Writing and the Creative Life: Flow

We revel in it when we have it and curse it when we don’t.

As writers, we know the experience. We sit down to write. Conjure up a scene in our mind. Fingers on keyboard. Scene description. Dialogue. Characters coming to life. Scene end. Leads directly to the next scene. Deeper into the story universe. We are there. More writing. Another scene. And another. And…

We look up. Blink. The clock. It’s two hours later. We’ve pounded out 5… 8… perhaps 10 pages. Just. Like. That. Where did the time go? We can’t help but grin. That experience. Being so in the moment, so in touch with our Creative, so in a state of…


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How do we do that? How does that happen? It’s like some sort of mystical state, a meditative zone where we are transplanted from the sphere of this world to the realm of that world.

And my God, it is a delight. Euphoria!

Especially so because there are occasions, generally most other times, when every… word… we… write… is… a… complete… grind. The seconds tick by mocking us and our inability to lift ourselves even one micrometer from this world.

Not zipping along in the flow. But on the off-ramp. Thumb stuck out. Hoping to catch a ride. Cars whiz by. As we stand stuck heckled by an Inner Voice:

How to get in the flow?

That conundrum came to mind when I stumbled upon this article: “The Positive Psychology of Flow.” Written by Patty O’Grady, Ph.D. at the University of Tampa, her focus is on education in the elementary school classroom. Teaching part-time as I do and the parent of two boys who have required lots of special attention to meet their unique academic needs, I’m always on the lookout for anything having to do with ways to enhance the learning experience.

But that’s not what I was thinking when I saw the article’s title. Rather it was that transcendent word: Flow.

In the article, O’Grady writes this:

Flow happens when the mind escapes its boundaries and sets the imagination free. Flow does not attend to the barriers, flow moves past them. Flow is effortless absorption in the task, in the moment, in the potential. Flow is the fluid emotional strength that energizes and synergizes interests, aptitudes, and talents perfectly aligned with the task, and wholly absorbed by it.

Yes! She gets it! She knows the flow experience! But how to get there?

When students are fully engaged in the learning process, working to find the solution or finish the project, there is learning flow. When the student’s heart, mind, muscle, and soul synchronize the learning, the student is flowing and overflowing.

Wait. Back up. What were those words again?

Fully engaged.

That sounds promising. That feels authentic. In reflecting on my own experience as a writer, I think my best flow experiences do occur when I am fully engaged. I am so in tune with a given scene, I am nearly a participant in it. Invisible, yes. Not an ‘actor’ within it per se, but rather a very interested observer inches from the unfolding events.

But how to get to that place? How to become fully engaged?

As I sit here in the moment writing this, my gut suggests an answer: The characters.

I become fully engaged in my writing when I am fully engaged with my characters.

They pull me into the story universe because I identify with them, I am compelled by them, I want to see what is going to happen, what they will say and what they will do. I am living in the moment with them, and even though I have worked out in some detail what I think will happen before I write the scene, when I am in the flow, I experience each moment of each scene with a sense that anything can happen, any character has the potential to suddenly veer off script and go where they want to go.

It occurs to me, it’s almost an act of sacrifice whereby I yield control of the scene to my characters. I am so committed to them, my desire to hear their voices and see their actions, they respond to my trust by taking over the narrative.

And in those moments, it is no longer me writing a story… it’s them telling me and showing me their story. Then… I am in the flow.

Of course, that does not happen all the time. Or even most of the time. Often it is a battle a la the non-flow experience I described above. Even as I may try to consciously immerse myself in my character’s lives, I am somehow off target, not on point.

But hey, that’s the thing about writing a story: It’s wrangling magic. And as frustrating as it is sometimes to be forced to slog through scenes, tossing them, rewriting them, cutting them, cursing them… I’d rather live with that as long as the potential exists to taste the magic of a flow experience.

So I am left with this: We can never be in the flow every time we write. It’s just not meant to be that way. Flow wouldn’t be magical if we could somehow orchestrate it through rational means.

But I feel like I’ve received a tiny revelation in writing this post.

I am more likely to have a flow experience when I am fully engaged with my story. And the best conduit to do that…

Is through my characters.

For the rest of O’Grady’s article, go here.

Writing and the Creative Life is a weekly series in which we explore creativity from the practical to the psychological, the latest in brain science to a spiritual take on the subject. Hopefully the more we understand about our creative self, the better we will become as writers. If you have any good reading material in this vein, please post in comments. If you have a particular observation you think readers will benefit from and you would like to explore in a guest post, email me.

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