What's the opposite of writer's block? Creative flow.
Last week, I shared my views on writer's block. This week, I wanted to share my thoughts on writer's flow, or the enigmatic state of mind where words come pouring out as if they only needed you as a conduit to get to where they were going. Once those words have pooled onto the page, your work is done.
If only that happened all the time.
I've read many books and articles to help myself with that process of creativity. This includes books on the writing process, such as Save the Cat, Orson Scott Card's Characters and Viewpoint and How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy, and even some of the Great Courses on Audible. Then there's On Writing by Stephen King, another phenomenal book for writers, which I'm currently reading.
Maybe because I love Psychology, I also find it just as helpful to read books and articles on creativity and watching TedTalks on the topic, too. I loved Elizabeth Gilbert's talk on creative genius, and how ideas seem to seek recipients who are open to them. It often feel as if being in an open state of mind is a better approach than trying to create them when it comes to writing stories.
In Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, there's an interesting point made about how to reach an optimal state for mental work. It's right at the intersection of challenge and ability. According to Csikszentmihalyi, a state of flow exists when a challenge matches our skill level so that we're challenged to the edge of our ability. If the task is just right and our ability to solve it is just at that level, we're in the goldilocks zone where we become completely absorbed in a task.
That's a state of flow that's helpful to creative work. Even getting there, though, is a task in itself. I find myself in flow when I know where a story is going. When I don't, the challenge exceeds my ability in that moment and I feel the flow slipping. That's when it's helpful to remember the steps involved in the creative process as a whole.
I learned this a while ago as: Preparation, incubation, illumination, and verification (Stillman, 2014). This is an old model by Kaufman that seems to still work today. It basically goes like this: You prepare to be creative by gathering as much information as you can (preparation), then you do something else and let the ideas percolate in your mind (incubation), then an idea comes to you (illumination), then you write it out and see if it works (verification).
I see the hours I spend looking up old mythology and writing my outlines before I start a book project as part of the preparation stage. This is usually a full day or two worth of work. As much as I veer off of an outline during writing, I need that preparation just for my own peace of mind that I've tried thinking the story through.
Incubation is my time to do housework, get chores done, go for a run, etc. It's also when I do my best sleeping, because sleep is known to help creativity ("Sleep on It," n.d.) and also because I so look forward to my dreams when I'm doing all that background thinking. Believe it or not, meditation is also conducive to creative thought. Scenes will come to me, but not necessarily clearly at this time. I also get a little absent minded during this stage, odd as that sounds. I think it's because I'm a little day dreamy when I'm forming my story ideas.
By the time I've spent a few days with these ideas in my mind, I'm usually ready to write. I find that illumination for me happens best during the actual writing. I can't remember who said "start before you're ready," but it's the truest advice I've heard when it comes to writing. Last week, I mentioned that creativity tends to change while actually writing and this is true for me - especially in a state of flow.
The act of writing is also a verification, as it tells me whether what's in my mind works or not. Perhaps this is what changes about the creative process before and during writing - it's instant feedback on what works and what doesn't. This is where we can change our characters actions in real time and something about those actions gives us a feeling of "No, no that's not what so-and-so would do." or "Yes! That's it! That's exactly what needs to happen!" We change the words accordingly and so a story is born.
Basically, I need to follow this process to keep my state of flow. This is how I keep myself writing. To all the writers out there, how do you keep yourself in a state of flow? I'd love for you to share your tips with me on Facebook or Twitter.
To all the readers out there, I've always felt that reading is also a creative process. We paint a picture with words, but the way each of you sees it will be unique. It can take just as much imagination to explore our worlds through the pages as it does to draft them through the pen. I'd love to hear from readers what about books most captivates their imagination. Is it the characters, setting, plot, or something else?
As always, thanks for reading!
Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1990). Flow: The psychology of optimal experience. New York: Harper & Row.
"Sleep On It" to Boost Your Creativity. (n.d.). Retrieved August 1, 2019, from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/the-social-thinker/201712/sleep-it-boost-your-creativity
Stillman, J. (2014, October 01). The 4 Stages of Creativity. Retrieved from https://www.inc.com/jessica-stillman/the-4-stages-of-creativity.html