Zoning in the Zone

By Joe Moore

Someone once asked: “I’ve heard writers talk of being ‘in the zone’ regarding their writing, which I take to mean being in an altered state of extreme creativity. But how, without drugs or other stimulus, do they get into that state?”

In fact, we hear the term in the zone used often, not only with writers, but athletes, artists, and just about any activity that requires skill, creativity and especially concentration.

So what is “the zone” and how do we enter it? Why is it so hard to remain there for extended periods of time?

zone_cleanedBeing in the zone can last for a few minutes, a couple of hours or a whole day. For those that never seem to enter the zone, it might be because they try too hard to do so. Sort of like when we stop trying to solve a problem, the solution suddenly comes to us through our subconscious—what Jim Bell calls the boys in the basement.

Let’s try to define what being in the zone means, especially when it relates to writing. For me, it’s a mental state where time seems to disappear and my productivity greatly exceeds normal output. It might start after I’ve finished lunch and sat down at my PC to work on a new chapter. Without any feeling of the passage of time, I suddenly realize a couple of hours have gone by and I’ve produced 1000 words or more. I don’t remember the passage of time or anything that deals with my surroundings. I only remember “living” or becoming immersed in the story’s moment, having the words flow from a deeper source, and “awakening” from the writing zone as if only a few moments have passed.

I’ve never been hypnotized, but I can assume that being in the zone is somewhat like self-hypnosis. My body remains in the here-and-now, but my creative senses somehow find a hidden room inside my mind, a place normally under lock and key. And I’m able to enter it for a short time to let what’s there emerge into the light of day.

It can also feel like driving down the Interstate on a long trip deep in thought and suddenly realize I can’t remember the past few miles.

I’ve also never been athletic, but I bet it’s a similar scenario: a pro golfer is able to tune out the surrounding crowd of tournament spectators, the dozens of network cameras, the worldwide audience, the cheers from the distant gallery as his opponents make a great putt, and he’s able to enter a place where only his game stretches out before him. The rest slips by in a blur. Personal mind control.

So what is a good method for getting into the zone? Some writers use the “running start” technique by reading the previous day’s work or chapter. It gets them back into the story and hopefully the new words start to flow.

Others listen to music. This is something I often do. Nothing with lyrics, though. I listen to movie scores or piano and guitar solos. I find that it can help set a mood or become background “white noise” that blocks out other audible distractions. That’s because, for me, the biggest obstacle is distractions. It’s important to reduce interruptions and distractions by creating an environment where they are minimized. This means shutting my home office door, closing the drapes on the windows, unplugging the phone, disconnecting Internet access, and most of all, choosing a time to write when those things can be fully managed. Doing away with distractions is no guarantee that I will enter the zone at will, but it does give me a fighting chance to at least knock on the door to one of those dark, hidden rooms upstairs and let my story flow out.

So, my fellow zoners, have you ever entered the zone? Do you have a secret method that you’ll share with us?

31 thoughts on “Zoning in the Zone

  1. Those ‘zone’ moments are elusive but my they are grand when they happen! Sigh…

    I do have one suggestion I got from reading “Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World” by Adam Grant. The part of this book I mention was NOT written with examining the ‘zone’ in mind, but I still think its relevant.

    Basically, the book looks at different scientific studies on what makes people creative and how (it’s not just about writers but business leaders, scientists, inventors, etc etc).

    What I found interesting in the reading was that people divided into 2 groups (morning persons and night owls) in problems of insight did better at bursts of insight in their tired zone time–morning people in the afternoon when tired and less focused, and vice versa for night owls.

    Being a morning person, I decided to get in some evening brainstorming time and wouldn’t you know–after having already been up for almost 15 hours and after being sucked dry by my day job all day, I did have a burst of insight that created a really good plot twist for one of my stories. I’ve tried this a couple more times and found that I had very nice nearly zone-like experiences getting words on paper.

