Achieving Flow State in Writing

I’m in the middle of writing a fantasy novel – something that requires a lot of thought and dipping in and out of drafting. I’m creating individual scenes, detailing specific motivations, and expanding each character’s complexity as the plot moves forward.

I struggle sometimes to “lose myself” while writing, and in some sessions I fail completely to do so. But usually, somewhere along the way, I let go and fall deeply into my work. Psychologists call this “flow,” a state of mind in which your actions feel effortless.

I also experienced flow while working on projects in art classes. But in art class, like in writing, I couldn’t always achieve flow. My least favorite drawing tool was charcoal. I could never achieve flow state with charcoal because I never learned how to use it effectively. Graphite pencils, on the other hand, I loved. I remember concentrating on the contour line I was drawing while somehow also keeping an eye on the overall design. If I stepped back to make sure everything looked right, I lost focus and messed up. But when I let go, things turned out okay.

I learned that my intuitive mind was better at understanding the artistic whole than my critical mind. I began to trust my gut.

I recognized two prerequisites for entering flow state.

  1. You must learn how to use the necessary tools.
  2. You must immerse yourself in the creative process.

To succeed in #2, you must first follow #1. You must master the necessary skills in order to turn off that self-editor. Otherwise your frustration (like mine with charcoal) will impede you. Learn first, then immerse.

I mentioned that while drawing I was able to keep an eye both on the individual line I was working on and the piece of art as a whole. When writing a novel, I struggle with the equivalent part-whole relation. My novel manuscripts never turn out even close to right the first time around.

My elementary grasp of craft means I can’t conquer both the individual pieces and the gestalt in one go. Well, maybe no one can conquer them in one go, but some land nearer the mark than others. If I “let loose,” the novel tends to go off the rails. I’m at the stage in my craft study where I still have to use my logical mind to guide myself. I know the basic rules of how to construct a novel, but I don’t know intuitively when to make an exception to these rules. In later drafts and later manuscripts, when the principles of craft are more ingrained in my mind, I hope to write more naturally and thus create a more coherent whole.

None of us writes perfectly the first time around, no matter how skilled we are, so we need an editing and revision phase. When you’re in the middle of “arting,” the critical You that likes to edit and revise probably shuts down temporarily. That’s good. But if you’re working with a truly massive work of art, it can be impossible to keep an eye on the gestalt. Therefore, until you have an intuitive grasp on the whole and the individual pieces match that vision, you must rewrite again and again and again. Novices never believe this bit about revisions. They think they are brilliant – and therefore an exception to the rule. I know this because I used to think this!

Once you you finish a draft, you should withdraw from your art and do something else for a while. Only after time away can you return to your project with a relatively fresh mind. Then you’ll be ready to look at your work with a critical eye, not just an artistic one.

How do you approach your creative endeavors? When do you enter flow? When does flow evade you? Tell me more by commenting below or writing your own post!

19 thoughts on “Achieving Flow State in Writing

  1. I feel a resonance with everything you’ve said in this post about the creative process, both in ‘art’ and in writing. And it seems I now have a solid grasp of what you call the tools and I’d call the mechanics, of writing for the number of revisions needed are now greatly reduced, and my self-editor turns off while I’m in the midst of creation. But then, I have now been practicing my craft for many (many, many, many) years.

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  2. I find it easy to enter flow, generally speaking – sometimes too easy. But I have yet to attain the mastery of my craft which makes the results worthwhile. It’s rather like the effects of a couple of glasses of wine: I just blether on and don’t realize until later how boring I’m being.

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  3. Ooooo fantasy novel!!
    Fantasy novels are my very favourite! I’m not a writer myself really. Similarly to what you mentioned, my grasp becomes too tenuous and the plot quickly meanders off into the sunset.
    If you ever need someone too look over your drafts I would be happy to oblige, though I’m sure you would have plenty of willing volunteers πŸ™‚

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  4. That makes a lot of sense. I am in the editing stage of my book right now and I am having such a hard time focusing; I think because I have to be in that critical mindset and put my intuition on the back burner, which I’m not used to doing. I find it is so much easier to be productive when I’m not being too critical.

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  5. Good luck with your book. I hope to read it soon. And thanks for sending me to Merriam Webster this morning because I can now tell you I am no longer bumfuzzled by your use of the word gestalt and I look forward to employing it in my own writing and daily conversations. Take care.

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  6. Took me a bit to get back here! I am always writing, although what I am always writing is not the best. I agree with you — None of us writes perfectly the first time around, no matter how skilled we are, so we need an editing and revision phase. Although I admit there are times when it’s like we’re channeling from beyond and above, and the words and flow are just perfect. I guess it’s like getting high (I wouldn’t know), but the “high” can’t stay forever. So keep on clipping and twisting and nurturing your story — can’t wait to hear more about it!

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  7. Thanks, Tom. I’m learning a lot about surrendering to when the creative inspiration moves me … to write, to speak, to work on projects, etc. It’s quite a dance with the planner part of me. Working on having fun with it all too. (Working on? How about playing with? πŸ™‚ )
    Many blessings … lovely to connect. Debbie

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