23 January 2014

That "Eureka" Moment

by Brian Thornton

That "Eureka" moment. Some people are familiar with it. Others crave it and yet don't know what it's called. Or they know about the notion of a "Eureka" moment without truly understanding what it is or how it works.

A quick search (thanks a bunch, Pegasus Project!) gives us the following: "'Eureka' comes from the Ancient Greek word εὕρηκα heúrēka, meaning "I have found (it)", which is the first person singular perfect indicative active of the verb heuriskō "I find".

And of course there is the famous story of how it entered the public consciousness, how the Greek
Archimedes, I feel your pain, big guy....
"natural philosopher" and mathematician Archimedes was wrestling with a problem, sitting in his bath mulling it, and had that flash of inspiration where the blinders were removed from his eyes, he "saw" the problem and the answer all in one brilliant moment of what many would call "divine inspiration". And so he hopped out of his bath and ran down the streets of his native city of Syracuse, naked, shouting (you guessed it: "EUREKA!").

I had one of those this morning.

And it was everything I thought it could be.

Now, I believe those folks who preach that success in writing, as with many creative endeavors, is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration. Hard work trumps flights of fancy, and pays off damned near every time.

A good friend of mine from both high school and grad school was one of those "inspiration" guys. This guy is a certified genius. I think of the ancient Roman definition of "genius" (hey, they invented the word, after all), how it was supposedly a household spirit that would occasionally whisper in your ear, and I swear that my friend must have inherited Einstein's household spirit. He's that brilliant. I could sit with him and listen to him reel off creative idea after creative idea after creative idea. He had more Eureka moments in one sitting than I've had during my entire life.

And he's never done a damned thing with it. Not. One. Thing.

I know a number of people on the other end of the spectrum- hard workers who have fashioned incredibly successful writing careers for themselves- grinders who put in the time, do the work, meet that deadline. And I am happy for each and every one of them.

I look back on my own career and really do see myself as a member of the latter category. I like to think of myself as hard-working when it comes to my writing, even diligent. I'm one of those grinders. I am proud of the hard work I've done.

And yet I have had those "Eureka" moments.

Not many of them. And certainly never enough to suit me. But each time I had one I was really, deeply, profoundly stuck. Then in a flash I get the sudden inspiration popping up in my head seemingly out of nowhere, and presto! I've got it1 Eureka! And the world changes.

But none of these moments has been more welcome than the one I had this morning, driving to work. Out of nowhere I had the solution to the problem that had me stuck in neutral on this project for months!


And what caused it? Was I able to precipitate it? I think what brought about this happy event was a confluence of factors:

1. The long illness from which I've suffered since early Autumn has (finally) begun to wane. Being sick? Hell of a distraction!

2. I went back through the work-in-progress to help me get the story straight in my head.

3. I went back and re-read every story fragment, outline, plot idea written on a cocktail napkin in my possession.

One, all or some esoteric combination of these factors somehow helped unlock the door to my internal inspiration, and at 7:57 AM PST this morning (Yes, I actually checked the time when it happened, I was SO THRILLED), I had it:


And aside from the solution to my long-standing plotting problem, my Eureka moment has helped drive home to me the reality that, while inspiration might well be just "one percent" of the creative process, it's a pretty damned important, well-nigh irreplaceable, one percent of that process.

Because without it, we're all just really hard workers.

So how about the rest of you? Got a particular Eureka moment you'd like to share?


  1. Brian, glad to hear you are continuing to improve. Yes, I've had an occasional "Eureka" moment, and they are wonderful!

  2. Brian, I'm not a bit surprised you had your moment while you were driving. I'm preparing for a talk on creativity I have to give, and my notes say that those moments of inspiration well up for me while I'm driving, running or walking with my walking poles, lying in bed just waking up in the morning, and in the shower. So no surprise Archimedes had his in the bath either!

    Oh, and your friend: not one damn thing? He got into grad school. Did he finish whatever degree he was going for?