    Whether or not this works for everyone is contingent on so many things. But I know for myself, what gets in the way of my writing is that I tend to think myself in knots, aka ‘but what if character A does this?’ or ‘Yeah, but if he does this, he won’t get that,’ and ‘what about that other subplot. I haven’t revisited that in a couple chapters now.’ and on and on it goes. For me, I have found that experimenting with doing novel work at my worst time of day means I’m just too dang tired to argue with myself so I just shut up and write. And once I do that, the ideas flow more freely and next thing I know a half hour has gone by.

    May not work for everyone, but what the heck. Worth a try.

    • BK, I must admit I never considered your approach, and there’s a chance it won’t work for all. But it is unique and worth a try. I particularly like your position that you’re too tired to argue with yourself. Bottom line: whatever works. Thanks for sharing.

  2. For white noise, I’ve found the website brain.fm very useful. They have modes for relax and focus. I choose focus, high intensity and 2 hours, put the old headphones on, and voila, I’m zoned out

    • Excellent tip, Maggie. The most important part is using headphones. You create your own environment that way. Thanks for sharing.

  3. Love your description of “the zone” Joe. I’m not sure what I do to enter it. I only know that I do. Though I do review the previous day’s work, so maybe that’s what triggers it. My husband often kids about the house blowing up around me when I’m writing and me not noticing. Sadly, I’ve even barbecued ribeye steaks into dust, which was a bit shocking. I had no idea you could grill a steak into a mound black dust, but you can. The zone should come with a warning label, if not for the writer then for their family.

    • You can also watch a head of lettuce disappear in your fridge over several months’ time. I heard Rick Simon (Simon & Simon) say that once years ago and later learned it was true. But do not try this a home. 😎

  4. I can slip into the zone easy when there’s no noise–no music, no next door teenager pounding the drums in his garage which is practically under my office window, no dog barking to go outside, no husband using his ham radio to practice Morse code, no cat meowing for attention, no phone ringing….

    But this state of affairs rarely exists these days. I’m now learning to simply tune it all out and sink into my own little world. Once I get there, I can stay for hours. It’s about focus and turning off the part of my brain that listens. My only other choice is to grab up my laptop and head for the library.

  5. “For those that never seem to enter the zone, it might be because they try too hard to do so.”

    As you say, Joe, tapping into the subconscious is the key to get in the zone. May I offer another possible reason why people can’t get there?

    My friend screenwriter Dennis Foley (MacGyver, Cagney & Lacey) says the subconscious is like an enthusiastic six-year-old girl who skips up with a big grin and presents you with an idea. She doesn’t know if it’s plausible or logical or useful, she just knows she’s excited and wants to share that with you.

    If you shut her down (that couldn’t happen, nobody can do that), her face falls and she goes away, dragging her feet. Next time, she’s less likely to bring an idea to you.

    But…if you accept her thought as interesting and worth further investigation, she’ll run back down to the basement (you see, she hangs out there with JSB’s boys) and bring you another and another. The more you accept and encourage, the more she brings. The ideas may be out of sequence, random, and apparently irrelevant (in fact, they usually are), but at a later point in your novel, one meshes perfectly and can provide the great plot twist BK referred to.

    Our conscious mind may not recognize the validity/usefulness/worth of an idea that randomly pops into our heads, so we dismiss it. And that’s dismissing creativity. The more we encourage our subconscious, the harder it works for us.

    The job of the conscious mind is to organize, collate, and put random bits from the subconscious into an order that makes a well-structured compelling story.

    Great post on a fascinating subject, Joe! Thanks!

    P.S. Now, if I could only train my subconscious to deliver ideas when I’m at the computer, rather than in the shower with a head full of shampoo!

  6. Best example I can remember of someone being in a zone was pitcher Orel Hershiser in the last game of the 1988 World Series. The Dodgers were ahead but Hershiser was running out of gas. I will never forget the sight of him, late in the game, sitting on the bench singing to himself. Later, he said he was singing hymns, one of which had the line in it: “rushing wind, blow through this temple, blowing out the dust within.” He said it helped him block out the pressure and concentrate on the task at hand. After the Dodgers won the series, he was on the Tonight Show, and Johnny Carson talked him into singing the Doxology hymn. (“Praise God from whom all blessings flow…”) It was an amazing moment.

