Flow State Can Be An Integral Component Of Your Writing Process

Photo credit Roy Kerwood

Some stories write themselves. No, scratch that – some art creates itself. Pretty common knowledge, right? I think we’ve all heard the tales of bolts of inspiration from the blue; hell, I’d bet most of us have experienced it. Let’s look at John Lennon‘s story of creating Across the Universe for an example:

I was lying next to my first wife in bed, you know, and I was irritated. She must have been going on and on about something and she’d gone to sleep and I’d kept hearing these words over and over, flowing like an endless stream. I went downstairs and it turned into sort of a cosmic song rather than an irritated song; rather than a ‘Why are you always mouthing off at me?’ or whatever, right? …


The words stand, luckily, by themselves. They were purely inspirational and were given to me as boom! I don’t own it, you know; it came through like that. I don’t know where it came from, what meter it’s in, and I’ve sat down and looked at it and said, ‘Can I write another one with this meter?’ It’s so interesting: ‘Words are flying out like [sings] endless rain into a paper cup, they slither while they pass, they slip across the universe.’ Such an extraordinary meter and I can never repeat it! It’s not a matter of craftsmanship; It wrote itself. It drove me out of bed.

Of all the creative processes, this one fascinates me the most. Why does it happen? Is it just a perfect confluence of factors that converge in the artist’s mind in a singular moment, or is it the divine speaking through that artist? Better yet, is it a repeatable intuitive process that we just don’t grasp? Psychology has a term for such states: flow. From Wikipedia:

Proposed by Mihály Csíkszentmihályi…flow is completely focused motivation. It is a single-minded immersion and represents perhaps the ultimate in harnessing the emotions in the service of performing and learning. In flow, the emotions are not just contained and channeled, but positive, energized, and aligned with the task at hand. To be caught in the ennui of depression or the agitation of anxiety is to be barred from flow.

Photo credit Stephen Horncastle

The subject has become more personal of late because I’ve been experiencing flow on a regular basis, and am quite shaken by the process. I can’t count the number of times that I’ve discussed my struggles with Room 3, as the book refuses to “write itself”, and thus has needed heavy grappling to create some recognizable form. Seriously, we’re now approaching the one-year anniversary of the initial idea and the book is still not out, though it is finally approaching a state that pleases me. After the comparatively easy process of writing The Corridors of the Dead, this troubled state has made me fear that I’m already losing my touch and regressing in some way.

The tail end of this process has taught me that such thoughts aren’t based in reality. The struggles creating Room 3 have forged a much stronger, more coherent story. I just figured that the creation of Corridors had been a special situation, a matter of being in the right place at the right time.

Well, it turns out that I was mistaken yet again.

I began properly drafting City of the Dead early this week, and during each drafting session I’ve found myself once again experiencing that flow state. In fact, it’s become so strong that I’ve had trouble exiting it once I’m fully underway. It’s weird. I’m a bit distant and unable to properly communicate with others for up to an hour afterwards. It feels something like a fugue state, but I’m sure that will pass.

I wonder, though, have I stumbled upon something? According to that Wikipedia page:

One cannot force oneself to enter flow. It just happens.

There are three conditions that are necessary to achieve the flow state:

  1. One must be involved in an activity with a clear set of goals. This adds direction and structure to the task.
  2. One must have a good balance between the perceived challenges of the task at hand and his or her own perceived skills. One must have confidence that he or she is capable to do the task at hand.
  3. The task at hand must have clear and immediate feedback. This helps the person negotiate any changing demands and allows him or her to adjust his or her performance to maintain the flow state.

This gives me pause. Flow just “happens”, but there is a means by which flow can become more common. It doesn’t seem to be 100% repeatable, but you can make your process a fertile ground to getting into that state. It might be too soon to tell, but I really do think that I’ve stumbled upon a means that works for me. It even hits all the items above. Here’s how my process works:

  1. Plot the story well in advance. The plot for City of the Dead has been in place since March, with some elements stretching back well over a year, conceived during the creation of Corridors of the Dead. This gives me clear goals and, I believe, allowed the story quite some time to fulminate in my subconscious, to the point where the major beats already feel “written” in my head. That prepared me to get into my creative sessions. I start these out with a 15-minute…
  2. Sing. I’m not sure if I’ve spoken about it here, but there is some evidence that singing for a short period creates a mirror image of the left brain’s language center in the right brain, effectively giving you a shortcut to language. You also get the added bonus of drawing from the more creative side of the brain (see this article for more information on practical applications of this in stroke victims). It doesn’t matter if you suck. It’s all about the action, not being great at it.
  3. Dictate. Going from singing to writing grants me a modicum of momentum and I’ve come close to flow state doing such a thing, but I find that putting dictation in the middle of the process is what truly stimulates flow. I imagine there’s some connection in the mind between singing and vocalizing a story, but I admit I don’t understand all of the “mind-hacking” behind the scenes. I just know that I’ve carried out five sessions like this to date, and each has resulted in a flow state where I’ve cranked story for up to 20 minutes straight – that typically translates to something like 4,000 words.

I go to transcription next, but I’ve been loathe to interrupt this process, so nothing has been put to type just yet. I like having this story exist only in my head and the spoken word at the moment, and it might well have something to do with how I’m getting such great results. It’s been quite the ride thus far, though, and I think you’ll be quite pleased with the results when City of the Dead is finally available.

Do you have a process for achieving flow? Any particularly amazing stories of being in the zone? I’d love to hear about it in the comments.

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  1. For me, flow comes when I can visualize a scene in full-color live action. Having a few choice bits of dialogue in mind is helpful, but seeing the logistics and feeling the atmosphere before I begin is key. If I can watch a scene like a movie in my head, then it flows easily onto the paper.

    The danger comes when I mull over a scene or story for too long. The scene becomes stale and old and more difficult to write than when I’m feeling my way through unknown territory.

    • Jonathan D Allen

      Both great points, and I wish I could include them. In those flow moments I’m also seeing the whole thing unfold in my mind like a movie, and I think that having the general plot in mind helps my subconscious roll out the next scene. For instance, in the plot, one scene simply states, “This will involve a tense showdown and a chase through the area that resembles the Corridors of the Dead”. This became an elaborate series of setbacks involving hidden passageways beneath the factory at the end of CotD. If I’d laid down the exact details of every step, I would have missed out on the flow and a whole new set of circumstances that is enriching the first few chapters.

    • Visualization and the flow are part of the same whole for me, too, Marie. 🙂

  2. hi Jonathan, I write a lot about creativity on my site, and think about it (ha) a lot too. This post might be of interest:

    Watch the you-tube video. Elizabeth Gilbert has some good things to say.

  3. I understand what you mean by being in a fugue after a session of flow. Fugue is the perfect word for it really, so thank you for that! I was calling it a trance, but there’s a more metaphysical or psycho-spiritual feel to this than the word “trance” conjures. I’m revising my WIP and there are times when I can’t decide which feels more real: the story or the physical world. These feelings are strongest right after editing, and hit with ferocity when I am alone. On several occasions over the past month, the walk from the parking garage into the office building has been entirely surreal. The sky and the concrete and the people seem real – but they feel more like shadows compared to the writing. It is all I can do to focus on work until lunch comes, and I can get in another hour of editing!

    Well, off to edit! 🙂

    Loved this post, btw!

  4. For me, it comes once I’ve been writing on a regular schedule, and I’m really into the story. This is no doubt why I haven’t experienced this in a really long time! 😛 A movie just starts playing in my head and it becomes almost dictation as I type as fast as I can to get it all down.

    It feels like discovery and has nothing to do with any planning on my part, alas.

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