When my wife and I first bought our townhouse, we noticed that the living room had neither ceiling light fixtures nor any power outlets in the ceiling from which to connect lights. Since I’m not that comfortable working with electricity, I asked my handyman father if it would be possible to install some type of ceiling lights. “No, I don’t think so,” he said after a quick look, “but you can get by with some good floor lamps.” However, I knew that his initial response wouldn’t be his final answer.
Sure enough, about three weeks later, my dad stopped by the house again and said, “I think I figured out a solution to the lighting problem in your living room. I can take power from a wall outlet and run that power up through the wall and install ceiling track lights.” Then, within a week, I was reading the newspaper by those newly installed fixtures. My father had solved the problem by allowing it to incubate in his mind for a time while he went about his daily activities. Fortunately, you, too, can use incubation to solve problems that occur in your writing or to discover options that hadn’t occurred to you previously.
Incubation is consciously letting go of a particular task for a period of time, so your unconscious mind can work on that same task for a while. You may have already experienced incubation in your own life. For instance, have you ever struggled to remember the title of a book or a movie? The more you think about the missing name, the less likely you are to come up with it; yet, as soon as you start doing something else, the name comes to you. This occurs because your unconscious mind keeps working while your conscious mind moves on to another task.
One example of incubation I remember well concerns a feature article I was writing for a Christian magazine. The article concerned a high-school wrestler, and this young man told me that his relationship with Jesus Christ had gone through three distinct phases: first, an initial introduction with a subsequent loss of interest; then, a follow-up meeting with renewed interest; and, finally, a third encounter with a firm commitment. As I struggled to write the story, I felt like I had the basic plot, but I didn’t have a strong central focus or any effective figures of speech. Thus, I left that article for a day or so to work on other projects, and when I returned to the first piece, I found exactly what I was looking for.
I compared the three distinct phases in the young man’s life to the three rounds of a typical wrestling match, and I compared his spiritual struggle to the Biblical character of Jacob who actually wrestled with God before submitting to Him (NIV Study Bible: Genesis 32:22–32). That particular feature article is one I’m particularly proud of and one that benefited the most from incubation.
How much time do you need for incubation? The answer may depend on the difficulty of the problem. If you’re simply looking for the right word or phrase, a ten-minute walk might suffice, but if you’re looking for a key idea or organizing principle as I was, you may need to let go of your writing overnight or even longer if your deadline permits.
Martin Moynihan, a former movie reviewer for the Albany (New York) Times Union, was typically working on tight schedules, but when possible, he always liked to let his first drafts rest overnight, so his unconscious mind could think about them and, perhaps, he could make them even better in the morning (Times Union Interview from June 3, 1993). You may have heard other people say basically the same thing — “I think I need to sleep on it” — before they make a final decision about a major purchase, a job change, or a long-term commitment.
Usually, when people think of incubation, they think of the time spent by baby chicks or premature infants in special chambers called incubators. These chambers provide warmth and oxygen for the chicks or the babies until they are big enough and strong enough to survive without the assistance. If during the writing process, you feel that your ideas or early drafts aren’t quite big enough or strong enough, you may want to leave them alone for a while. In his book entitled Writing Without Teachers, Peter Elbow calls this time of incubation “cooking” (48–69). So maybe if you allow your first draft of an essay to simmer for a while before you proceed, you, too, will be pleased by how you can improve upon that work when you return.