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!