my big creative year : percolating ideas and MacGyver

I’ve been thinking about some of the painful parts, the really not fun moments, that are part of creative work. The fear and panic I feel when inspiration or solutions aren’t appearing and a deadline is looming. I felt a lot of this during my fox project. The schedule was ambitious – they had to be photographed in mid November and I started designing from scratch in October. They are relatively large, they are jointed (this is brand new to me), they needed to be free standing (nightmarishly difficult for this kind of creature) and their posture and body language were important to the mood, the mood was everything and I wasn’t getting it.

This was waking me up at 4 in the morning night after night – frantically replaying the work of the day and searching my mind for solutions.

During one of my 4 AM worry sessions I took a vacation from my fox problem. This is a coping tool I’ve been using my entire life and it works remarkably well. I say to myself “I’m taking a vacation from my problems” and it flips a switch in me – for a little while I can put something out of my mind – get out of obsessive mode, step temporarily out of unproductive worry. I think it works so well for me in part because I’ve been doing it for so long – habits and practices are so powerful…. My brain knows just what I’m looking for when it hears that phrase. So I took my vacation and fell back to sleep. When I woke up I knew exactly what to do about my foxes. The solution was a combination of things I had tried separately but not together. My conscious mind couldn’t get there – couldn’t see the forest for the trees, had too much anxiety and judgment in the way but when given the opportunity my subconscious stepped right up.

Taking a vacation from my problems doesn’t always involve sleeping – in fact it usually doesn’t. The mix of deeply repetitive work and intense creativity and problem solving works for me. I work on a problem or reach for inspiration or an idea and then let it go – I don’t think about it. I take a vacation from my problem and do something else, something that doesn’t require that kind of thinking. It’s my percolation phase. And then when I’m sewing a million birds or packing and shipping or doing the dishes something shifts and I know what to try next or what to let go of. My problem may not resolve completely but there is movement.

Last week I came across a very simple, direct and intentional practice for accessing one’s subconscious and this is where MacGyver comes in.

I listen to The Unmistakable Creative Podcast (Srinivas Rao) on the regular, in this episode Srini talks to Lee Zlotoff – the creator of infamous 80‘s action TV show MacGyver.  Please listen to the episode for Lee’s story or learn more about him and find a detailed explanation of his creative process/ problem solving technique  and the science behind it here.

How it works – the basics:

Ask a question

It’s important that you write it down on paper then ask your subconscious to work on it.


Give your subconscious a crack at it. Do something to distract your conscious mind from the problem – something that occupies you but doesn’t require too much brain power. For me something like cutting paper for lots and lots of flamingos works beautifully.

paper flamingo cake toppers

It is important that you not watch TV, read or have much conversation etc. I’ve been listening to a wind in the pines sound loop while I work for my percolation time.

Ask for an answer

After a pre-determined period of time ( I’ve been using 2-3 hours – could be longer or shorter but for me longer works better), ask your subconscious, “What have you got for me?” And start writing. If there’s nothing there just write anything at all – just write and ideas will begin to emerge….

Do it again. 

It’s creative muscle, it’s marking a path to an elusive place – the more you do it the stronger the muscle and the connections get.

It sounds so simple … simplistic even or like magical thinking, but I’ve been repeating the process everyday for a week with remarkable results (it has gotten better with practice). I’ve been playful and curious with it – I’ve asked my subconscious to work on little problems and big bold questions – really expecting nothing and gotten some remarkable clarity and insight. I hope you play with this – it’s interesting……


  1. “I’m taking a vacation from my problems.” That is brilliant! Especially for those 4 am worry sessions, which my mind loves to indulge in. I’m also going to try the subconscious percolating practice.

    I love the honesty of your blog – there is always something essential, interesting, helpful. Thank you!

  2. Hi Bonnie – I hope you find it productive – i’d love to hear about your experience. And PS – your sheep are fabulous – love them.

