Finding “Flow”

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by Jacquie Cope

I’ve longed to write fiction for as long as I can remember, probably since the moment I was able to read. Paradoxically, for most of my life, I never wrote a word. First, I was always too wrapped up in other pressing issues – education, work, kids—to get much, or actually anything, written. The other problem was that even when I made the time to write, the page or the screen always stayed blank. I held my pen in my hand or poised my fingers over the keyboard and stared into space, daydreaming, and waiting. The waiting was painful. What was I waiting for? I assumed that eventually I would hear a little voice, a phantom or an angel, coming to whisper a story in my ear or guide my hands into typing something brilliant on the screen. I waited for my muse. There were moments of desperation, when I ruthlessly forced myself to write literally anything, painful sentence by painful sentence. I believed that eventually the muse would reward me by showing up and taking over. When I reviewed those sad sentences, or on some lucky occasions a handful of pages, I found that most of what I wrote was a little embarrassing — just isolated images or scenarios about eccentric people, many of them with avoidant personality disorders, most of them having a distinct physical feature, like a thick scar along one side of the face or a handlebar moustache.  I figured that I would wait a little longer, maybe the muse would show up tomorrow, or next week, or definitely within the year.

Well, my muse never showed up, and the frustrating part was that whether I wrote or not, the inclination and the longing to write never went away. Over the years, after an undergraduate degree in the sciences, a medical degree, a house in the suburbs, two kids, a Maltipoo, and a hamster, my urge to write never dissipated. And still, no muse.

Eventually I entered an MFA program and made a larger commitment to the pursuit of writing. Over the course of earning the degree, I learned a tremendous amount – about craft, about character, point of view, and plot. About where to start a story and where to end it. I also learned—or maybe just finally accepted– that there was never going to be a muse. There would be technique, faith, and perseverance, but no matter how often I would sit at the computer, sweating it out, coming up with a protagonist, a setting, and even a verb tense– there was never going to be a guiding voice, an angel on my shoulder, a divine gift of just the right words packaged and placed in my sad, suffering brain. The task of writing began and ended with the hard work of writing one sentence followed by another. I’m pretty sure now that that’s how most (all?) writers write. And yet, is it possible that that’s how War and Peace or East of Eden got written?

There had to be some trick, a strategy or formula to accessing stories and getting them on the page.

One concept that provided insight was that of “flow,” a term coined by psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi. The state of “flow,” or what is also commonly referred to as “being in the zone,” is an intense concentration on an activity performed only for its own intrinsic reward. Immersion in the activity is so profound that the performer loses a sense of time, of biological need (like thirst or hunger), and, importantly, of the self-consciousness of the ego. “Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz,” Csíkszentmihályi says. He further describes this experience of disconnection of self from physical reality as a form of ecstasy.

Wow. So what did I have to do to get into flow?

Based on what he observed, Csíkszentmihályi’s developed a model, predicting that flow could be achieved when there was a fit between the challenge level of the task and the skill level of the individual. People can achieve this state of flow (perhaps to a milder degree) doing even mundane activities, such as driving, washing the dishes, or sewing. In these instances, the challenge is fairly low, and people who perform these tasks easily perceive a sense of mastery, focus on the moment, and feel personal control over the activity. On the other hand, a high challenge task (write a novel) attempted by someone with a low level of skill (never wrote anything) results in a state of anxiety. No wonder all of those hours sitting in front of a blank screen had left me so irritable! While my logical, left-brain had been training for the Ironman all of those years, my imaginative, right-brain was a total couch potato.

Fortunately, a number of well-known authors have provided guidance and recommendations for strengthening the skill of accessing the creative brain. I read a number of books by these authors (Anne Lamott, Julia Cameron, Natalie Goldberg among others) and found that most of their recommendations followed a similar theme: stop the inner critic from censoring your creativity. When you sit to write your first draft, write your first thought and don’t erase it. Editing and crafting aren’t meant to take place during the generative, creative stage of the writing process. If you find your avoidant protagonist sporting a handlebar moustache, leave it. You can always trim it later.

In a practicable way, most authors suggested practicing this skill through the use of journals (morning pages, timed exercises, dream journals). I tried all of these techniques, and the good news is that all of them were helpful! Each activity was an opportunity to practice, not only how to access the impulsive, imaginative part of my brain, but also how to quiet the critical, logical part of my brain that had kept me from writing anything in the preceding years. All of the activities also helped for another reason: each ultimately forced me to do the real work of writing. I didn’t need to face the task with the expectation of completing an entire short story or a novel or even a chapter. I just had to write something, anything. The more I “practiced” being creative, the easier the activities became. I just had to commit myself to doing them a lot.

Regardless of how much I exercised my creative brain, writing ultimately required taking the risk to write my first bad draft and look it square in the eye. Now when I sit at the laptop to write, it’s still a mixture of pain and relief to put down that first sentence, not knowing if a second is going to follow. Sometimes, now, I can fall into that zone. I lose track of time. I lose awareness of my own self-conscious self and start to see the characters, hear what they might say or see what they might see before my conscious brain looks around for it. And many times I don’t enter that blissful zone. Those days I realize that I’m going to have to dig deep and accept that writing is risk. I force a sentence on the page. And one more. Maybe another. And so it goes, sentence by sentence.

 Jacquie’s class, Creativity and Craft: Completing the Process from Journal to Short Story begins May 7. 

Jacquie Cope is a doctor from Los Angeles who recently took the plunge and dedicated herself to her writing. She holds degrees in medicine and public health, and more recently, an MFA from Antioch University. She lives and writes in Los Angeles.

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