Intuition and the Creative Process

My day job is in the IT department at The Container Store. From the first day, they immerse you into their foundation principles – the guiding criteria by which the company determines how they do business and relate to their employees, vendors and customers. While all the principles are worth study, I want to focus on one in particular which is highly applicable to writers.


Image: The Container Store


Intuition is defined as “the quality or ability of having such direct perception or quick insight.”. It’s an almost magical ability to be able to see something or someone and make unobvious insights. I’ve always been impressed by my wife’s ability to see a person and almost immediately judge their emotional state, even when it’s buried beneath a mask. Her ability is mostly innate; she can’t remember a time when she couldn’t read emotions, even as a young girl. This is how we often see intuition; as something you’re born with. But that’s only partly true.

There is a tale where Albert Einstein, sitting on a train watching another train moving, noticed its motion in comparison to that of his train and came up with the theory of relativity. Part of his insight was due to a natural curiosity; however, without a thorough grounding in physics and math, he could never have taken the step from minor curiosity to E=MC2 . Without a solid educational grounding, Isaac Newton would have ended up rubbing his head and cursing that stupid apple.

Creativity, like intuition, is also thought of as a primarily innate ability. Some people have an ability to see the world differently, and then transpose that viewpoint into artwork, illustrations, film or writing. Certainly, there is some truth to that. Whatever level our talents (or lack of), though, it’s possible to supercharge them by simply being prepared.

Authoring a novel is difficult. No matter how much I’ve planned ahead, I often need to invent new characters, locations and settings, or enhance existing ones on the fly. If ideas don’t come quickly my momentum comes to a crashing halt. I need to be prepared not only for the known, but the unknown.

Here are four keys to priming your own intuition:


Interesting things are happening around you all the time. Learn to pay attention. What peculiarities do you notice about the people around you? When you see somebody interesting, think of how to describe them. Try to think up metaphors to represent what you see. The more you engage in these types of activities, the larger your memory bank of characters, settings and ideas will grow.


Don’t be satisfied with the obvious. Go deeper. Why is that person acting oddly? You don’t need to know the truth (and in most cases should never ask), but by thinking up plausible reasons you exercise your mind at exploring ideas in real-time. This will come in handy when you’re writing.


Get out every once in a while. Take chances, experience new things. Do the unexpected. Do things you never wanted to do and probably never will again. This builds your life experiences, and exposes you to people and situations you’d never see in your normal life.


Make sure you set aside some time each day to reflect on what you’ve seen and experienced that day. Time alone in your thoughts. I find that my commute to and from work is an ideal time for this. What this does is “set” the experience more concretely in your mind for future withdrawal.

I’ve found that when I put myself in a mode where I’m constantly paying attention to the points above, I can step over nearly every hurdle when trying to come up with scene, plot or character ideas. This is intuition driven by purpose. Once my mental shelves have been stocked, it’s a simple matter of pulling the inventory down as needed.

Leave a Reply