Sudden Insight – a Gift for a Writer

Sudden Insight – a Gift for a Writer

May 19, 2017

You can’t always plan for it.  While struggling to find the right words, some writers hope a stroke of genius will arrive in the nick of time – a flash of insight to save the day.   When it comes, you slap your forehead and say, “why didn’t I think of this before?” at the same time feeling a rush of energy through your body.   Your pen or keyboard take on new life and writing begins to flow.

Instant knowing – a Creative Leap – Sudden Insight.  Those lucky enough to have this experience report feeling as if they’ve been hit by a bolt of lightning, overtaken by a hypnotic state or trance, or even heard the voice of angels or of God.

·      Robert Frost wrote the first draft of his best-known poem, Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Evening in June 1923. He composed the entire poem in just a few minutes almost without lifting his pen off the page.  He explained, “It was as if I’d had a hallucination.”

·      The creator of Harry Potter, J.K. Rowling, recalled how Harry and his story “came fully formed” in her mind while she was on a cross-country train trip. With no pen to take notes, she sat for four hours thinking and hoped she would remember, then started writing as soon as she got home.

·      William Blake did not take credit for writing his long poem Milton. “I have written this poem from immediate dictation, twelve or sometimes twenty lines at a time, without pre-meditation and even against my will.”

·      Edna O’Brien, Irish novelist, memoirist, playwright, poet and short story writer, completed her first novel, Country Girls, in just 3 weeks.  She said, “It wrote itself.  My arm just held the pen.”

Researchers describe this experience as a two-step process:
1)    an impasse before the breakthrough, as well as
2)    a feeling of certainty that accompanies the idea.

“It’s one of those defining features of the human mind, and yet we have no idea how or why it happens. As soon as it happens, it just seems so obvious.  People can’t believe they didn’t see it before… Once that restructuring (in the brain) occurs, you never go back,” according to Mark Jung-Beeman, a researcher seeking an understanding of insight by studying the human brain over three decades.

He observed two phases within the brain that can be detected at the moment of insight:
1)    a  Preparatory Phase – when specific brain cells are activated and
2)    a  Search Phase – just when the brain is going to give up, an insight appears along with a burst of brain activity.

Another crucial ingredient in this process is relaxation.  Trying to force an insight can actually prevent it.

Researchers recommend immersing in the problem until there’s an impasse, then take a walk or find a relaxing way to distract yourself as you let your mind wander. The answer will arrive when you least expect it.

Research also supports the idea that a good mood helps increase the likelihood of insights, a point made a century ago when Albert Einstein wrote, “Play is the highest form of research.”

There are two caveats to consider. First – if you rely on certain drugs to help you focus, these drugs may prevent an insight because they sharpen your attention and discourage mental rambling.  Second – don’t work straight through over too many hours or even days.

Some of the most accomplished people in history worked only a few hours a day, but when they worked, it was with intense focus.  A typical day in Charles Darwin’s life would include several walks throughout the day as well as a nap after lunch.  He did his serious work during 90-minute intervals in the early morning and again in the afternoon.  Even with his abbreviated work schedule, Darwin’s broad research resulted in 19 published books including his history-making “Origin of Species.”

All of this suggests that if you need Instant Insight, lighten up and enjoy yourself while you work.

Susan Hendricks leads guided journal-writing groups in Columbia as a SC Licensed Clinical Social Worker and Certified Journal Therapist endorsed by the International Federation for Biblio-Poetry Therapy. For more information, visit: or


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