Flow is a relatively new term for an essential and universal human experience. You know you’ve been in flow when time seems to have disappeared. When you’re in flow, you become so deeply immersed in your writing, or whatever activity you’re doing, that you forget yourself and your surroundings. You delight in continuing to write even if you get no reward for doing it—monetary or otherwise—and even if no one else cares whether you do it. You feel challenged, stimulated, definitely not bored. Writing in flow, you’re often certain you’re tapping into some creative part of yourself—or of the universe—that you don’t have easy access to when you’re not in this altered state. Sports figures call this desired condition being “in the zone.”
Many books have been written that claim to offer the one true way to write, or, at best, the several true ways to write. Some of these may even be helpful for entering flow. Many concentrate on particular aspects of writing fluency, advising you to “let go,” or “write from the heart.” I believe that each of these advice books leaves out crucial information. This book differs from others in that it is not based on one person’s secrets of success, but rather on the widely varying secrets used by many successful writers.
You can also, as I did, read hundreds of interviews and profiles of writers in which some aspects of the creative writing experience are mentioned. Until now no one has systematically collected information or looked for underlying patterns about writing in flow, which is the most likely and enjoyable psychological state from which creative work emerges. One of the age-old questions is “Do we have any control over the muse?” By asking writers how they prepare to write, and also how they believe they enter flow, I sought to discover if those preparations were the keys to flow. What does a creative writer experience in the days, hours, or moments just before the shift into flow begins? Is at sudden or is there a slide along a continuum of consciousness? Might there be larger themes that connect the many personalized ways various writers have found to induce flow? How much control can a creative writer have over flow entry and thus, perhaps, over the so-called muse herself?
I investigated poets, short story writers, and novelists for whom writing is a major part of their lives (although not all of them make their living at it), and who, in most cases, enter flow with some frequency too. Participants included both those who publish literary work and writers who write in popular genres such as mystery or science fiction. I studied those who are succeeding in their chosen field. Among them are half a dozen Pulitzer Prize winners, as well as writers who have received American Book Awards, National Book Awards, Pushcart Prizes, Guggenheims, National Endowment for the Arts Awards, MacArthur Fellowships, and Nebula and Hugo Awards. Several have appeared on national bestseller lists. Former and current U.S. Poet Laureates participated. Each is producing written work regularly and getting it published regularly also.
While at least one researcher has found that few individuals can easily describe their entry into flow, on the contrary, my interviewees did talk about it—with delight, at length, and in many instances, with extraordinary insight. And regardless of whether writers are more psychologically astute than other creators, they are certainly more articulate and original in the way they express themselves.
As no two writers are alike and no two person’s needs, personalities, personal histories, or tendencies are identical, so too, your preferred manner of flow entry may be entirely different from the way others do it. Nevertheless, I have found that all of the methods used by writers have certain aspects in common, certain purposes they fulfill. Once you understand how flow entry happens to contemporary writers struggling with real-life jobs, families, insecurities, and fears, you can choose to try several routes and determine for yourself what works for you.
Whether you’re a poet, novelist, short-story writer, essayist, or creative nonfiction writer—whether you are just starting out or are already an accomplished writer—you will learn ways to enter flow and enjoy writing more.
This book is primarily based on an intensive study I completed for my doctoral dissertation. It also includes material from additional research I performed later. Social scientists, psychologists, and other research-minded readers who are interested in how I chose my interviewees and how I arrived at my assertions and conclusions may read the detailed chapter in the Appendix describing how I conducted the research. Chapter 1 describes the various attitudes writers have about how much control it’s possible to have over the creative process. Here you’ll also gain a much deeper understanding of what flow is and what the benefits of writing in flow are. Chapter 2 zeroes in on what the experience of flow is like in writing, with examples of the many metaphors writers use in thinking about the shift into the altered state. This information will help you recognize your flow experiences, which is valuable for increasing them.
