How to Find (and Go With) Your Flow

I recently entered a travel-writing contest. Normally, I’m pretty balanced about deadlines and details, but I’d let some things pile up, so I only had one day to write the contest entry. I did know the direction I wanted the piece to go, so I dove in. For some people, deadline demand is keyboard caffeine: it’s only when the threat of a editor’s talons or a manager’s teeth is near that production ramps up. I’m better when I have a more measured command of the deadline, when I can pool-cue ideas around to see in which pockets they sink, when I can return to a work in progress and let its established path move me forward.

Instead, lunatic typing to meet this deadline. When I judged I was about one-third of the way through the piece, I revisited the submission site to make sure I had all the facts straight. Nope. The contest had a 1,200-word restriction; I was already at 1,100 words. Gack! My first thought was to abandon this contest—I needed WAY more space to develop the ideas in this piece. And I knew how hard it would be to condense those ideas, as well as re-work the existing material to fit in the smaller space. My thoughts, in essence: “Ugh!”

But I was already at the keyboard, so …. For the next couple of hours, I worked that story, snipping where snipping was due, expanding where there was a loose fold in the lines. The upshot is that I was able to put together a credible entry. But the uppitiest upshot was that in that phase of cutting and crafting, I was really lost in the work. I rarely get in that state of flow—as it’s so compellingly elucidated by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi—that I felt its appealing allure. [Note: C’s name can be used to stop crimes in progress: just shout it at the perpetrators at the top of your lungs.]

The Goldilocks Challenge: It Ain’t About Hair Products

As Daniel Pink so convincingly explains in Drive, his great book on motivation, we need the Goldilocks challenge: something not too easy, but not too hard: something that challenges us just right. And when we get those challenges, our reward is intrinsic—the task is its own reward. Lately, I’ve spent some time considering narrowing my range of services, and I had been considering removing book-length editing (I edit both nonfiction work and fiction) from the list, thinking it secondary to my copywriting work.

But I realized from my travel-essay edit how trying to make sure that every word counts, and nurturing a budding idea through its page-length life is fun. For me, it’s a source of flow. I’ll be editing a science fiction novel late this summer, and one from the bubbling cauldron of Rick Wilson’s mind. I was leaning toward shutting down that end of my business, but I’m leaning back. It’s all in flow.

Look for those moments in your work that also feel like play, where both your mind and your mouth might be humming, where Poirot’s “little grey cells” are singing in chorus. That’s the work you’ll do best, and the best work you’ll do.

But man, the next contest I enter, I’m going to get the details straight.