A group of people are working on laptops in an open plan office space lit by fairy lights.

Who are the girls in the basement?

I first learned about the existence of “the Girls in the Basement” many years ago, at a writing workshop run by American author Jennifer Crusie.

Put aside, if you can, the awful connotations associated with the term* and consider what Crusie, an author of more than 20 best-selling books of fiction, and many non-fiction articles and essays on popular culture, the publishing business, and the writer’s craft, might have been on about.

During the workshop, she referred to the Girls in the Basement several times, imbuing them with God-like powers – coming up with fresh ideas, pointing out interesting diversions, and even making tough creative decisions.

“Sometimes you just have to listen to the Girls in the Basement and throw out everything you thought you were doing,” she told us at one point.

At another point, a participant asked Crusie how she solves practical problems, such as when you’ve unwittingly written yourself into a corner.

She shrugged and said something like, “I just let the Girls in the Basement figure it out.”

The magical muse

Creativity used to be considered something mystical – a product of divine intervention or arising out of the intercession of the muse, says Scott Barry Kaufman, scientific director of The Imagination Institute.

It’s easy to see how this notion came about. Many writers and artists have long credited ideas that came to them, unbidden, in their dreams as the starting points for their works.

Sigmund Freud, on the other hand, saw the creative process as a defence mechanism which provided protection against neurosis, channelling libidinal or aggressive urges into a socially acceptable source of entertainment and pleasure for the public.

He was definitely right in his view that creativity comes from within, rather than from without.

And I think he has a point about channelling libidinal or aggressive urges, particularly you consider the huge appetite for crime fiction and true crime books, documentaries, and podcasts.

Secret weapon

One of the big neuroscientific discoveries of the last two decades was that of the default mode network (DMN).

Research suggests the DNM is a network of diffuse brain regions which powers up when we’re at rest, and deactivates when we’re gritting our teeth and grinding our way through cognitively demanding tasks.

In other words, the DNM is your secret weapon. It ONLY gets to work when you clock off and have put your feet up (or fallen asleep).

The “offline” only operation of the DNM is why we can wrestle, unsuccessfully, with a difficult problem for hours, only to find that it suddenly sorts itself out in the shower, or in the bath (like Archimedes), or out on a walk, or when you’re just drifting off to sleep.

This is what award-winning writer Charlotte Wood described as “the luminous solution”, by her beautiful book of the same name.

The Girls in the Basement, I realised, was how Crusie conceptualised the DMN – as an indefatigable team of assistants working deep underground, out of sight, out of mind, but never out of inspiration.

Although she writes predominantly fiction, I’ve found the Girls in the Basement to be just as adept at handling the demands of non-fiction writing.

These tireless workers help me sift through reservoirs of research, suggest overarching themes, highlight connections I might have missed, and nudge me towards the most appropriate structure for a particular story.

They also suggest the story’s lede (which I personally find the most difficult part to nail). More than once, that elusive sentence will spill out as I’m walking the dogs, or in one case, the donkeys.

Second stage of creativity

The Girls in the Basement belong to the second stage of creativity, incubation. (Coming soon: More about the four – or, some say, five – stages of creativity.)

But here’s the thing about the Girls: You have to feed them. And they have pretty big appetites.

The actual “feeding” takes place in the first stage of creativity, preparation.

Preparation is where you gather information, conduct interviews, record observations, create a well of inspiration from consuming the work of others (as in Julia Cameron’s artist dates) and look at the task or problem from every possible angle.

This stage is often overlooked as we try to skip ahead, desperate for a quick solution.

But it’s a necessary stage, because solutions and ideas don’t spring fully formed out of nowhere.

The next stage, incubation, is where you clock off, mentally and physically. Get away from the desk. Run the bath. Pour a cup of tea. Go for a run. Tend the garden.

Incubation is where you stop thinking about everything you did in the preparation stage. You set aside all your notes and lists and diagrams and photographs and scribbles and maps. You put the Girls in the Basement to work. And then you wait.

“Contrary to the popular maxim that ‘a writer writes’, it is clear that quite often, and for different creative reasons, a writer waits,” Wood says.

It’s tempting to try to hasten the process through yet more conscious striving, detailing and planning, but all the research to date suggests that doing so is counterproductive.

The Girls in the Basement don’t work well under pressure. They have a frustrating disregard for deadlines. They’ll sort things out in their own sweet time.

But trust that they’ll deliver results during the creativity’s third stage, illumination.

(If they don’t, you might need to feed them some more.)

Illumination is another way of describing that classic “Eureka!” moment when “connections automatically, subconsciously collide and then reach the threshold of consciousness,” Kaufman says.

Doing the grunt work

I later learned that Crusie adapted the idea of the Girls in the Basement from horror writer Stephen King, who wrote in On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft:

There is a muse, but he’s not going to come fluttering down into your writing room and scatter creative fairy-dust all over your typewriter or computer. He lives in the ground. He’s a basement kind of guy. You have to descend to his level, and once you get down there you have to furnish an apartment for him to live in. You have to do all the grunt labour …

That last sentence captures the fourth (or, some say, fifth) stage of creativity, verification.

This is where the real work, the grunt work, as King puts it, really begins.

This is where you breathe your creation into life, brushstroke by brushstroke, bolt by bolt, nail by nail, word by bloody word.

It’s the least romantic part of the creativity process.

It lacks the glamour or the mystery associated with the inception of ideas, but it’s the bedrock upon which successful and sustainable creative projects are built.


* Post Josef Fritzl’s crimes