Key #5: Balance Between Opposites

We started this series with the goal of learning how to make the writing fun, how to enter into that timeless “flow” state more often.

Five keys are needed, according to Susan Perry in Writing in Flow. Today is Key #5: finding balance among opposites.

Which is it?

I’m sure you’ve noticed contradicting writing advice. One author says you have to “let go and let the story unfold.” Another (just as famous) author advises a detailed outline, scene by scene, so the story doesn’t get away from you.

One person says to just sit down and write on schedule–use that willpower! Others counsel you to establish many rituals and writing practices so “inspiration” will come calling.

One magazine article says, “Know your audience!” Another magazine says, “Write only for yourself.”

ARGH!!!

How do you find the truth? Which is it in all these opposite situations–one or the other? Actually, it’s both. That’s why Key #5 for getting into flow is finding the balance among all these opposites. Let’s look at four pairs of “writer opposites” now.

A: In control vs. out of control

While most of us would love to have a story or book spring full-blown from our brains and flow out our fingertips, that is rare. There are different feelings at different times of the writing process.

While I’m doing interesting research, doing character studies, thinking up plot twists and turns, I feel more in control of the process. It’s often done “in flow,” and time flies! During rough draft writing–pulling words out of thin air–I feel very out of control (and I don’t like it). It’s harder for me to write in flow during a rough draft, unless I’m writing an exciting or dramatic or emotional scene where I get really involved. During multiple revisions, it’s easier for me to write in flow most of the time and lose all track of time–probably because I feel more in control with a manuscript to work on.

If you’re not a control freak like me, you may find it easier to write in flow during the rough draft stage, as some of my writer friends do.

B: To think vs. suspend thinking

When we’re writing in flow, our thinking feels different. It doesn’t feel like the kind of thinking you do when you’re balancing your checkbook or trying to install new software. Some writers say they make a real effort to “not think” when it’s time to write.

For some time now, it’s been a belief that it’s mostly just the right brain–the creative side–that’s at work when writing. However, Perry says that “brain studies show that those whose brains communicate most richly between the hemispheres are more creative. They are more in touch with their feelings and express them through their creative productions.” Based on brain research then, it might appear that women have an easier time here because of their increased connections between the sides of the brain.

I highly suspect that even though some writers claim that they “suspend thinking” when they’re creating, their thinking is just going on at a different level. Their brains are humming quietly in the background, but they must be thinking!

C: Willpower vs. inspiration

“While you can certainly will yourself to work, it’s not necessarily possible to will yourself to enter flow,” says Perry. I agree. As another writer said, “It’s a kind of grace that comes after long preparation…there’s much mulling over first.”

While Perry’s five keys work to get yourself in the best possible position to experience flow, you can’t grit your teeth and command yourself to write in flow. You prepare yourself, you create the best possible environment, but then you will have to wait for inspiration to arrive on its own. Like flow, it can be invited–even coaxed–but it can’t be forced.

D: Write for audience vs. write for self

If we write and hope to be published, at some point we’ll encounter this one. Most writers prefer not to think of an audience at all when they write. Worrying about critical reviewers, readers who might post one-star reviews on Amazon.com, editors who reject without comment, even parents or critique partners who won’t like it–it can stifle the most inspired writer.

“I just write for myself,” say many writers. I do too–at least in the rough draft. During the revisions, it’s more tyical to consider your audience. “Even then, it’s usually only in the interests of clarity, rather than being concerned about a potentially critical judgment.”

I loved a comment made by popular novelist Michael Connelly, who said his main goal is to write a book that he would like to read himself and that “if I like a book, there’s a good chance a lot of people will like it.”

Most writers agree that you can’t think of the audience if you want to write in flow. If your audience is envisioned as critical, it will yank you right out of flow. Ursula K. Le Guin said, “Consciousness of audience while writing is fatal to the work.” Yes, there comes a time when you need to consider public opinion–but not when you’re first writing your manuscript.

Embrace Both for Balance

Mull over these four issues for yourself, and come to peace with BOTH sides of each equation. Once you do, you’ll find entering the flow state–and staying there–much easier.

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Key #4: Focus In

The ability to focus in, or place your attention on your work, is the fourth master key for getting into the easy writing called “flow.”

