I began experiencing flow in my writing when I was in college. However, back then I did not know there was a name for the experience; I just called it “being in the throes of creative criticism.” I continued to have this experience throughout college, my years of graduate study in language and literature, and many years as a freelance writer.
For me, the experience almost always works the same way, whether I am working on an academic paper requiring a lot of research or on a short article for a general audience requiring only an afternoon of background reading. First I do the necessary research and background reading. Then, after I have finished the groundwork, at some point the flow experience sets in, when whole paragraphs of perfect prose begin to compose themselves, unbidden, in my head.
Usually the flow process begins in the early morning, either immediately after I wake up (in fact, sometimes I think flow is what awakens me) or, more often, while I am in the shower. This conforms to the pattern of incubation and illumination commonly associated with the creative process; my brain has been working on the problem while I was asleep. Occasionally the flow process begins late at night, when the hypnagogic stage just before sleep releases my mind from thinking too hard about the writing project. I have learned that, whenever the flow experience begins, I must take advantage of it immediately. A few times when flow arrived late at night I repeated the perfect prose over in my head and assured myself that it would still be there in the morning. It was not, at least not more than a few sentences of it.
The Unconscious Takes Over
The unconscious mind takes the germ of an idea and develops it, but usually this happens only when a writer has tried hard, and logically, to develop it himself. After he has given it up for a few hours, getting nowhere, a great advancement of the plot will pop into his head. I have been waked up in the night sometimes by a plot advancement or a solution of a problem that I had not even been dreaming about.
Once flow begins, the ideas seem to—well, flow. Individual points occur not in isolation, but in related order that causes the writing to flow smoothly from one idea to the next, with evident continuity. I become completely absorbed in the process, writing paragraphs that later require only minimal editing and only infrequently have to be moved within the paper. My experience resembles Ueland’s (1938; rpt. 1987) caution to writers who have an article or an essay to write not to think ahead too much, not to organize too much in advance, not to draw up a detailed outline beforehand: “Do not worry about the whole. Write what is next, the idea that comes now at the moment. Don’t be afraid. For there will be more coherence and arrangement in your thoughts than you think” (p. 156).
When writing in flow, I become completely focused on the computer screen in front of me and shut out anything occurring around me. When I am in flow I also lose track of time, usually finding, when I am done, that I have been writing for twice as long as I think I have been.
Sometimes I have a writing project nearly finished but still need an interesting introduction, a particular transition, or a snappy conclusion. In these cases I usually have a second flow experience that produces the necessary sentence or paragraph. This flow state usually occurs the morning after I have finished the rest of the writing and lasts only as long as necessary for me to put the finishing touches on the manuscript. Because this happens frequently, I have learned to try to finish a project at least the day before its deadline so that I can polish the manuscript up before submitting it.
My experience of being completely absorbed while writing mirrors what Kellogg (1994) says: “Amplifying performance to peak levels requires that an individual fully invest processing time and cognitive effort in the task at hand. All available knowledge must be brought to bear, and the writer achieves this through total absorption in the task” (p. 66). Kellogg says that what he describes as total absorption in the task is the same as what Csikszentmihalyi calls the flow state. In a further similarity to Csikszentmihalyi, Kellogg says that such a state occurs “when task demands and skill levels match” (p. 66). Kellogg identifies as other requirements for flow in writing a positive affect (a feeling of enjoyment), clarity of purpose, high motivation, and a belief that one is in control of the work.
My flow experiences while writing always feel overtly creative. That is, while I am writing I am aware that I am combining ideas in a new, unique, and creative way. In fact, it would be more accurate to say that flow, instead of being simply related to creativity, is creativity, or is the creative process at work.
