Writing and “Flow”

Wednesdays are my day off, when, supposedly, I set aside time to write. Typically, the day off from counselling usually morphs into a day on as cleaner, chauffeur, and girl-friday. This week, however, I did manage to hold open a four-hour window.

Big blocks of time are so precious. They allow a particular deep type of brain work that all creatives are familiar with, flow. Conceptualised by positive psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, flow is a state of mind when time fades into the background and the creative process takes over. For a writer, vague sketches of characters leap to life, but most importantly, those weird and wonderful connections that shape a story link up. These are ideas that the non-flow brain cannot generate.

It took about an hour, but as soon as I got flowing on Wednesday, elements of story started pouring forth. It was an exciting thing to behold. And when I say behold, the word captures the idea of what is happening: I can almost stand back from the process and observe and wonder.

My task for the day was to develop characters for a new book, and my starting point was some month old notes jotted in my Moleskine. Once I hit flow, the flat cardboard cutouts in my mind inflated. They assumed identities and pasts; some of their physical features came into focus. The details from which my story would emerge started to crystalise.

Sadly, right then, as a story was taking shape, time ran out. I had to pull away from the world I was creating in my mind and rejoin the real one. I had an appointment to get to and kids to pick up from school. The strange thing is this: leaving flow is a bit uncomfortable. It’s such an intense kind of thinking that for a few hours afterwards, you feel like you’re mired in goo. Those who haven’t experienced it will have a hard time believing me, but I feel like I’m in slow motion and I needed someone to douse me with ice water or give me a good slap–or both.

This weird nether-state was highlighted as I pulled out of my street onto a busier road. A cyclist was just suddenly there–I had not seen her approach. Nothing happened (thank God!) but the shock of what could have occurred jolted my flowy brain back into reality.

While flow optimises writing, it’s obviously not conducive to driving.

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