The unity feeling – you know what Steinbeck means, don’t you? Have you felt it?
The writer Zadie Smith describes a state of magical thinking, during which “you sit down to write at 9 a.m, you blink, the evening news is on and four thousand words are written…”
This magical state is the ideal writing experience, when the creative and productive parts of your brain collaborate so that the process is fluid and fulfilling. Psychologists call this state flow.
How Flow Feels
Flow is a state of effortless attention, when you’re so engrossed in what you’re doing that you lose track of time. You become deeply involved in work.
Psychologist and author Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has studied the subject extensively. In Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience and subsequent writings, he describes the nine common characteristics of a state of flow:
- The work is sufficiently challenging, yet within your abilities
- Your goals are clear; you know what needs to happen
- The act of working provides clear feedback
- Your mind is absorbed in the work at hand
- You are not distracted by anything apart from the work
- You lack self-consciousness
- You do not fear failure
- You do not notice time passing
- The process is fulfilling or enjoyable
Flow and Writing
When it happens, being in a state of flow connects you to the joy of writing.
You’re more productive when drafting, as you don’t waste time banging your head against the keyboard, surfing the Internet, or staring blankly into space wondering about the perfect word. The words roll out smoothly. If you are lucky enough to find a state of flow while revising, you become absorbed in the text as you work.
But to achieve this state, everything has to be working for you. We can group the nine characteristics of flow into three variables:
- The task: Work that is challenging but possible, with clear goals and feedback
- The external environment: Focus on the writing, without interruptions
- Your inner state: Lack of self-consciousness and fear; no tracking time; an experience of enjoyment or fulfillment
Does your current writing process fit this description? Can you spot issues keeping you from experiencing this optimal state? Perhaps you try to write in an interrupt-driven environment, or the work isn’t challenging enough. Maybe you focus on getting every word right during drafting.
If you want to find that “unity feeling,” tinker with the writing process to align these three variables.
Choose and manage the work: Select the right projects. If you’re not inherently absorbed by your topic, look for an angle that makes it more compelling. Choose something outside your comfort zone. Set clear deadlines for the work.
Arrange the environment: Find a productive environment in which to write. If necessary, separate yourself from the demands of daily life so that you focus without interruptions.
Get your brain in gear: Turn off the inner critic while writing for flow. Set a timer if you’re worried about how much time you’re spending.
Neuroscience shows that during a state of flow, the part of the brain involved in criticism is quiet. So is the amygdala, the part of the brain that experiences fear.
Be fearless and write.
If you find this useful, you’ll find a lot more in the book The Writer’s Process: Getting Your Brain in Gear.
The Steinbeck quote comes from his from June 15, 1938, from Working Days: The Journals of The Grapes of Wrath, Edited by Robert Demott, Viking, 1989
Zadie Smith’s quote is from her book Changing My Mind: Occasional Essays.
[Image: Kazuend on Unsplash]