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Let It Incubate
You never know what’s going to bubble up.
They say that one of the best ways to solve a problem—at least a creative one—is actually not to think abut it. After all, how many times have you been doing something like taking a shower or going for a long walk and you find yourself having one of those eureka moments where suddenly the solution to a problem you’ve been wrestling with forever seems so clear? It happens to me a lot and it’s one of the reasons that taking walks in the forest behind our house has become a daily ritual. Trying to be present in something other than active problem solving allows our brains to continue working in the background without us trying to consciously force a solution. The act of stepping away from a problem is called the “incubation period” and it’s been studied for decades. In his book The Art of Thought, Graham Wallas proposed that the creative process is made up of four stages: Preparation (the acquisition of knowledge to some task), Incubation (the background process that occurs when conscious attention is diverted away from the task), Illumination (the moment the creative idea flashes into sight or being), and Verification (when the creative idea is subjected to evaluation)." While there have been dozens of studies documenting and validating the importance and effectiveness of the incubation period, last week I experienced another example of it firsthand.
On Wednesday, Adrianne got on a plane to Kansas City for a four-day work conference. I don’t usually like it when she goes away, but I also think that it’s healthy for us to miss each other once in a while. As you know from previous Iterations, I’ve been trying to change how I approach my work—moving away from a model that had everything in one big bucket to a more strategic solution that allows me to stage and schedule smaller tasks that are components of the larger whole but can be completed individually and built upon. So far, it’s been working pretty well. As I mentioned last week, I got a new website up, I’ve also started production on the relaunch of my podcast Process Driven, and I’m working on layouts for a new zine. However, there are still some fairly big pieces that need to be figured out in order for me to move forward in 2024 and I started to feel some anxiety around it. Rather than fall back into my familiar pattern of simply getting overwhelmed and doing nothing, I decided to take the opportunity to just let it all go and spend the week working on home projects that I’ve been putting off for way too long. I don’t know about you, but when it comes to projects around the house, I often have the best intentions, but time or interest have a habit of getting away from me and things just fall through the cracks. Case in point, the stack of wood in our side yard that’s been waiting to be chopped into usable firewood since we had the tree removed nearly two years ago. And let me be clear, it’s not that I don’t want to do these things. It’s just that I get caught up in other things that I guess seem more important, at least in the moment. And maybe important is the wrong word, but I think you know what I mean. So, as I said, I decided to let go of the “creative” problems (to bring it back to the beginning of this) and just get some things done around the house. However, I also know how my brain works and if I had a creative eureka moment or two during the course of working through my house list, I wanted to be able to remember it. So I made sure that I had either my watch or my phone or one of my dozens of unused Field Notes journals within arms reach at all times so that I could record an audio memo or just jot something down if and when it came to mind. The only rule I set for myself was that I couldn’t stop the task I was doing to pursue an idea or to try to “flesh it out” in any way. I could record the thought simply as a snapshot, but the focus had to stay on my list—my “honey do” list, as Adrianne calls it.
As much as I’d like to tell you that the skies opened up and I experienced a deluge of creative epiphanies throughout the week, that’s not what happened. What did happen was that I put a bunch of effort into some things that I’ve been ignoring for way too long—and I needed that. I needed to do it for me, but I also needed to do it for Adrianne. And while there were a couple minor epiphanies, they had little to do with my creative plans for the coming year, at least not directly. The biggest takeaways were actually around making some realizations about why I am the way I am and why I sometimes react the way I do—and I think it has to do with trauma and loss.
I’ve struggled with issues around abandonment and self-worth for most of my life. My parents got divorced when I was four and I blamed myself for it for decades. My mom and dad stayed friends, but for the first little while after the divorce whenever it was my time with my dad, he would drop me off with my grandparents. In fact, my grandmother actually confronted my dad over it, telling him that I was his son, not theirs. So, in my mind, he just didn’t want to be around me. He left me, not us. I know that wasn’t the case. He just didn’t really know what to do with me. When my mom died, I shut down for about a year. Her death was a loss like nothing I’d ever experienced and for a while, I didn’t know whether I would recover from it. In fact, it was—and still is—the darkest period of my life. When my dad died three years later, I felt like a 48-year-old orphan, which re-opened those old wounds that never really healed to begin with. I think we got to a place where we respected each other, both as men and as father and son. But there was so much conflict and emotional damage throughout my life—both real and imagined—that when he died, a bunch of issues around guilt and whether or not I “did enough” came to the surface. In the end, I know he loved me and did the best he could with the tools he had, but that doesn’t change the fact that our relationship was complicated, often difficult, and I still carry the emotional scars.
When Adrianne got back, I ran down the list of chores I had done and told her about a few of the things I had written down with regard to next year’s projects. I also shared some of the realizations I made and acknowledged that while I still have work to do, I’m finally starting to put some of the pieces together. She told me how much she appreciated all of the effort I had made around the house and that she was proud of me for trying to work though some things. She said we all have triggers and that some of my reactions aren’t surprising, given the type of trauma and loss I’ve experienced. “It’s not your fault,” she said. “Everyone is acting through the lens of the things that have happened to them.” Her saying that it’s not my fault reminded me of the scene in Good Will Hunting between Robin Williams and Matt Damon, which I think is one of the most powerful and relatable scenes in the film. Although, to be clear, my dad was never physical with me, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t scars.
Last week was a surprise for me and I’m still processing what it means and how to move forward. I didn’t expect to go to some of the places I ended up and I certainly didn’t expect to connect as many dots as I did about my own reactions and behavior. As I said to Adrianne, I know that there is still a ton of work to be done, but making some realizations around what is and isn’t my fault and what I can and can’t control is an important step towards finally being able to let go. I don’t know that I’ll ever feel completely whole—and maybe I don’t want to if letting go means forgetting—but not feeling quite so broken feels pretty damn good for now.
Thanks so much for reading.
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