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.
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!
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.
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!