You sit alone and engage with half-formed thoughts in your mind, hoping that some will spill coherently on to the sheet or screen before you. At some point after the inevitable self-doubt and blankness, the words start to fall in place. You begin to find the right words. Sentences pour out of your consciousness. Paragraphs come gushing forth. Ideas weave together, folding and unfolding in letters and punctuation. You feel as though you is outside of yourself, and for a time, nothing else exists. It is an exhilarating feeling, and it leaves you feeling drained yet satisfied.
Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has spent his career studying this experience of complete immersion in a task. He calls it flow: “the state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter; the experience itself is so enjoyable that people will do it even at a great cost, for the sheer sake of doing it.” This concept of ‘flow’ or ‘being in the zone’ offers a compelling scientific explanation of a feeling that all writers are familiar with.
As Csikszentmihalyi says, “When we are in a state of flow, we lose consciousness of the self; we temporarily forget who we are.”
If you’re thinking flow sounds wonderful and easy, you are wrong. As effortless as the state of flow feels, it requires “strenuous physical exertion or highly disciplined mental activity.” It is precisely the challenge that the activity presents, that forces concentration, that leads to flow.
If you’re thinking flow is limited to the act of writing, or other cerebral or artistic pursuits like painting, playing the violin, or dancing – you’re wrong. It applies to rock climbing, playing chess. Any activity that requires concentration, and where we feel “our abilities are well matched to the opportunities for action.”
If you’re thinking of Maslow’s hierarchy pyramid, where the bottom section represents basic needs like food and shelter, and that once you meet those, you get to the next ring, and so on, and if you’re thinking that ‘flow’ belongs at the top, you are once again, wrong. Flow is “not just a peculiarity of affluent, industrialised elites.”
It [the flow experience] was reported in essentially the same words by old women from Korea, by adults in Thailand and India, by teenagers in Tokyo, by Navajo shepherds, by farmers in the Italian Alps, and by workers on the assembly line in Chicago.
A positive psychology pioneer, Csikszentmihalyi believes in investing time in finding out how we can live meaningful, optimal lives instead of merely diagnosing what’s wrong with our brains.
What is optimal experience? You know it when you feel it.
When, instead of being buffeted by anonymous forces, we do feel in control of our actions, masters of our own fate. On the rare occasions that it happens, we feel a sense of exhilaration, a deep sense of enjoyment that is long cherished and that becomes a landmark in memory for what life should be like.
His research on optimal experience led him to the finding that “the best moments usually occur when a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile.”
Optimal experience is something we make happen. It is not passive. Not something that simply happens to us when we are not looking.
Writing, too, is the opposite of passive. It is about creating.
If the only point to writing was to transmit information, then it would deserve to become obsolete. But the point of writing is to create information, not simply to pass it along… The prodigiously detailed letters so many Victorians wrote are an example of how people created patterns of order out of the mainly random events impinging on their consciousness… It is the slow, organically growing process of thought involved in writing that lets ideas emerge in the first place.
It is this discovery of new ideas that makes writing so enjoyable. And it is reached through much toil, and if we are lucky, moments of flow.
(Bad writing days happen too. You can read about them here.)