Part Two is the core of the book, where you will begin to learn the answer to the question: How can I make the shift into the timeless, totally engaged state of writing in flow? If you’re like the vast majority of writers, you maneuver into a writing session with a particular pattern of thought—which some think of, paradoxically, as non-thought—and with the help of a routine. Such routines often include one or more rituals, however brief and unremarkable the rituals may be. I’ll share with you what I discovered about what deeper purposes are being served by each of these habits of thinking, routines, and rituals. After collecting a vast amount of information from writers, I divided these deeper purposes into five Master Keys. Each Key is based on one or more of the elements of flow that most intimately affect the creative writing process.
The first two Keys, “Have a Reason to Write” and “Think Like a Writer” are part of your whole self and way of relating to the world. They involve aspects of your life that are relevant to the process prior to any particular writing session. The last three are concurrent to the actual writing itself: “Loosen Up,” “Focus In,” and “Balance among Opposites.” All three of these need to come into play very near the time you begin to write—and throughout the process—if you are to enter flow and stay there for some time during that session.
Each of these Master Keys blends into the next— and back again, in a cyclical system. Thus, for example, I talk about planning in Key One, as part of the motivation and challenge involved in getting started. Planning (or letting go of one’s plans) will also be mentioned in Key Three, as part of the loosening-up process, and again in Key Five, where it relates to how “in control” you are while writing. Another example is challenge: it’s a motivator, leading you toward greater interest in your work, which helps your focusing-in process, which may also relate back to an increased sense of confidence, and so on.
These Master Keys might be thought of as skills or as capacities or as attitudes—each is needed for the best writing. Five chapters discuss each Key in turn, from having a strong enough reason to write and thinking like a writer, to loosening up, focusing in, and balancing among several contradictory opposites. You will discover which of the Master Keys you have most control over, and you will also learn how to affect even those aspects that seem most resistant to change.
In Part Three, we get to the specific techniques writers use to make flow happen. Chapter 8 answers the intriguing quantitative questions, such as how long writers write and how much of that time is spent in flow. Here you’ll learn that you can be a successful writer whether you work on your novel for a half hour a day or you lose yourself in a trance for three days at a time. Chapter 9 details each of the many idiosyncratic ways scribes have found to shift into the that lovely state of consciousness in which the work proceeds smoothly. Chapter 10 tells how major writers avoid, reframe, or cope with writer’s block, and how you can learn to flow past such blocks to be a better writer.
Interspersed throughout the chapters are the answers to questions that have come to me from students, friends, and others who have heard of my flow research. . . .
[© 1999 by Susan K. Perry - May not be reproduced without permission]
from CHAPTER 1: OH, TO BE IN FLOW NOW THAT APRIL’S THERE
A few years ago, a friend challenged me to write a short story. “I dare you to write fiction,” he said. I’d been a professional non-fiction writer for many years, and my first response was, “I don’t take dares.” My second response, not spoken aloud, was, “Why should I? Anyway, I can’t.” It had been many years since my last efforts at creative writing: a miserably melodramatic short story or two composed at the cusp of puberty and a folder full of hormone-tortured poems written in high school.
Nevertheless, over the next few days I found myself thinking about the plot of a certain short story that just might need to be written. Always fascinated by time travel, I imagined a woman with aspects of my history who finds an old watch that, when she winds it, takes her back through the years. Before I’d wake up fully in the morning I would mentally work out the details of the plot. Soon, enough of the action was clear to me that I felt compelled to stop my regular work and begin writing the story.
Then an amazing thing happened to me: time stopped. I was tapping away on the computer, composing, deleting, changing a word or phrase here and there, losing myself in the life of the character who was a lot like me but who was also completely new, until I came to a stopping place. I looked at the clock on my study wall and was shocked to realize that two hours had passed. And I had actually enjoyed every unnoticed moment of that time.
Now, for those who lose themselves in their work regularly, this is hardly worthy of note. To me, though, it was a revelation.
