There are a lot of things I love about writing. The fame, the fortune, the hordes of screaming fans…*cough* Please pardon me as I clean up the soft drink I just snorted through my nose.
Really, writing is both a wonderful and terrible choice for a career, but one of the best parts is an experience so sweet and pure that it truly rivals the other great pleasures in life. No, it’s not the first time you sign a book for your father.
I’m talking about flow.
Flow is when the writing comes as naturally as breathing, when the words pop into your head like alphabetical fireworks and seem to type themselves across the screen. When you’re in the flow, writing seems like the easiest, and most fun, vocation on the planet. I only wish it lasted.
I don’t know about you, but when I sit down to write it usually takes me a little time to warm up. I don’t bother with pre-game exercises, I just dive in. Within 15-30 minutes I’m typically chugging away. Then comes the make-or-break period. Somewhere toward the end of the first hour I’ll either (A) snag some flow and cruise to a productive session, or (B) flow eludes me and I fight to make my daily quota of words.
That’s the magic and wonder of the flow. It comes and goes. But is it possible to encourage the flow to visit, and maybe stick around for a while? Drawing solely from my own experience, I say yes.
I have several ways to trick my brain into the right framework. The first is physiological. You see, I have an addiction to M&Ms. Peanut, almond, or plain, I love the damned things. So when the writing isn’t coming, I often devour a handful of these pieces of chocolate heaven and pop open a can of soda. I don’t know how long it actually takes caffeine to get to the brain, but the effect is almost instantaneous for me. So, fortified with chocolate and soda, I start again, and more times than not I’ll see a nice bump in production.
The second arrow in my quiver is music. I don’t always listen to music while I write, but when I do, good old flow seems to hear the beat and come running. I’m tempted to say I listen to classical music because it might make me sound smarter, but I’m a heavy metal child of the 70’s and 80’s, so that’s where I run to when I need soul-shattering inspiration. I dial up some Iron Maiden or Judas Priest, and it’s smooth sailing from there.
But what if the flow comes for a bit, and then wants to leave? Ever been in the middle of a great sentence when the gist of it just….slips away? Then you spend five minutes staring at the screen wondering what the fudge just happened. Flow has left the building.
So, aside from gorging myself on candy and blowing out my eardrums, what can I do to keep the flow going? First, I make sure my workplace is free from (most) distractions. I tell my family that I’m going to be working and not to disturb me unless there’s a fire or someone is leaking significant amounts of blood. I resist the urge to surf the web to find out who the Jaguars are looking to take with their first round pick.
Second, I don’t fret about “getting it right” on the first pass. When I’m writing a first draft, I don’t stop and analyze every phrase. I don’t comb through the thesaurus to find the exact right word. I hit it as best I can and keep moving. Continual motion is the key. Every time you stop, you’re giving flow a chance to slip out the back door.
Lastly, when I do eventually lose the flow (“don’t worry,” she said, “it happens to everyone”) I get up and take a little break. I go out to see what my wife and son are doing. I use the bathroom and get another soda (and a couple more M&Ms). Maybe I even pump out a set of push-ups to get the blood flowing. I take a break, and then I come back to my desk.
Sometimes I come back to find my old pal flow waiting for me.