31 Days: Questions of Flow in Writing

Flow is a state of complete and energised immersion. It happens when we are wholeheartedly engaging in a task for it’s own sake. We can’t make it happen, although we can proceed with the activities that often promote this feeling, whether it’s playing music, hillwalking, doing a jigsaw.

According to psychologists, the conditions of flow require clear goals as to the necessary outcome, immediate feedback, ways of modifying our actions to ensure progress. Individuals with the characteristics of persistence, curiosity, confidence and lower self-consciousness can achieve these flow states. Zen meditation is also considered to be a state of flow, promoting a sense of Oneness, overcoming the duality of self and object.

It is, perhaps this sense of total flow and immersion that characterises the very best creative state, one we sometimes but rarely achieve. At these times the ideas or words flow, the chatter of the more rational and critical mind is silenced. We feel a joy, confidence and impetus. I think it’s fair to say that this kind of feeling in our writing work is not often orchestrated. I’ve experienced it in those early morning, half-wake states when ideas seem perfect and crystal, I’ve experienced it somewhat when writing to one of those mad self-imposed deadlines such as NaNoWriMo when you have to just let go and ‘write your heart out’. Sometimes I’ve hit upon a seam of memory or interest and I’m astonished at what I can write, what material I find, but while writing ‘out of the corner of my eye.’ If I look too closely I lose the flow, my critical brain kicks in asking ‘where will this fit?’ ‘Is this any good?’ ‘What will people think if I say that?’

At the moment I’m moving beyond the first draft of a novel. I wrote chunks of it quickly during NaNoWriMo. I’m happy with what I find. There is energy and novelty in the writing. It doesn’t stick. But there are scenes fired down that need to find their place. The story is a first person narration of a man looking over a certain period in his life. It’s true to say that for any of us looking right back into the past, particular scenes will rise up, give rise to others, spark other connections and remembrances. This might not be chronological. So I guess what I’m trying to do in this book is order the scenes psychologically more so than chronologically. I am trying to work towards the feeling of what is right at this early stage rather than tie myself up logistically. I want to work by instinct, somehow. I want to sneak up on myself. I want to turn my brain off for now. Is that possible?

Over the Christmas holidays I did a jigsaw with my daughter for the first time in ages. It was a modest enough jigsaw, 750 pieces but with lots of sea and sky, colours that were very similar but differing in shade and (lovely hue) just a little bit across the piece. What we did was put the pieces that were likely to go into that area close to the area, sometimes we tried out different pieces physically or checked the shape first then tried, sometimes we just suddenly picked up a piece and knew it would fit, and it did!

I’m trying the same thing with my book, putting the pieces that feel right close to where I think they will finally go. I’m hovering above the book with a broad eye, getting a sense of what is right. Of course there will always be a piece that gets put on the wrong side of the jigsaw, some pieces will have to be turned round before they fit and the sky – the sky is always the hardest to do. I’m hoping this approach will work because I don’t want to tie myself up in knots. I don’t want it to be a wretched task. When I worked on the jigsaw I could feel fatigue set in, there came a point when no progress was being made. But every time I went away and came back fresh I could see where another piece fit. I don’t know what the psychological explanation of that is – perhaps it was just fatigue dulling the brain, putting it on loops, making it see only certain things in certain ways. Perhaps that’s what I need to do with the book. Work on it, put in down, sneak back up on it again until it all fits.

We’ve talked about running and walking and creativity. Indeed these are ways to access that mindless flow, to clear the mind of it’s tunnel vision, it’s preconceived structures. Early morning writing or writing without censor to a time limit can be ways of freeing us up to create all sorts of new things. Finding flow in general to promote incubation and give us a sense of joy and energy as we create, paying ‘mindless’ attention to the world around us will calm the spirit, help us see more, help us find ways through our work with confidence and clarity.

Do you have ways of ‘floating above’ your work or when do you find immersion and flow? Do you think it’s possible for me to piece my novel together instinctively, at least as a first pass?

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One comment

  1. Great. I look at my writing as an enormous jig saw slotting pieces ( scenes) into places they do not fit then trying again. Nice to have an edge and a total size. I have been writing for two and a half years and the pennies are only beginning to drop about how to write well. Reading others work shows me good authors who’s work really does flow compared to other writers and mine which need much more work. I enjoy your posts high up the list amongst all the others. Keep up the good work.

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