The Single Most Important Creative Advice You’ll Ever Receive

 I admit it. The title of this article is extremely bold, but I’m feeling bold. I’ve been doing creative work for as long as I can remember, and this advice is extremely hard won.  For a long time I limped along without it. I’d rather that not happen to you; hence this essay.

And I’m not going to be coy and make you wait for a number of paragraphs to fulfill the promise of the title.  Instead I’m going to lay my advice on you right now.

When it comes to finding the solution to a creative problem, never rely on your rational mind or intellect.

            Never, ever, ever.

            Does that sound stupid or weird or counter-intuitive? No worries. I’m fixing to explain. First of all, creativity is not the intellect’s function. It has a different job.

The rational mind’s function isn’t to create but to direct.

            Let’s go through the process, step-by-step. Step one, you get an idea. Ideas don’t typically arise when we’re sitting around trying to conjure them up. (In fact that’s when they are least likely to make an appearance.) They come to us unexpectedly, maybe when we’re taking a stroll or a long, hot shower. That’s why they are called eureka moments.

Step two, the rational mind is no fool; immediately it seizes ownership of the idea. “Yup. That was my doing. I take full credit.”

Then what does rational mind do? It immediately starts tearing its creation apart, like a dog with a chew toy, until all that’s left is a trail of drooled-over stuffing.

“Bad idea,” it says. “Don’t know why I thought that crap could work.”

Luckily some ideas survive this mauling, some ideas are so persistent they demand a second look from a reluctant rational mind.

“Maybe this could work,” rational mind finally says. If the idea is particularly sturdy, it might actually survive numerous chewings until it finally comes to fruition.

So let’s back up. First, the rational mind is a dirty rotten liar.

That’s right. It didn’t come up with that idea at all. Let me reemphasis this again:

The rational mind isn’t creative. It doesn’t generate ideas.

It relies, instead, on the subconscious mind.

But the subconscious mind isn’t coming up with ideas either; it’s just the middle man. The subconscious dips into what Jung called the collective unconscious and  then shoots the ideas in the direction of the rational mind. If the rational mind isn’t too busy worrying, spinning negative thoughts or asserting its self-importance, it might actually hear the idea.

 That’s the default process and guess what? It’s the least efficient way to operate.  Here’s the way the two minds are meant to function.

Step One: Your rational mind decides it needs an idea or it has a creative problem to solve.

Step Two: It gives a direction to the subconscious mind, ideally when the mind is dreamy with relaxation, right before sleep or immediately upon waking or in a meditative state. (Does this sound like hypnosis? Yes, it sort of is.) When I make suggestions to the subconscious mind, I begin with the phrase, “I’m allowing…” so I’ll say “I’m allowing an insight into the ending of my novel.” (Or whatever it might be.)

Step Three: The subconscious has no will its own, like a computer, it has be given commands, which it always tries to fulfill. Never does it say, “Sorry. Not feeling that today.”

It then dips into the collective unconscious to provide the answer. And here’s the freaky yet fabulous thing about the collective subconscious. If you’re capable of posing the question, the answer is there. That’s the rule.

Step Four: Meanwhile, all you have to do is wait, and if you’ve wisely built in periods of silence into your day (as you must, if you’re doing creative work), the answer will eventually rise up and you can apply it. Creative people do this stuff all the time, whether or not they are aware of how the process works.


Yes, there are a couple of things that can go wrong. First, you  have to believe the answer will come. Since I’ve written over ten novels, I now trust this process wholeheartedly and rarely give it a second thought, but it takes practice .

Trusting the process is also called surrendering and it’s really important. Why?  Because if you don’t believe the subconscious  mind can handle the task without your meddling, then you’re negating the command.  It’s akin to ordering a tuna melt at a restaurant and then saying to the waiter, “Sorry. I don’t trust that you can fulfill my request so forget it.”

Second, you might be so consumed with your rational mind that the subconscious  mind can’t get a word in edgewise. When that happens, you mistakenly take the advice of the rational mind instead and that means a clichéd, cramped or derivative solution to the problem.

There is a way to tell the difference. If you ever feel like you’re grinding and striving for a creative solution, that’s the rational mind; if the solution seems like it comes automatically or out of nowhere, that’s the subconscious mind.

Simple, right?

Actually it truly is.

Rational mind equals master.

Subconscious mind equals servant.

Collective unconscious equals an endless supply of original ideas

If everyone is doing their jobs, creative work is peachy. But rational mind, like many masters, wants to micromanage. One way to get around this problem is to give it more to do:  Have planning sessions, set goals, make diagrams; rational mind loves that crap.

In fact, this is me indulging rational mind while I work on the second draft of my novel.  Hopefully, I can keep it happy so subconscious mind can do its job without too much interference.

Does this sound like magic? That’s because it is. And you, as a creative person, are privy to that magic.

P.S. In the spirit of spring cleaning, I’m getting rid of some of the dust bunnies clogging up my life, stuff like freelance work, teaching and social obligations that are no longer in line with my mission. I did, however, recently teach a novel structure class, which mimics how real people change and grow, and it’s a class I’ll never give up because I can just see student light bulbs go pop, pop, pop. If you’re interested in a summary of the method in a 25-page paper, email me at and I’ll email it to you. (Free of course.)

Where I live (Augusta, Ga) it’s Masters Week so my friends and I are putting on the green.

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  1. Nancy Smith

    My mom told me. On your worst day of your life find the humor in it

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