  3. Thank you so much for sharing your Big Creative Year with us! I was feeling a bit overwhelmed with my own plans for a big creative year (new farmer, plan to grow flax for linen, big old Glimakra floor loom staring at me from the corner of the room…sigh) I cannot tell you how comforting it is to read your thoughts out here in the upstate sticks. Please keep it coming!

  4. Hello Ann: What a great tool you gave me! It´s just what I needed at this moment. (I´m stuck right now). I´ll use it and will tell you the results. Thankyou so much!!!!

  5. Yes and YES to the vacation! I never thought of it as a vacation, but when I’m stymied on a project, I leave it until the solution comes to me….I’m not on a deadline though, so that works for me. (Must admit just the word ‘deadline’ makes me cringe….).
    I will listen to the podcast, sounds interesting….I’ve never been a list maker. Oh I can make them, but then I think of ten other things, do those and then cross nothing of my list…so while I accompished a lot, the list is there untouched…staring at me as if I did nothing!

    Some say I may need therapy….

  6. Hi Ann: I’m making the rigging for the paper mache boats you developed. It’s my first set, so I’m disappointed I didn’t take more care with the paper mache. Once I painted it I could see where, in my excitement to do this project, it would have been better to take my time (like to admonished!) and use little pieces. Anyway, it’s not perfect but I know if I make them a couple of more times I will LOVE it.

    After I complete this first set of boats and hang them up, I will take pics. Maybe I’ll have the nerve to send one.

    My point of this long winded email is that I’ve had some bad news at the beginning of the month and this project is much needed therapy right now. I love making things, and it takes away the sting of reality – at least for awhile. I look forward to an owl pattern for sure. I’d also like to make the teacup but can’t seem to download it. So thanks for all you do and share…..truly, Thank you!

    • Hi Val – So sorry you have had bad news – paper mache is good therapy – kind of meditative for me – always relaxes me. I’d love to see what you make and if you send me your email I can send you the teacup file – they are fun to make. You can message me at: ann at ann wood handmade dot com or use the contact form on this page.

  7. Ann, your Creative Year is an inspiration to me – 2013/14 was taken up with chemotherapy, and a return to my creative life seemed a distant dream. But you have inspired me to pick up my pens, pencils, needles and thread and resume the pathway to MAKE THINGS!! Thank you so much!

    • Thank you Louise! And good for you- Onward!! Wishing you a beautiful creative year – ann

  8. Your ideas sound magical and I look forward to trying them myself. Thank you so much for sharing your Big Creative Year with us!

  9. Hi Ann!

    Your blog is beautiful! Thank you for sharing…what a wonderful idea to help solve problems…giving it a try!

  10. Brilliant, I am going to takeca vacation from my problems, currently call wrapped up in a 17 year old teanage girl, and go sew some of your christmas trees as practice for that amazing owl.

  11. Jane Miller

    I haven’t actually done it yet, but when I start feeling anxious about the world right now, my brain keeps telling me to go sort through my embroidery floss! What? But somehow as weird as the idea sounds to me, I feel some peace just thinking about it…the colors…the feel..etc. Now I just have to take the next step and open the tin where I keep it and see what happens.

    I love your writings and creations so much. The fox are adorable. Stay safe and well.

  12. Shirley Morgan

    Hi Ann and anyone reading this. It’s 5.43 am in my part of the world in Australia.
    Yesterday I resigned from a quilting group after 17 years. I was never truly going to be a quilter. Now following Ann, I know (as she wrote), ‘one thing will lead to another.’ Your/her words are reminding me. I have the songbird pattern ready to go and yesterday fabrics for songbirds appeared as out of nowhere via a friend. Quite weird in fact .. she didn’t know about ‘my’ songbirds.
    It will take time as I have a suburban property to take care of but each day I will turn my mind to thinking of Ann and now, this particular project.
    Ann I’m so happy to know you .. not personally but I can see my direction through what you write and your projects.
    Thank you and best wishes. Shirley M.

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