[If you're just now joining the discussion, you may want to back up and first read Writing in Flow to Make Writing Fun, Key #1: Have a Reason to Write, Key #2: Think Like a Writer, and Key #3: Loosen Up.]

Defining Terms

According to Susan Perry, author of Writing in Flow, “Your whole mind has to get involved in the job of writing, with not a bit of mental energy left over to wander here and there. Only when your attention is fully focused on the task you’re trying to accomplish is flow a likely scenario.”

Before you read more, you might want to jot down a list of things that make your mind wander here and there instead of focusing in on your writing. It might include things you worry about (writing or non-writing related), noise distractions, boredom, too-tight deadlines, and more. Read Perry’s following suggestions, applying the ideas to the items on your list.

Antidotes to Scattered Focus

ONE: Pay close attention. If you are pondering the past or the future, with worry or regret, you’re nowhere near being in flow. Flow writing requires paying attention to the writing that is in front of you right now. Focusing on yourself can lead to anxiety. You must help yourself enter the flow state by “deciding to direct your awareness to a limited stimulus field.” This is what great athletes do to perform well. You may decide to worry about your situation later. (You can even put it on your schedule!) Then, while the situation is on the back burner, focus hard on the writing right in front of you. Picture a horse wearing blinders. Focus like that. [Understand that I'm not talking about true emergencies here. In that case, deal with the emergency. However, very little of what we worry about is an immediate emergency.]

TWO: Complexify! Staying with a writing task (and remaining in a flow state) means you aren’t bored. You aren’t writing the “same old, same old” kind of thing. You must learn, in the author’s words, to “complexify.” Make the story, the characters, and the plot complex enough to hold your interest. (Because let’s face it, if your mind is wandering because this particular spot in the writing is boring to you, it will be boring to your readers as well.) Learn techniques to complexify. What would feel fresh and motivating to you? What would bring novelty to the situation you’re writing about? Could you bring in another character? Could your own worst personal nightmare happen to your main character?

THREE: Shake things up. Your story line may be fine, but your boredom may come from physically being in a rut. You might need to seek out ways to shake up your day-to-day routine, and see how it affects your creativity. If you need strict routine to write in flow, then stay at your desk, but maybe try some background music or candles or do some exercises every half hour to stimulate blood flow. I have a friend who gets bored writing in her office, and she can return to a flow state simply by going to the library or a coffee shop to write. While that scenario wrecks my flow, it helps hers. So don’t dismiss ideas unless you try them. We’re all so different!

FOUR: Find the silent center. “Most writers throughout history have found they need to carve out a sense of solitude for their writing time,” whether that means physically isolating themselves from the activity around them, or mentally withdrawing from noise and commotion. That craving for a “room of one’s own” is a recognition of the need for this solitude.

FIVE: Find your passion. “If you crave more frequent flow experiences, seek out passionate projects whenever you can.” When you’re not passionate about your work–when you don’t care all that much about the project you’re working on–you’re not in flow. Every little interruption and distraction will grab your attention. Do your utmost to work on things you really care about.

SIX: Lower your sights. As popular mystery writer Sue Grafton explained, she couldn’t think about reviewers, or her readers, or any issues that raised her anxiety level. She advises writers to “lower your sights. Quit looking at the end product.” She said her only responsibility was to write the next sentence well. She pulled her focus down to as small a chunk as she could. So break down your project into tiny slices of work–and just concentrate on the next slice. [The best way I've found to do this is to use mini habits.] For a good article on focus, read what this teacher does with his students.

 

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Key #3: Loosen Up

This Key-3 step is designed to help you get fully involved with your writing. [See the previous three blog posts for the introduction to flow and the first two keys.]

Writing in Flow author Susan Perry says, “To allow your creativity, your insights, your inner stories, to spill over onto the page, you’ll need to work out—consciously or not—some way to loosen yourself up so it can happen.”

If you already have a looser, laid-back, easygoing personality, you may find it easier to get into the flow state for writing. However, if you’re more like me, don’t despair! Even control freaks can loosen up.

I will give you some ideas below, and hopefully one or two of them will work for you. Not all of them work for me, but we all have different personalities. What doesn’t work for me may be exactly the idea that will help you.