    I tried to find a video of it to post here, but alas, there is none it seems.

  7. We increase the odds of finding the zone as we increase our time spent slogging on the keyboard. This parallels sports in that athletes who practice the same moves over and over again and who train their bodies to the utmost increase the odds of their not having to strain at their conscious mechanics and effort when the moment of competition arises. This time spent in training–for us, it’s writing writing writing–does not by itself guarantee entry into the zone, but it constitutes an a priori requirement.

  8. You’re right about writers trying too hard to get into the zone, which is self-defeating.

    Hope I’m not going all Shirley MacLaine on you, but It’s like zen meditation — it you grasp directly for samadhi, or zen awareness of mind, you’ll never reach it. But by focusing on breathing, a koan riddle, or whatever it takes, it may be possible to attain.

    Similarly, writers can achieve zone speed by focusing on the story, the characters we envision, and the trials they face.

    • You’re right, Shirley, I mean Mike. 🙂 Just kidding. But so true. Often I can feel the zone coming on. For me, it starts to feel like the things furthest away from me begin to defocus. Eventually, they fade to fog and the movie in my mind becomes clear and sharp. Wish we could bottle this stuff.

  9. Love your description of the zone. That’s how it is for me, except that when I’m there I have this feeling of euphoria as well, and that feeling remains well after I walk away. Alas, there’s no magic door to the zone. It either happens, or it doesn’t. Music won’t help me there. For me, all noise is a distraction when working.

    • We’re all different, Cat. But I guess the important point is knowing what the zone can do for you and experiencing it. Thanks for your comments.

  10. The zone is a wonderful altered state, Joe. It just happens, often when I least expect it. I’ll be slogging away on a novel and all of a sudden the words start flowing, the connections are clicking and my hands struggle to keep up with my thoughts. When it’s over, I’ve finished a chapter. The zone makes up for those days when writing even a sentence is a painful chore.

    • Those are wonderful days when it can happen, Elaine. I suppose it’s the closest to an out-of-body experience a writer can have. Like I said above, it we could bottle and sell it…

  11. A sunny afternoon, the sum beating down while you write, a nice glass of white wine on the patio table, the phone inside the house where I can’t hear it……

  12. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, a Hungarian psychologist, has studied being in the zone (he calls it ‘flow theory’) for a while. His TED Talks on flow are brilliant. Highly recommended watching.

    To get my flow on, I have to have a quiet space with zero distractions. Even if I’m writing, studying, reading, practicing martial arts, or cooking– if there’s too much information coming in, my brain just shuts down and I have problems finding that enthusiastic six-year-old girl (thanks, Debbie– that’s a fantastic metaphor).

    However, if it’s quiet and I allow my mind to wander, the flow starts. There’s no distractions, and I’m in a really relaxed state. My best ideas come in the shower, while I’m driving (45-minute commutes through the countryside are amazing for this), sometimes while I’m exercising.

    I also have to disconnect from the internet, because cat videos.

    My biggest problem is that I can get bombarded by these ideas, try all of them on, and never finish anything! I’m working on weeding the better ones out.

    • Mollie, thanks for sharing your zone routine with us. There’s no doubt that cat videos are the downfall of authors everywhere.

  13. For me, I’ve gotta have music~ and it’s a wide range of types from the Eagles to the B-52’s to the Grateful Dead to Gato Barbieri to Joe Sample~ but stuff I’m familiar with, so that it becomes “comfort sound” ~ sometimes a one song or other will “intrude” with a rhythm, but it seems to always be at a “break point” and them I’m back at it. My day job requires zone concentration sometimes, especially when drafting (architectural drawings AND reports) and estimating, but the same thing works when writing~ close the doors and jam.

  14. Oh, and I get the shower/lawn mowing/dish washing serendipitous ideas, too~ hence a reporter’s pad on hand most times~


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