My usual way of working at my writing is more like this: Sensing the clock ticking away the seconds, I struggle to focus. My attention is caught by a small bird on the climbing rosebush outside. I examine the windowsill in case the mating lizards I once glimpsed there have reappeared. I leave a couple of phone messages, then reach out via e-mail for some kind of contact that might be more interesting than what I’m working on. Beyond the computer screen, my eyes light on a shelf crowded with novels I urgently want to be reading, now. I promise myself a long lunch break, very soon. Finally, aware of time passing wastefully, I force myself to return to work.
Time, for many of us, whether we’re writing or doing something else, is often spent in this sort of distracted manner. We measure the passing of that half-hearted time in seconds and minutes and hours.
Then there are the lucky individuals who, more often than most, find themselves immersed in activities during which time ceases to matter, to register, when they forget themselves and everything else but the task at hand, when the work flows, when they are in flow. When I peek into my husband Stephen’s writing room next door (if he has forgotten to shut it), it’s obvious how single-mindedly focused he is, still in his bathrobe, working on his latest poem, oblivious to the squirrel on the balcony, unconcerned over his lack of breakfast, unaware of whether it is day or night, or, for that matter, what year it is.
Driven by awe and envy, I decided to learn more about this essential difference in our working habits—and to learn how I, and other writers, might more dependably enter flow, in which the best writing often seems to emerge almost effortlessly. This book is the result of that intensive inquiry. . . .
THREE KINDS OF WRITERS
In the writing classes I teach and among my friends and acquaintances, I’ve found that would-be and novice writers usually come in three kinds. The first includes those who figure that when inspiration strikes, they’ll know it, and then, and only then, will they be able to produce the great works of which they dream (or the works that will make them wealthy enough to quit their day jobs).
The second batch of writers are those who plan to get down to writing seriously as soon as they are sufficiently prepared. One friend, for example, intends to write his bestselling novel as soon as he manages to get his memory working sufficiently well to keep all those characters and plot details firmly in mind. Meanwhile . . .
The third group of writers believes that it’s possible to have total control over one’s writing output. This view was succinctly epitomized for me by a rather crusty old friend of ours I’ll call Bill. A group of our friends, several of whom have written some fiction, were at our home for a party. Most everyone had had a little to drink, some a lot. A flip chart was against one wall of the living room, leftover from the monthly meeting of my doctoral co-students. Stephen got up and performed a completely incomprehensible lecture, complete with meaningless (to all but him) diagrams on the flip chart. The group’s good-humored heckling had us all in hysterics.
At that point, because my own glass or two of champagne had taken effect by then, I was itching to take marker in hand and share with my friends what I was studying about writers and flow. The moment I stood at the flip chart and opened my mouth, though, Bill spoke up. “What nonsense! All anyone has to do is plant their butt in the chair and write.”
Now, I will concede that “the butt in the chair” theory of writing has some merit. Self-discipline and regularity are essential to many successful writers, as we’ll see in later chapters. What’s missing from Bill’s homespun theory, however, is the how. Telling someone to “just do it” is akin to telling someone who’s depressed that all she has to do is “think happy thoughts” and happiness and joy will follow. Something is keeping the depressed person from making the very efforts that must be made in order to turn the tide of mood from glum to cheerful, whether that something is chemical, cognitive, or a combination of other complex factors. Similarly, when you’re not writing but you insist you wish you were, something is getting in the way. At times, the something is lack of knowledge about all the many options that are available to make writing happen.
Among more experienced writers, I discovered, there is also a fourth group: those who have learned that they do have a certain amount of control over their writing process. A majority of the most productive writers with whom I spoke fit into this group.
