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.

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5 thoughts on “How to Find (and Go With) Your Flow

  1. Chick Sent Me High. My favorite spelled-out pronunciation of Mihaly’s last name.

    I have failed utterly to use the “flow” test on my own work. Lately I’ve found myself dodging and trudging and generally seeing my work as work. Why have I hired myself to do a job I think I’m not enjoying any more?

    Think I’ll go hand bind a copy of Edgar Rice Burrough’s book and see if some John Carter fan wants to shell out for it.

    I need more flow. I really do.

    Where’s that story gonna end up, Tommy?

  2. Joel, yeah, as I was saying, flow is a pretty rare state for me too. And if you’re in it, I suppose you really shouldn’t notice it, but I noticed pretty quickly after I’d canoed through that editing that I’d been there. And noticing the rare flower does tell you that I’m not in the garden that much myself. We all could use more flow.

    The travel piece is for a contest sponsored by The Writer magazine and the Gotham Writer’s Workshop. Mine is a pretty dystopian take on an excursion overseas, so I’ll surely win for Most Dyspeptic Entry.

  3. Phrases from this piece that I love:
    *keyboard caffeine
    *pool-cue ideas around
    *uppitiest upshot
    *both your mind and your mouth might be humming

    And, of course, when you used the word “Gack” once again, my heart went all aflutter. Thanks for the nod, Tom. My cauldron is indeed bubbling these days. I discovered a remarkable thing. The very moment that the characters I “created” became real to me, the story I’m writing started writing itself. I experience flow nearly every time I go to it. It’s been one of life’s great finds.

    Oh, and the above phrases of yours aren’t just ear candy. I’m going to use them to make things happen. “Keyboard caffeine” in particular will come to mind any time I get a little stalled at the All-Black Ivories. That’s what Sir Tom’s writing often does for us- stirs us on to some kind of action.

    Thank you.

  4. Rick, thanks for the kind nods to my noodling. That is excellent that you are regularly finding flow states! (Hope your cuffs stay dry.) I have three point-of-view characters in the novel I’m working on, and I only truly flow in one; yesterday I was working on a scene with the character I least connect with (though she’s essential to the plot), and was struggling.

    I’m going to work a bit more on finding her essence in my head, working out the breadth of her character, and then see if there’s some flow in the writing.

    But wow, seeking and finding flow—that’s gratifying, and a sweet sup for the soul.

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