Like Csikszentmihalyi, Perry (1999) believes that writers can learn to induce flow. For her book, which is based on the research for her doctoral dissertation, Perry interviewed 62 creative writers (mostly poets and fiction writers) to find out if they had ever experienced flow in their writing. She discovered that “those who write regularly have indeed found ways to get themselves into flow. They make a decision, whether experienced as a conscious commitment or not, to enhance the mental state where writing—and flow—can then begin in earnest” (p. 161). Also:
it became clear to me that your own familiar procedures—in particular, their habitual nature rather than any particular order or kind of activities—serve the specific purposes of helping you shrug off mundane reality, move into another mental place, train your subconscious to do the desired work, and even help remove ambivalence from the writing project. (p. 164)
This approach to flow does not work for me. In a general sense, I certainly agree that it is possible to cultivate a more personally engaged attitude toward life such as Csikszentmihalyi (1990, 1997), Richards (2002), and Langer (1989) advocate. In this large sense, then, it is possible to prepare oneself for flow to occur. But I do not believe I can—or should try to—micromanage flow. In the discussion of habitual activities that writers use to help induce flow, Perry mentions one writer who allows herself to play three games—exactly three, no more, no less—of hearts on her computer before she begins to write. For me, rituals like this have nothing to do with flow and cannot induce the flow state. In fact, it is exactly just such ritualized, routine behavior that I have to give up to allow flow to occur.
Yielding to the flow state can be a frightening experience because it requires a willingness to give up control. But, as Rollo May (1975) wrote:
The receptivity of the artist must never be confused with passivity. Receptivity is the artist’s holding him- or herself alive and open to hear what being may speak… . It requires a high degree of attention… . It is a waiting for the birthing process to begin to move in its own organic time. It is necessary that the artist have this sense of timing, that he or she respect these periods of receptivity as part of the mystery of creativity and creation. (pp. 80–81)
Ironically, I can court flow by focusing attention to control the contents of consciousness, but once flow begins I must give up control. When I am writing in flow I know that I am tapping knowledge buried deep within me, knowledge that I do not have access to under ordinary conditions. I do not know exactly how or why this process works, but I am thankful that it does. In the flow state I lose my self to find myself.
Kellogg identifies one requirement for flow in writing as a belief that one is in control of the work. I don’t think I’m contradicting him here because, when I’m writing in flow, I do feel that I’m in control of the work. What I am not in control of, though, is the process of flow. I can court that process but not force or control it. However, once that process begins, I feel powerful and masterly, capable of shaping the material into an effective product.
Over the years I have learned to trust the creative process. For me flow begins when I have taken my mind off the project at hand and have allowed the incubation and illumination process to proceed. Beyond doing the necessary background work, I cannot induce flow. All I can do is be ready to receive it. As Langer (1989) says about mindfulness, “In trying to quantify it, or reduce it to a formula, we risk losing sight of the whole” (p. 203).
Although flow is an alternate state of consciousness, it is not an unnatural one. As Dacey and Lennon (1998) describe it in their discussion of creativity:
Flow is the intrinsic reward for pursuing a challenging goal. Regardless of the activity, if innovators maintain an optimal match between the challenge of the problem and their own skills, they will experience flow. The heart of the creative dialectic is the tension between challenge and skill. (p. 179)
When our skill level matches the challenge, flow will occur. It is up to us to be willing to accept it.
Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1990). Flow: The psychology of optimal experience. New York: Harper.
Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1997). Finding flow: The psychology of engagement with everyday life. New York: Basic Books.
Dacey, J. S., & Lennon, K. H,. (1998). Understanding creativity: The interplay of biological, psychological, and social factors. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
Kellogg, R. T. (1994). The psychology of writing. New York: Oxford University Press.
Langer, E. J. (1989). Mindfulness. Cambridge, MA: Da Capo Press.
May, R. (1975). The courage to create. New York: Norton.
Perry, S. K. (1999). Writing in flow: Keys to enhanced creativity. Cincinnati, OH: Writer’s Digest Books.
Richards, R. (2002). Creativity and health. In K. McGovern (Ed.), The nature of consciousness: A survey of contemporary approaches. (Learning Guide, Course No. 3020). San Francisco: Saybrook University.
Ueland, B. (1938; rpt. 1987). If you want to write: A book about art, independence and spirit. St. Paul, MN: Graywolf Press.