Ways to Loosen Up

ONE: Most writers develop certain individualized routines and rituals that seem to ease their entry into “flow,” that timeless state where writing is a pleasure. By using specific daily rituals or routines to ease into the writing, it helps you make the shift into another state of consciousness, something like when you fall asleep. My daughters both created multi-ritual night time routines, each step done in the same order, to help their babies transition from playtime to bedtime. Some babies need longer rituals than others to make the transition, and some writers need more time and more rituals to make the transition into flow writing. Experiment until you find the routines that work for you.

TWO: Some writers suggest that it’s helpful to bring a sense of play into your work. Ask yourself, “How can I make today’s writing fun?” Try whatever comes to mind. Yes, trying new ways of writing may feel risky. Just remember that early on in the process, there is really no risk. It’s an illusion. There’s no need to censor yourself yet. No one needs to see your writing until much later—if ever! “If you procrastinate over your writing,” Perry says, “it may be because you believe on some level that your first drafts have to be excellent, perhaps even perfect.” Instead, tell yourself (out loud, if necessary), “It doesn’t matter!” Or as Anne Lamott says in Bird by Bird, allow yourself to write “%&#$@*^ Rough Drafts.”

THREE: To get into flow, some writers try nothing at all…they say they simply stop trying and wait for words to bubble up, knowing this is what it takes for their own minds to loosen up and get into the flow.

FOUR: I wouldn’t have believed this next tip would work—except that I found out it did by accident. Doing your e-mail works to loosen up some writers and helps them slide smoothly into their “real” writing. I found e-mail to be helpful in a different way. I was babysitting at my daughter’s one day, and the baby took an unusually long nap, but I hadn’t brought my writing with me. So I got on my daughter’s computer and wrote an email to myself! There is something about writing e-mail that lets you go with the flow. With e-mail, you don’t worry about word choice or impressing someone usually. You just write off the top of your head. The day that I decided to do my writing at her house, but email it to myself, produced some of the easiest writing I’ve done in years. Other writers say that e-mail gets them to the computer, which is the biggest hurdle they have to overcome.

Experiment

Take time to experiment with these rituals and routines. See which ones work for you. “There’s something about rhythmic, habitual, routine physical activity,” says Perry, “that relaxes and loosens both the body and the mind, thus preparing it be creative.”

FIVE: One last tip: “trivialize the task.” Very few writing sessions are that critical all by themselves. Each day’s writing is only one part of the whole. Each part you write is small and just not that important in the larger scheme of things. Knowing that no one piece of writing is that critical may help you gain perspective and loosen up.

Do you have a favorite ritual or practice or routine that you follow that helps you loosen up and get to your writing? If you do, please share!

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Key #2: Think Like a Writer

We’ve talked about the benefits of writing in flow, in that relaxed timeless state, and we’ve talked about the first key to developing this skill: have a reason to write.

Today let’s look at Key #2: thinking like a writer. These keys are based on Susan Perry’s Writing in Flow.

CHANGE MY THINKING?

We all think like writers already, or we wouldn’t be writing, correct? True enough, but in this series we’re concentrating on developing the ability to write in flow. Do writers who frequently write deeply and easily think differently?

Yes, it appears that they do. They have a certain set of attitudes, based on hundreds of Perry’s interviews. If we study these attitudes and beliefs and incorporate them into our own thinking, we should also be able to write in flow, be more productive, and enjoy the writing more.

WRITER ATTITUDES

This doesn’t mean you need a new personality. Quite the contrary. Be who you are, Perry says. “When you work with what comes naturally to you rather than struggling against it—whether it’s your preference for an uncluttered work space or your tendency to do the opposite when those little voices in your head suggest that you ought to be answering those letters rather than writing a poem—you can apply your energy to what matters most to you.”

Another attitude, especially with writers in the early years, has to do with spending free time pursuing writing. They may be “troubled by the niggling feeling that taking too much time for their writing is slightly selfish because it’s like stealing time from their family,” Perry says. “If you identify with that second attitude, naturally you might find it more difficult to let go and focus fully when you do sit down to write.”