Liberating writers from self-imposed constraints and limitations is one of the goals of this book. And once you learn how exquisitely pleasurable writing can be in a flow state— and how to enter such a state more predictably—you’re more likely to write more and produce better work.
|Q: I’m sure I get into flow when I’m watching TV. Time sure seems to stop. And what about gambling? Or drumming? |
A: And what about sleeping? These activities do not provide what are considered true flow experiences because, to enter flow, you have to be doing something that presents enough of a challenge to use your skills so that you feel truly engaged, neither bored nor anxious. Most of the time, television watching isn’t demanding enough to qualify as flow. Addictive perhaps, but not challenging. Gambling also can be addictive, but not very hard work. I can pull the nickel slot machine handle for hours, though the altered state I enter is more like being a drugged zombie who just can’t stop, rather than feeling that I’m truly using either my mind or body to best advantage. (If, when playing cards, you’re busily strategizing, that might be another story.) I have no doubt that a serious drummer, or one who is practicing to be one, can enter flow. Listening to drums, like listening to any music, can be more relaxing than demanding, unless you’re actively participating, struggling to figure out the composer’s intentions. The likelihood of flow rises with the level of challenge
THE BENEFITS OF WRITING IN FLOW
While there is no scientific proof that flow necessarily produces top quality writing, research has found that many writers are convinced they produce much of their best work while they are in such an altered situation. When you’re in flow, scenes and images almost seem to concoct themselves. As one writer told me, “I have to keep reminding myself that all I have to do is get into that place and the language will furnish itself.”
If you’re a fiction writer or poet, or an independent writer of any kind, the overwhelming odds are that it’s up to you to get yourself to write. Whatever state of consciousness is most motivating and effective for getting the work done is clearly a useful state to tap into.
Flow is significant to creative people for another reason. Research has found that creators do not learn to increase the ratio of successful “hits” to overall output over a lifetime of work. Keeping in mind that all such generalizations are suspect when it comes to predicting your unique life’s outcome, the gist of the theory is this: the more prolific you are overall, the more likelihood of your producing great work. At least if we judge by the historical record of eminent creators, what matters most is to keep producing. If you would create more great works, you must create more. Therefore, entering flow easily and frequently should enable you to write more fluently and prolifically, and thus, potentially, to produce more distinguished and lasting fiction or poetry.
[© 1999 by Susan K. Perry - May not be reproduced without permission]
Six Exercises Suggested by Expert Authors
(adapted from Writing in Flow by Susan K. Perry, Ph.D.)
1. Write something almost diametrically opposed to what you’ve been comfortable writing up to now. “The idea,” says Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, author of Sister of My Heart and Mistress of Spices, “is not necessarily, don’t write what you know, but try to look at it from a whole other angle. Write about someone who is absolutely not yourself.”
2. Pulitzer prize winning poet Henry Taylor suggests this exercise for loosening yourself: “Remember how it feels to suddenly think of one of the most embarrassing moments in your life: how it surfaces without being invited and makes your skin crawl, and you may have to pull over on the shoulder for a second and compose yourself, but you mash the thing back down into the subconscious where it damn well belongs, and get on with the day. Okay. This time, write it down. Make sure you linger lovingly over the painful details.”
3. Novelist and short story writer Merrill Joan Gerber suggests inspiring your story by thinking of a “hot spot,” something that happened in the past that still compels your attention, something that attracts your thoughts over and over, an incident, a fright, an argument, an insult, some mystery in a relationship that hasn’t been solved or is still exciting over time.
4. A loosening exercise used by novelist Nora Okja Keller (Comfort Woman) with her students is to begin with a family story, or some gossip you have heard. Write another version of it, from behind the scenes. Or write out a dream you had, then pare it down and shape it.
5. Memoirist and fiction writer Bernard Cooper finds t his one useful: Write down the story you’ve been telling people over and over, a story that irritates or amuses or has gotten into your craw in some way, a story that is so strange or so outrageous that you have to keep telling it to kind of corroborate what’s happening with yourself. Such an exercise tends to get you writing very loosely and quickly.
6. Rage, fury, and revenge are huge emotions you can use to loosen up your writing, according to novelist Margot Livesey (Criminals). Write a character description (or a poem) from the point of view of one character detesting another.
[© 1999 by Susan K. Perry - May not be reproduced without permission]