Creative “Aha” Moments Arrive While Taking a Break

Illustration by Lynn S. Schwebach

by Lynn S. Schwebach

Problem solvers often describe having insights during unusual moments.

Artists, scientists, computer programmers – probably every person regardless of occupation – has experienced this phenomenon. While away from work on vacation, walking the dog, running and sleeping our brains unconsciously go into overdrive. We might “think” we’ve stopped working on a problem, but we haven’t.

Author Erika Krouse leads fiction workshops for The Lighthouse Writer’s Workshop based in Denver. I have taken several of her excellent workshops, and I’ve often heard her say that her insights into a problem she’s trying to solve arrive in the shower. (Krouse’s collection of short stories, Come Up and See Me Sometime (Scribner), is the winner of the Paterson Fiction Award and was chosen as a New York Times Notable Book of the year.)

“I wish I could write in the shower — the minute they invent waterproof computers, I’ll become a much better writer,” she told me in an e-mail on this topic.

Another author, Jennifer Egan, echoed the same experience during a recent talk she gave in Denver for The Lighthouse Writer’s Workshop. While writing A Visit From the Goon Squad, Egan told the audience she figured out her last, amazing chapter, while showering. She had tried working through several other solutions to the problem of showing how a character’s life evolved, but nothing seemed to work.

Only after sending the book to the publisher and working on revisions before publication did she have this startling insight. Her solution to reveal this character’s middle-aged life involved using a tool not often found in fiction writing –  Microsoft PowerPoint. (Egan is the author of several books, including A Visit From the Goon Squad, which won the 2011 Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction, and the LA Times Book Prize.)

Psychologists call this insight stage the “aha” moment. It’s the exact moment in time when a problem that someone has been trying to solve – for days, months, or years – comes together in the person’s mind to form a clear resolution.

Howard Gruber, a psychologist and pioneer in the psychological study of creative process, described these moments as flashes of illumination. They are the momentous coming together of pieces of complex, diverse data after a significant amount of thought and time.

Psychologists who study creativity maintain that this is one of the most important reasons for individuals to take breaks from work.

So take a break. Go on vacation. That “aha” moment is waiting to enlighten you.


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