This attitude is easy to overcome after you are published and making money at your writing. Before that, I found that I got over the guilt when I took my writing time from my own free time activities—my sleep, TV, time with my friends. I gave up my own “extras” instead of taking it from the family, and then I didn’t feel guilty. It’s very hard to relax and write “in flow” when you’re feeling guilty!

RISK TAKING

Relaxing into flow—that essential letting go—can feel risky to certain personality types like mine. I don’t like risks, and I spend too much time probably trying to avoid risks. I would love it if I could make all my loved ones stop taking risks too! However, being afraid to take risks in your writing can stifle you as a writer.

“Taking risks, of whatever kind, can be especially challenging to those who can’t bear to give up control,” Perry says. “You can learn to open yourself to the unexpected, which is such a rich source of creative insight, by giving up control in small ways.” Remember, we’re talking about taking risks in your writing. You can certainly still control all the things in your environment that help you get into the flow state: clean desk, soft music, set daily routines, writing in certain locations, whatever you need.

For many writers, taking risks with your writing—in subject matter, in tone—can be scary. What will XXX think? (XXX = your editor, your mother, your spouse, the critics…) If you are focused on the fear of taking risks and what others will think, you can’t relax enough to enter the flow state.

One day I realized that in order to avoid that feeling, I only had to promise myself never to show the story to anyone if I didn’t want to. It never had to see the light of day, never had to offend anyone or hurt someone’s feelings. That decision helped me to write freely. And when I’d get to a place in the story that set off internal alarm bells (“You can’t say that!”), I said to myself (out loud), “No one ever needs to see this. I can say what I want. I can always change it later if I want to.” Writing this way, there is no risk involved whatsoever—and you can’t fail.

BE FULLY ABSORBED

Being fully absorbed in your work is very close to working in flow. And it’s a decision you can choose to make more often. Being fully absorbed means you “are deeply immersed in some activity as to be impervious to distractions…As a personality trait, absorption reflects the degree of your tendency to become deeply engaged in movies, nature, past events, fantasy or anything else.”

This type of person will have an easier time entering the flow state, which requires an ability to become deeply engaged and weed out distractions. A fully absorbed person can watch a good movie or read a good book and forget (temporarily) about negative distractions like his hunger, his headache, and her fight with her spouse—or lovely distractions like the phone, a beautiful day outside, or the cake in the kitchen.

BECOME CONFIDENT

You don’t start out writing with confidence or the ability to bounce back from rejection. You will need to find ways to master your fears, find confidence in your own writing voice, plus deal with isolation and self-doubt. All writers have to do this. I wrote many years with no confidence whatsoever. It can be done, but it’s rather torturous. I wasn’t writing in the enjoyable, timeless flow we’re talking about.

If you want help in this area, I highly recommend Cecil Murphey’s book called Unleash the Writer Within: the Essential Writers’ Companion. Rather than working to overcome your weaknesses, the author shows you how to make friends with them and turn them into strengths. He deals with helping you find your real voice, like yourself, deal with the inner critic in an usual way, shatter writer’s block, and more. And he does all this in such a kind, straightforward and transparent way. Cec Murphey has millions of books in print and speaks from experience.

LONG-TERM PREPARATION FOR WRITING

If you have several attitudes mentioned above that need adjusting, you can’t just sit down and decide to think like a writer right now, so you can slip into flow. It takes time, depending on your mental attitudes at this time.

Developing the above attitudes will help you tolerate anxiety, be more open to new experiences, and learn to trust the writer you already are. If you feel like you need help in this area of “writerly attitudes that benefit you,” Unleash the Writer Within is my suggestion for you. I wish I’d had this book thirty years ago.

I’ve given you a lot to think about this week on the subject of writing in flow. Next week we’ll begin with Key #3: Loosen Up!

 

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Key #1: Have a Reason to Write

[First read Part 1 of the series called "Writing in Flow to Make Writing Fun."]

The first key that Susan K. Perry mentions in Writing in Flow is this: have a reason to write. I’m going to break this into two parts.

First: The Reason to Write in Flow

For me, the reason to write “in flow” is that I enjoy the writing so much more! I can force myself to write, but it’s not much fun. A majority of the writers interviewed by this author had learned how to control their flow experience. They had learned what they needed to do in order to slip into this “timeless” flow state where the writing is so pleasurable.

