In describing their productivity, writers often discuss the presence or lack of a ‘flow’ of words. There is a body of psychological theory and research, initially developed by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, that addresses the concept of flow in a general way, and much of this work is applicable to the writing process.
Nakamura and Csíkszentmihályi identify the following six factors as accompanying an experience of ‘flow.’*
- intense and focused concentration on the present moment
- merging of action and awareness
- a loss of reflective self-consciousness
- a sense of personal control over the situation or activity
- a distortion of temporal experience, one’s subjective experience of time is altered
experience of the activity as intrinsically rewarding, also referred to as autotelic experience
Those aspects can appear independently of each other, but only in combination do they constitute a so-called flow experience.
*Nakamura, J., & Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2009). Flow theory and research. In C. R. Snyder & S. J. Lopez (Eds.), Handbook of positive psychology (pp. 195-206). Oxford: Oxford University Press.
For blocked and struggling writers, you can conclude from the description above that a state of flow has many advantages, but it’s not necessarily something you can generate at will. Flow involves a shift of attention away from self-consciousness in order to become deeply immersed in the project at hand, and sometimes this occurs in unpredictable ways.
Some of the barriers to writing, such as fears about failure, criticism, overwhelm or success, are not part of the writer’s experience when he/she is in the ‘flow.’ OK, that sounds great, but how do you get there, especially if flow is something you can’t will into existence?
Probably most writers have had some experience of being totally absorbed in their work to the point of losing track of time and feeling full engaged. Sometimes the words just flow, and we give thanks to the writing gods for their good grace, but often this is not the case, even with very high-quality and successful writing. Flow might best be understood as a possible experience in writing, and one that alternates with periods of what I call ‘unflow.’ I’m most interested in unflow, because most of our lives, and writing, involve that state.
As the opposite of flow, unflow is characterized by enhanced self-consciousness, partial engagement in one’s work, a separation of action and awareness, a sense of stress and strain, boredom and frustration. In short, all the things that contribute to avoiding, resisting, blocking, procrastinating, etc.
Fortunately, humanity is capable of wrestling amazing creativity and productivity out of the unflow, one way or the other. Episodically you might be blessed with periods of flow states that come and go, and that is wonderful, but you can’t count on that or wait for it. You also have to flow with the unflow to keep things moving. For writers, this means continuing to sit down at the laptop to work, even if your words are flowing like cold molasses.
If you make greater peace with the unflow, and don’t use it as an reason to avoid, you end up having more opportunities to actually find the flow, because you’re showing up regularly at the keyboard, which is where the flowing takes place.
It’s easy to love the flow. Love the unflow too.