Flow, and its place in Writing

Posted on | July 25, 2019

Following on my last post about the practice of writing versus practicing writing, I recently came across a Cal Newport article entitled Flow is the Opiate of the Mediocre, in which he talks about the difference between practice and performance.

Flow” is a term coined by psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, which he described as “a highly focused state conducive to productivity.” We’ve all experienced flow, that time when we’re writing or drawing or even writing code and the world seems to fall away as the glittering reality of what we’re working on comes into focus and we start really producing.

As Newport points out, the problem with flow in general is that it relies completely on skills you’ve already mastered. The moment you hit a snag in your work, a conceptual problem where there’s no existing solution stored away in your brain, flow breaks. You have to leave the zone of performance and drop down to the zone of improvement. You have to do something new.

Flow isn’t a state in which anything new happens. It’s an incredibly pleasurable state, of course; I know I enjoy it. I especially enjoy it when I’m writing stories, when I’m down in the muck and churning out dialogue and scene and plot, but the fact is that when I do so I’m riding on a lifetime of writing, repeating what I’ve already done. To get to the next level of writing, I have to drop out of writing and start planning instead.

That’s one of the problems with being a writer, though. A lot of writing involves “performance” in the sense that you’re not trying to improve your writing skills or style. And that may be a problem if writing doesn’t come naturally to you, but you want to do it anyway. I’m not entirely sure what to do with this conundrum other than to say that writing a story should involve a lot of Flow and opportunities to improve should happen elsetime.

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