When I’m stuck in a word constipation, where every word feels forced, the words on the page don’t seem to flow.
Sometimes my writing seems like a conga line—images and thoughts linked up and moving in the same direction, having a great time. But sometimes what I write seems like a sixth grade dance—everyone standing around awkwardly. At times like that, I need the “laxative” (sorry, but I have to carry through on the constipation theme) of a walk in nature or a long, relaxing drive in order to flow once more. Chocolate also helps.
Author David Jauss tackles the subject of flow in “What We Talk About When We Talk About Flow,” one of several essays in Alone with All That Could Happen. You’re probably thinking of the flow state right now, if you’ve heard of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, the psychology professor who wrote the bestseller Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, based on his studies.
I learned about Csikszentmihalyi through a classmate’s research for her graduate lecture and through a book I had to copyedit for my job. I’ve been meaning to read Csikszentmihalyi’s book, so I won’t try to fake my way through a discussion about it here, since I’m not directly referring to the state of mind where you lose track of time because you’re so caught up in what you’re doing. But based on what I’ve read, Csikszentmihalyi avers that you have control over this state. For Jauss, you also have control—over whether or not your writing flows:
Those of us who don’t instinctively write flowing prose can practice the skills and strategies involved until they become so habitual they are, for all practical purposes, instinctive. (Jauss 60)
Jauss helps us go with the flow (heh heh) with advice on syntax. Here are a couple of tips on writing prose that flows:
• Vary your sentence lengths. I have a habit of using complex sentences, trying to cram as much as I can into a sentence until its own weight crushes it, because that’s how I roll. Not a good thing. But the flowing writer employs simple, compound, and complex sentences. Don’t believe me? Try it. I dare you to give it a shot.
• Pay attention to rhythm. Rhythm works to create a mood. In moments of high tension in stories, the sentences often are simple to show the heightened reality of a character: for example, the throat-tightening fear he or she feels during a chase or the shock of an awful discovery. Complex sentences slow the pace and cause the tension to dissipate. Check out these sentences from The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins: “I know what to do. I move into range and give myself three arrows to get the job done. I place my feet carefully” (Collins 243). Imagine how different the effect would be had Collins used complex sentences.
There’s more to Jauss’s essay, but you can read it for yourself. As for me, I need to find some chocolate as soon as possible.
Collins, Suzanne. The Hunger Games. New York: Scholastic Press, 2008. Print.
Jauss, David. “What We Talk About When We Talk About Flow.” Alone with All That Could Happen: Rethinking Conventional Wisdom about the Craft of Fiction Writing. Cincinnati: Writer’s Digest Books, 2008. 59-85. Print.