If you can figure out how to enter the flow state more predictably, you’ll enjoy your writing much more. Thus you’re more likely to write more and produce more.

The “flow theory” states that you enter a flow state when the following requirements are in place:

  1. You have a clear goal and will get some sort of feedback (even if it something like tracking word count).
  2. You sense that your skill level is fairly well suited to the challenge of your writing (neither so easy that it’s boring, nor so far above your skill level that you feel anxious.)
  3. You are intensely focused on what you’re doing.
  4. You lose awareness of yourself and almost feel a part of your story.
  5. Your sense of time shifts, with time seeming to slow or stop.
  6. The writing experience becomes its own reward; you enjoy the writing itself.

Doesn’t that kind of absorbed, trance-like writing sound like fun? That’s an experience I’d want to repeat on a daily basis!

Second: What’s Your Reason for Writing?

In Part 1, I talked about a few reasons for writing, and why writing only for money or fame or to impress someone won’t help you get into flow. “A point often missed by novice writers,” says Perry, “is that by zeroing in on one or more of the right reasons–for you–you’re more likely to find the one that will help you enter flow and keep writing in spite of frustration and rejection. You must feel strongly motivated to get fully absorbed in the writing, if flow is to follow.”

Remember, your reasons for writing are your own! Jot the following question in your journal: “So why do I write?” Then take plenty of time to answer it.

Write down all the TRUE reasons you write. No one ever needs to see this. You might write because you have an insatiable curiosity about the world or the private lives of people. You might have had a disturbing childhood that left you with many questions, and you write for the answers. Maybe you write because you need someone to listen. Maybe you believe you have the answers to XXXX and you need to share your wisdom with the world.

Find Feedback

This doesn’t mean find a critique group. To write in flow, you need to train yourself to listen to yourself. Popular novelist Elmore Leonard said, “I say my sentences inside my head until they chime with some kind of turning fork.” Other writers read their work aloud to find the rough spots. [I'd be rich today if I had a nickle for every student who told me that they knew something was wrong with the ending--or plot twist, or motive--but they were hoping I wouldn't think so. I thought so.] Pay attention to that inner writer, especially during revisions, that gives you the feedback that “something is off here.”

Please note, however, that paying attention to your inner feedback does NOT mean encouraging those critical inner voices that tend to harshly judge your writing. Nor do you want to entertain thoughts at this time of what some editor will think of your idea. This kind of feedback will keep you from finding that relaxed flow state.

Feel Competent

In order to make flow possible, you have to find a way to feel both competent (not overly anxious) and keep your interest high (not bored). Many writers don’t outline because they don’t want to write a story they already know. It’s boring to them, and they lose interest. On the other hand, some writers (like me) like outlines because without them, the anxiety level rises to the point that they’re blocked. Everyone is different. There is no right or wrong here, but you must find for yourself the right combination of subject matter and planning for your stage of career.

When I started writing thirty years ago, I couldn’t feel that my writing skill “was fairly well suited to the challenge” unless plots were outlined, character sketches were detailed, and I knew the ending clearly. I needed that much planning for the anxiety level to come down far enough that the writing was fun. It was many years before I was comfortable enough to write without a greatly detailed outline. However, other writers are bored with “cranking out stories” where they won’t be surprised along the way.

What About Rewards?

I’ve had to plan rewards plenty of times for getting through a piece of writing. It was either writing I didn’t want to do, but it would pay some bills, or writing that felt too far “above me” in difficulty. But if you want to write “in flow,” in that timeless sense of joy, you will need to find reward in the writing itself.

If it’s boring, work to make the plot more interesting, more surprising, deeper. Make something happen in the story that fulfills a wish of your own! If your story is causing you so much anxiety, stop and figure out why. If you haven’t done enough planning or research to feel comfortable, do that first. (You can do that part in flow too!)

How to Use Key #1

Some practical ways to find your reason to write include:

  • Reflect on why you want to write in general, or why you want to write this particular project.
  • Keep your ideas to yourself instead of talking about them; write them out first.
  • Define success for yourself. (Writing regularly and enjoying it is my idea of success!)

Next time we’ll address Key #2: thinking like a writer. Keep the long-term goal in mind: writing more and enjoying it!

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