How Do You Know You’re in the Flow?

Ever have a time when you were writing or doing something else creative, and you just couldn’t stop? Words or ideas poured out of you, and you had to implement them. We call this a state of flow. (And yes, I wrote a post about this five years ago. I’m taking a different angle on it this time.)

According to Wikipedia,

[F]low, also known as the zone, is the mental state of operation in which a person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, formerly the head of psychology at the University of Chicago and currently the Distinguished Professor of Psychology and Management at Claremont Graduate University, is known for his study on flow. Flow, according to Dr. Csikszentmihalyi, is also known as ecstasy. And no, I’m not talking about drugs here, though in his 2004 TED Talk, Csikszentmihalyi explained that “ecstasy is essentially a stepping into an alternative reality.” You’re so in the zone, it’s like you’re watching yourself create. You don’t notice anything else—hunger, weariness, etc. Csikszentmihalyi added, “[T]his automatic, spontaneous process . . . can only happen to someone who is very well trained and who has developed technique.”

I asked several writers how they know they’re in a state of flow.

Steve Bramucci, author of The Danger Gang and the Pirates of Borneo! (look for his next book this October) and managing editor over at Uproxx, said,

I recognize flow when I start to think, “This is brilliant! Have I accidentally stolen it from someone else? It’s too good of an idea NOT to have been written already! I must’ve stolen it! I’m such a hack!” At which point I google the idea furiously and, when I find it’s not stolen, I get this excited/thrilled buzzy feeling. Something akin to double fisting caffeine and green juice after a 6 am surf. I get tingly and overly emotional and write and write and write—only taking breaks to text my wife things like, “I really think I was destined to be a writer! I believe in my stories! I promise you this project will bring us financial security!” etc. If that all sounds insufferable, I’m sure it is. But it’s my process. It’s not what ends up on the page; insufferable processes can often lead to positive results.

Lyn Miller-Lachmann, author of novels for young adults and adults, said,

It’s when I feel that I’m in the time and place along with my characters, hearing them speak, feeling the same things they do, following them as they move.

Laura Sibson, a young adult and middle grade author (look for her young adult novel debut in 2019), had this to say:

When drafting, I know that I’m in a state of flow when I’m not tempted to look at the clock or check email or social media. My environment drops away in the sense that I’m not super-aware of what’s happening around me. In those moments, I’m fully immersed in my story world and it feels like the real world. I can see it as clearly as I see the scenery outside my window.

S. K. Van Zandt, another middle grade and young adult author, said,

For me, it’s the unstuck feeling. It’s picturing a scene in my mind, the “what happens next,” and the words are just there, as opposed to seeing the scene and staring at the computer. I think the ability to get (and stay) “in the zone” has everything to do with knowing your characters and story well.

Jill Weatherholt, author of Second Chance Romance (look for her next book this July) and romance short stories, said this:

When I feel what’s happening to my characters so deeply that I’m moved emotionally and I become completely oblivious to my surroundings, I know I’m in a state of flow.

Charles Yallowitz, author of Warlord of the Forgotten Age and other books in the Legends of Windemere series, put it this way:

I never really thought about being in a state of flow. I’m usually just writing along until I stop. So it’s almost like a trance.

How do you know you’re going with the flow when you work?

If you want to check out Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s TED Talk:

Kirstea, frazzled as always lately, took flow to a whole different level when she allowed her teacup to overflow.

My Little Pony Pinkie Pie and chicken figures by Hasbro. Kirstea Shoppie doll by Moose Toys. Photos by L. Marie.

Go with the Flow

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.

Jauss Book

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.