Go with the Flow

By Boyd Morrison

I almost always write to music. It’s usually movie scores that get me in the mood for dramatic action and suspense. Some of my favorites are the soundtracks from Aliens, Inception, TRON: Legacy, The Dark Knight, Battlestar Galactica, and anything by John Williams. The music can’t have any words or I find myself singing along and typing those words into my manuscript (“Without a word, the convict drew the shiv and plunged it into the Honky Tonk Women!!”… Damn you, Rolling Stones!).

I know things are going well with my writing when I suddenly realize that fifteen songs have gone by and I don’t remember hearing them. That means I was in a flow state, and that’s when the writing process is really fun.

Flow is a concept first proposed by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. Flow describes a state of euphoria and intense focus that is achieved when you are fully immersed in the task at hand. You tune out the world because you’re so absorbed in what you’re doing. For me it’s easy to remember times when I was reading a good book or playing an immersive video game and my wife had to call my name several times before I could pull myself out of the experience. It was like I was really there. I was in flow.

Writing can produce the same experience for me, but it’s more challenging to produce the flow state. However, when it happens, it’s a sweet feeling. For musicians it’s called being “in the groove.” Athletes talk about being “in the zone.” You’re in the flow state when you’re teetering on the edge of competency, when your ability is perfectly matched to the challenge.

Flow has three prerequisites:

1)    The goals must be clear. – I think this is why it’s so hard for writers to get started on a book. My characters’ goals aren’t clear to me at the beginning, so it’s hard for me to write down what’s happening to them. On the other hand, at the end of the book I usually get in the flow and write very quickly because I know where the characters are going.

2)    The feedback must be immediate and clear. – I’m also a stage actor, and the feedback when I’m performing couldn’t be more immediate. You can sense how an audience is perceiving you, particularly with a comedy. But with writing the only feedback we get is from our editors and online reviewers days, months, or years after we’ve typed the last word. That’s why the feedback writers require to continue is not the readers’ kudos, but their internal drive to find out what happens in their own story. I often hear that concept expressed as someone’s “need” to write.

3)    You should have the proper balance between the perceived high challenge of the task and your perception that you have the high skills to complete the task. – This prerequisite could be the problem for many new writers; the challenge often exceeds the perceived skill level for a newbie. Writing a 100,000-word novel is a daunting task if you’ve never done it before. That’s why I think in terms of scenes instead of a whole book when I’m actually writing. If I know what’s happening in that one scene, I can get in the flow.

It’s not surprising to hear that the list of character traits Csikszentmihalyi lists as most important for achieving flow are the traits you’d expect to find in successful writers: curiosity, persistence, low self-centeredness, and a high rate of performing activities for intrinsic reasons only.

If you can find the flow when you are writing, you probably won’t have any problem producing novels. The key is setting up your environment so that you minimize distractions that will keep you from entering the flow state. Checking email and Facebook will take you out of flow, so turn those apps off or write somewhere where you can’t access them. And I highly recommend listening to wordless music.

The flow concept has many components to it, so if you want to find out more, you can watch Csikszentmihalyi’s TED talk about it. And if you want to learn about the oxymoronic characteristics that the most creative people have, check out his article in Psychology Today.

11 thoughts on “Go with the Flow

  1. Great post. I almost hate to admit this, but it has never occurred to me to listen to wordless music. I cannot write with a CD playing because I sing along. Sometimes, if I really like the song, I dance. Not conducive to production.

    But I’ve always wanted to give classical music a chance. It seems so simple to combine that want with my writing, I’m almost embarrassed it had to be pointed out to me.

    I get my social networking done in the morning, then only return to it when I’m drained of all creativity. I know I’ve experienced the flow when I look at the time on my laptop and it’s hours past what I expected the time to be. Love that.

    But my musician husband is a whiz at the groove. We can be at a party, waltzing to an Eagles song, I’ll make a comment…he won’t a hear a word and I’m inches away from his ear. He is so tuned in, all he’ll hear is the one instrument he’s interested in. This does not make him a good dancer (bless him) but it does make him a good musician. He’ll go home and pick out that song on the guitar from memory, sometimes all night, until he gets it right. That kind of dedication amazes me. I have to fight with myself to sit down at the laptop some days.

  2. Fascinating, Boyd!
    I’ve been lucky to have felt that “flow” moment when writing. God, it’s wonderful, isn’t it? I also used to feel it when I practiced my piano (I took it up at age 50). I would play for hours and didn’t stop until my hands began to ache. Total oblivion to the outside world.

    I also felt it once when skiing. (I don’t do it much being down here in Florida) but once in Steamboat Springs, Co., I was alone on a gentle trail and it began to snow, those big fat flakes. It was so lovely I was laughing out loud.

    And you are so right that writing flow is near impossible early in the book because there is too much vast wilderness ahead, the goal yet unknown. I just passed 15K words in my new WIP and I can feel things getting easier. Can’t wait for the “flow.”

  3. Nice post, Boyd. I rarely write without a selection from my collection of movie scores playing. No lyrics, just mood-setting music. It becomes addictive to the point of feeling that something is missing without it.

    And a big shout out to Basil Sands. Happy Birthday!

  4. Basil, you dog! I didn’t know. Another year, dude. Keep on Truckin’.

    Flow (or Flo) is the e-ticket to writing happiness–along with a few paying customer, of course. I always write to music. Try some Joe Satriani and Jeff Beck. Opera is good, too. Santana and the Gypsy Kings keep it going.

    Cheers and happy writing, y’all!

  5. I’m in complete agreement about shutting off the email – and I’m not strict enough with myself on that. However, I’m probably in a minority on listening to music while writing or thinking – it only distracts me, including music without words. Once upon a time I played the piano and music is still a hobby and source of joy. But I will stop and listen to it, it’s not wallpaper to me.

    I play music (or listen to poetry read aloud) to get myself to dust and sweep the floor. 🙂

  6. I know exactly the ‘Flow’ you’re talking about Boyd. I used to play percussion in a band that played together several times a week for nearly 8 years. Sometimes we could go into a riff for 20-30 minutes, no words, no looking at each other, just playing, listening, feeling the music. It truly flowed, like how blood and breath flows.

    When writing I tend to listen to music as well, likewise without words. I’ve got my Pandora stations set to techno/electronica when writing faster paced scenes, ambient or smooth jazz romantic scenes, classical or instrumental praise for descriptive periods.

    In addition to not listening to music with words I also avoid “Dub-step” ‘cuz it just confuses me…

    Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s name nearly sprained my tongue until I realized his appears to be a transliteration of “Mike Citizen Mike” … no idea if that is a true translation, but that’s what I saw in it, and now I can’t unsee it.

    Like I said in yesterday’s blog post, perhaps that’s his underlying theme?

  7. Fascinating topic, Boyd! I can’t wait to listen to his TED talk. As for music, whenever I listen to it apart from writing, scenes and ideas constantly invade my mind. But as yet I haven’t put it on during my writing sessions. Who knows what might happen? Can’t wait to try it, even though I’m at the end of my first full length draft. It’s very true as a newbie that its difficult to get into the flow, but I’ve experienced it a bit-those few times I’ve been writing and finally pulled my head out and 2-3 hours have gone by completely unaware to me. I can’t wait to get back to it!

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