer, albeit very timidly. Even though I write about creativity, it is hard to claim a creative identity. In this case, you are what you do feels true. So when I skipped my last newsletter, I found myself questioning my validity as a writer. Am I really a writer if I’m not writing?

This is why context matters (hence the title of this newsletter). No advice on creativity is universal. We can’t all spend an hour a day writing, let alone every 3 weeks. Leisure is a privilege, especially in a capitalist society where worth is measured by productivity and profit. In this context, a break is earned, literally. And only those who can make money from their art deserve to keep doing it, which paradoxically cheapens the value of artistic expression. We scare youth away from pursuing a career in the arts as if monetary value is the only reason to make art, while simultaneously instilling the belief that the arts are not economically viable. So again, in this context, having a creative practice is an act of resilience and resistance. But so is taking a break.

We scare youth away from pursuing a career in the arts as if monetary value is the only reason to make art, while simultaneously instilling the belief that the arts are not economically viable.

Taking a break is actually an essential part of the creative process. Creativity researcher Keith Sawyer lists incubation as the fourth stage of the creative process. He describes this stage as: “Take time off for incubation. Once you’ve acquired the relevant knowledge, and some amount of apparently unrelated information, the unconscious mind will process and associate that information in unpredictable and surprising ways.” (1)

Recall our definition of creativity from my first newslettercreativity is a new combination of thought that is determined to have value, use, or meaning. Research has shown that ideas do not just emerge suddenly from nowhere, they germinate over time (2).  You actually need to give your conscious mind a break in order for your unconscious mind to find new combinations of thought (3). We’ve all experienced the tip-of-your-tongue phenomenon when you can’t quite remember something, like an actor’s name, because your mind is stuck on the wrong name. This is called fixation and the best way to find the right answer or an unusual solution is to let the mind rest; it needs time to let go of the wrong answer and emerge the right one from your subconscious (4). This means that the creative process is not just about actively creating; it’s also all the steps in between. 

There is no way to tell if an idea works until you try it out; the laughter of an audience is what makes a story funny.

Except incubation can easily turn into procrastination. I asked my students to share one practice that will help them continue to develop their creativity, and several of them mentioned limiting their incubation time. It’s easy to get stuck in the idea phase, to never actually put imagination to action. This tension is debated by philosophers as the idealist versus action theory of creativity (5). Is creativity simply the process of imagining new ideas (idealist) or does it require activating the idea (action)? Research and experience confirms the latter: I learn this every time I teach or tell a story. There is no way to tell if an idea works until you try it out; the laughter of an audience is what makes a story funny. Which brings us back to the importance of a creative practice, and the truth that a creative practice is about finding the right balance between practice and incubation. 

This is clearly easier said than done, and more so for some than others, but while context matters, it doesn’t have to define us. A study titled “‘I Don’t Take My Tuba to Work at Microsoft’: Arts Graduates and the Portability of Creative Identity” examined in which contexts people felt creative (6). They looked at data of art graduates and double majors and found that creative identity varied across contexts. Those who viewed themselves as highly creative in one major often didn’t in the other. And those with MFAs were most likely to refer to themselves as artists even if they weren’t working in the arts. These results point to a key factor: creative identity is self-defined. The forces that limit our creative identity can be unlearned if we validate an expansive definition of creative practice. My students intuited this when they collectively wrote the community agreement: “Reassure others/myself that our creativity is valid.” This is why I end every newsletter with the salutation “living is a creative act.” The more we proclaim our lives as creative, the more we value every act, even taking a break. 

Living is a creative act,
Evelyn Thorne


Everyday Creativity Tip

I have found that my body is often wiser than my mind. When my mind is questioning my worth, my body validates my humanity. This is why I have a practice of writing poems on trusting the body. I offer this poem as an invitation for you to find your own embodiment practice. 

Trust Studies #7
by Evelyn Thorne

This –
the evening slump
the traffic worn body
craving collapse
Arms release their load
Body flops on a surface
bed, chair, floor
Spine languid, propped up by
bed, chair, floor
Breath heavy in the shoulders
Labored.
Everything is labor.

How quickly do I judge
this pause as inertia?
Do I fear the rise
as I fall?

To only feel the weight
of the body
by the scale of its price
is to deny the pleasure
of release
You don’t have to hold
yourself together
to be held


Footnotes

1. Keith Sawyer, Explaining Creativity: The Science of Human Innovation, p.88
2. Keith Sawyer, Explaining Creativity: The Science of Human Innovation, p.107
3. David Eagleman & Anthony Brandt, The Runaway Species: How Human Creativity Remakes the World
4. Keith Sawyer, Explaining Creativity: The Science of Human Innovation, p.111
5. Keith Sawyer, Explaining Creativity: The Science of Human Innovation, p.87
6. Danielle J. Lindemann, Steven J. Tepper, and Heather Laine Talley, “‘I Don’t Take My Tuba to Work at Microsoft’: Arts Graduates and the Portability of Creative Identity”, American Behavioral Scientist, 2017


Originally published December 16, 2019 on the Creativity in Context Newsletter by Evelyn Thorne.


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Living is creative act

Published by Evelyn Thorne

Evelyn is a writer, educator, and facilitator who helps people unlearn misconceptions and limiting beliefs about their creative identities.

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