Spend time talking craft with a fellow writer or a hundred, and sooner or later the topic of creative flow will come up. It’s that sense of being completely immersed in what you’re writing. Deep in the throes of flow, I’m rendered spellbound by the process. (Charmed, I’m sure.) I feel one with the story — and maybe even the universe. Everything else falls away.
I can’t speak for everyone, but I’ll posit that the gist of most writers’ feelings about that zone is . . .
NO FLOW: BAD! GET ME MORE FLOW!
It’s a heady drug. We want it. We gotta have it. And once we’ve blown our minds on it, we’re willing to chase after more of the same, even if that means we end up chasing our own tails.
For me, flow comes easily at times. It might last an hour or an afternoon. The stars align and my fingers fly over the keyboard. My spewed-forth words take shape and make sense. Or, just as likely, they don’t, but the text shows me enough clues about how to clean up my mess.
On a few occasions, I’ve written whole first manuscript drafts in flow, including the books pictured below (I wrote Pilgrims in America in one marathon sitting and Frenemies: Dealing with Friend Drama in three consecutive daily spurts). This happened again recently, when — up against a publisher’s deadline — I discovered a bit of faulty research that affected the content of the book I’d just completed. The manuscript had to be revised, and I spent one full day trying to spot-fix only certain parts of it. I wanted to preserve as much as I could. The next morning, though, it became obvious I couldn’t properly address the problem without a full rewrite. Ouch. But I soon saw my way forward, and I banged out a new “angry draft” with unusual speed and a serene ease, proving the line between love and hate is awfully thin. (Side note: The rewrite turned out better than the original, so I’ve since forgiven it.)
Now, please don’t misunderstand: I am not cruising through this writer’s life luxuriating in a blissful state of All Flow, All the Time. Au contraire, mes amis! I slog through my fair share of crummy writing days. I can get bogged down in the business and the busyness of writing as thoroughly as anyone. I can inexplicably feel uninspired while writing something I’m genuinely excited about. I can also do all the so-called right things to organize my approach or my day, yet still manage to stare at the screen for who-knows-how-long, struggling to even start or just picking a fight with a single random sentence.
The good news is that warring with and blankly staring at your text is normal. (Is TOO!) Plus, you don’t always need to feel creative flow to produce good writing. Some of my best works have been untouched by the flow phenomenon; and some writings that seemed fun and breezy and smart as they gushed onto the page have turned out to be objectively awful enough to be pronounced DOA.
The even better news? You can help creative flow find YOU. I say “help,” because much like you can’t pencil in finding love or happiness and expect real results, you can’t force flow. You can, however, make yourself emotionally available for it to wash over you while also taking concrete steps to further your chances that it will. The payoff is totally worth it. All you have to do to open yourself up to letting flow organically happen is . . .
Show up for your writing work, early and often. Write what you know, write to learn what you want to know, write what you don’t know but can imagine. Write a story, write a poem. Write a letter, write a journal entry, write a to-do list. Write something every day.
Do you work better with goals in mind? Great! Set a daily word-count or timed writing goal and honor it. Forgive yourself when you don’t hit your mark, and start fresh the next day. If you find that you’re consistently unable to meet your writing goals, experiment to identify more realistic ones.
(2) CULTIVATE THE PARTS OF YOUR WRITING LIFE THAT DON’T INVOLVE THE ACT OF WRITING.
Put yourself out there. Becoming part of the writing community helps you find supportive colleagues with whom to discuss this flow thing, as well as all the other writing things. Your people congregate at conferences, classes, and bookstore and other literary events. They belong to writers’ organizations, critique groups, and numerous online forums. You need them! They need you!
Read books and take classes on the craft of writing. Stay current on industry news and the market you write for.
And don’t forget to feed the rest of your inner artist. Ideas: Read widely, see a play, take in a concert, make your own music, enjoy time in nature, spend time with your friends, pursue your hobbies, play some games, support a cause, try something you’ve never done before, and make time to get away from it all (writing included) once in a while.
Proactive moves like these naturally boost knowledge, confidence, and inspiration — flow magnets, all.
(3) KEEP WRITING.
Rack. Up. Those. Words.
One thing I know for sure about all this: The more I write, the more I write. For me, the act of writing brings more new book and story ideas bubbling up to the surface than any other activity. It fuels my imagination, strengthens my facility with language and structure, and vastly increases my odds of, oh by the way, just slipping into that joyful state of absorption I crave.
Keep writing, and before you know it, you, too, will find yourself basking in the glow of that flow, and then doing everything in your power to get more.