  3. Good one, Brian, and congrats on the Moment.

    Last year I was listening to Says You, an NPR radio quiz show and a story idea hit me so hard I literally staggered (struck by an idea, indeed). Whether it will prove salable is another question.

    A few decades ago i was driving on a highway when a song gave mean idea for my first novel. I almost went right off the road. Perhaps i should be glad i don't have these moments too often.

  4. I think the number of times driving has been linked with such moments, here—both in your article and in the comments—may be significant. I have personally found it conducive to take a meandering drive when I find myself stuck somewhere in a story, and it very often helps.

    I suspect this has something to do with loading my mind with all the ammunition it needs (which is what I believe you did, when you read the work over along with all your previous notes), then shifting focus in order to give my subconscious time to aim and fire in a way that hits the target. (If that analogy makes any sense to anyone. LOL)

    My most memorable Eureka! moment, however, occurred during my Senior year in high school. Working on an extra-credit problem at the end of a Physics test, I suddenly realized I could use Calculus to solve the equation! At that moment—which unfortunately took place after the school year was about two-thirds over LOL—I realized just what the heck I was supposed to have been doing in my Calculus class all this time, and why Calc was so useful. Until then, I’d been terribly confused. LOL


  5. point of interest: Nudity was not unusual in ancient Greek culture. Guests at a social gathering might be nude and athletes usually competed naked. They had far less shame of the human body than most 'civilised' societies today.

  6. Glad you are feeling better,
    Of I am lucky, I have two inspired moments. One when I start out with a piece of writing ( wouldn't start otherwise) and one near the end to sort out the plot problems!

  7. Well botheration! I typed all this once and it got wiped out when I tried to post. Lemme see if I can do it again...

    I think it adds something to do the discussion to know what problem Archimedes was working on at the time he took that bath. He had been trying to figure out how to measure the mass of objects of irregular shapes, of different sizes, and made of different materials (with different densities). When he got in the tub that day and the water rose around him, he suddenly realized the mass of his body had displaced an amount of water equal to that mass. This meant he could use water displacement to measure mass of anything and everything. That was the "Eureka!".

    How many times did Archimedes idly watch the water lap up higher on the tub when he lay down in it, before he *realized* what he was seeing and why it mattered?

    I think that there is often (usually?) a subtle prompt in our environment that connects the problem we are working on to the point of insight or inspiration. We might not be consciously aware of it, but it's there. So when are driving around "looking for" inspiration, you might see a billboard flash by that has an image on it, that starts a train of thought that leads to a murder weapon that would vanish without a trace...or whatever. I sometimes wonder if that's why we go out to drive at these times, or to walk, is that we are literally searching the environment of our experience for the prompt that provides the solution -- once our brains make all the connections with lightning fast speed.

    For what it's worth, and hoping this time it posts... (Sigh)

  8. Mr. Thornton: You give me hope. Yes, illness can be a distraction. I was diagnosed with IPF 3 years ago and was doing ok until this past July when conditions got worse. Both my imagination and stamina have suffered along with my problems in breathing. I pray for one of your Eureka moments where my both my mental and physical states are back in synch. Even if only temporarily at times. Somehow, I need to learn to compensate for these lapses. To give you an example, last month I decided to reorganize my blog.. Big mistake! Wiped out everything from last year. Glad you are feeling chipper. Yours truly, Toe

  9. Eureka, for me, is a town in California. It is probably the closest I will ever come to experiencing it. The only eureka moment I ever remember having was the solution to a long standing problem I had at work. Nothing to do with writing. But it netted me a bonus, so it was not a total loss.

  10. You know my story. I'm a little like your high school friend, in that I have plenty of ideas but lack focus. I do have the work ethic — but unfortunately, it mostly goes into the work that pays the bills. The upside to that is that my paid work is as a manuscript editor, and working with others on craft development has not only strengthened mine but help me find focus. And being part of a critique group (with you) and being forced to be accountable for my production and progress has been immeasurably helpful in pushing toward the finish line.

  11. In my career days (and smarter days), I kept paper and pencil by the bedside, for ideas often struck while I was sleeping. I need to return to that practice!


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