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Thunk, Pffft, Click, Aha!
by Susan Hodara

There, the insight, the knowing. “It was on the tip of my mind,” she continued, “but I didn’t want to think about it too much. I wanted to wait until the whole thing could unfold and be written.” Which it was, the next morning, as a yet-to-be published poem titled “Total Eclipse.”

Olds, who was the New York State Poet from 1998 until 2000, identified a key component of creative insight when she said, “I know it’s important to keep my mind gently floating and not try to force anything.”

A flash of insight cannot be summoned, Dr. Kaufman affirmed. “There are studies that show that if you let your mind wander and think about other things, you have a higher chance of coming up with an insight than if you’re exerting all your effort and energy on the task,” he said. “We underestimate the importance of not concentrating directly on what we’re doing. It’s a fundamental human drive to come up with something creative, but the heart of creativity isn’t the conscious mind. In fact, the conscious mind gets in the way.”

Dr. Safán-Gerard, 75, understands that, perhaps in part because she is also a practicing psychoanalyst. “At a certain point in the work, you go on automatic pilot,” she said of her artistic practice. “You aren’t thinking, you aren’t aiming for anything, you aren’t entirely aware of what you are doing. And then the door opens.”

A door opened for her recently in the midst of working on a large abstract canvas. “It dawned on me that I should turn the painting upside down,” she said. “After that, I couldn’t do anything wrong—every color I picked, every brush I used, was the right one. It was a magic moment.”

Repetto, too, finds magic in relinquishing control. “It's like the pieces emerge,” he said, “and I step back and see, oh my gosh, I made all these little logistical decisions that were contingent on so many things outside of my control, yet the actual piece is not a random thing I threw together. It’s a real work that has a real connection to all the ideas that I’ve been thinking about for a long time.”

While the arrival of an aha moment cannot be demanded, Drs. Kaufman and Kounios agreed that there are ways it can be invited, through, for instance, a nap or a walk in the park. And the artists I spoke with described working conditions they felt were conducive to sparking insight.

“I like quiet,” said Chast, “and a good temperature.”

Olds can write in public places, but not in a room with people she knows. “I don’t mind if they’re in the next room,” she said. “I just need a little shell of space.”

Dr. Safán-Gerard often paints to music, but for Olds, music competes with her poetry. “The lines want to make their own intervals and sounds,” she said. “It would be distracting if I were listening to real music while this word music is feeding through me.”

Repetto responds to the givens that come with each of his installations, such as budget, available materials and, yes, the floor plan. For a commission h’'s working on, a found metal plate is determining the scale of the sculpture. “I could buy a piece of metal of whatever size I wanted, but I’m happier finding something like this that leads the way,” he said.

He noted that decision-making in many situations is based on unplanned factors. “Lots of things are the way they are, not because someone specified their design, but because they're reacting to contingencies—to physics, to biology, to geology,” he said. “I like working that way—reacting to contingencies—to the contingency of having found this particular piece of metal.”

As for precisely defining what the creative spark feels like, Repetto called it “exciting,” Dr. Safán-Gerard called it “thrilling,” but more explicit words were hard to find, even for a poet.

“I don’t know how to describe the sense that something is ready or waiting in the wings,” Olds said. “It’s something about mind and memory that I don’t understand. It’s a great feeling, but it’s hard to put into words. I mean, how would you describe to a creature that lives underwater what it's like to walk along a balance beam?” CA

© 2012 Susan Hodara

Editor’s note: At a time when the aha moment is being investigated through scientific filters, Susan adds another perspective: the artist’s direct experience of the creative spark. —Wendy Richmond Hodara
Susan Hodara ( is a journalist, memoirist and teacher. She covers the arts for the New York Times, Harvard Magazine and other publications. Her short memoirs, including one nominated for a Pushcart Prize, appear in anthologies and literary journals, and she is co-author of the collaborative memoir Still Here Thinking of You: A Second Chance with Our Mothers.