"Writing in Flow: Keys to Enhanced Creativity," Susan K. Perry

Pros: Fascinating info; wide variety of suggestions; neat stuff!
Cons: Could have used a firmer directing hand
Rating: 4.5 out of 5

First published 8/5/2002

Anyone who has kept up with my series of writing book reviews knows by now that I started reading all these books in an attempt to overcome a bad case of writer’s burnout. By several books ago I felt sure I’d gotten over the burnout, but something still felt wrong. Something was missing, and I had no idea what. Then I read “Writing in Flow: keys to enhanced creativity,” by Susan K. Perry, Ph.D., and I found out exactly what I had lost.

What is Flow?

I prefer to put things in my own words when writing reviews, but in this case I think I can serve you best by quoting most of the very first paragraph of the introduction:

You know you’ve been in flow when time seems to have disappeared. When you’re in flow, you become so deeply immersed in your writing, or whatever activity you’re doing, that you forget yourself and your surroundings. You delight in continuing to write even if you get no reward for doing it–monetary or otherwise–and even if no one else cares whether you do it. You feel challenged, stimulated, definitely not bored. Writing in flow, you’re often certain you’re tapping into some creative part of yourself–or of the universe–that you don’t have easy access to when you’re not in this altered state.

University of Chicago psychologist and researcher Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, who has studied the subject of flow for more than 20 years, first decided to use the word flow for this type of experience. Susan Perry, a social psychologist and writer, decided to do her doctoral dissertation on the subject of flow. She conducted interviews, sent out questionnaires, and collected previously existing information on many writers. She wanted to know how writers experienced flow, how they got into flow, and whether their experiences could be generalized to help other writers find their way into flow.

This book concentrates on creative writers in specific. However, it does attempt to address other sorts of writers as well. So while creative writers will probably get more out of it, other writers who would like to experience the flow state should certainly give it a try.

Can You Really Control Your Writing?

Dr. Perry has found that “novice writers usually come in three kinds:”

  1. Those who wait around for inspiration to strike, and expect that when it does they’ll produce masterpieces.
  2. Those who plan to start writing just as soon as they’re well-enough prepared.
  3. Those who believe it’s possible to completely control their writing output.

Among more experienced writers she found a fourth group: those who accept that they have some control over their writing. Ms. Perry found that most of the truly productive writers fell into this last group.

Thus, chapter one addresses the question of whether or not writers have any control over the flow state, and how much (obviously the author believes that they do, to a certain extent). Chapter two discusses exactly what flow feels like, where it fits into the creative writing process, when and where one can enter a flow state, sense of self during the flow state, the metaphors and images people use to represent flow, and the idea that each person’s experience of flow will be different. The author also goes into physiological effects of flow and the relationship between sensuality and flow.

Sex does come up several times in this book, both in terms of the relationship between sensuality and the flow state, and because many people have found that sexuality makes a good metaphor for flow.

Five Master Keys

After collecting so much information, the author determined that there were five “master keys,” or major indicators/triggers, for entering the flow state. Each one takes up a chapter, and each chapter ends with a handful of exercises and suggestions that you can play with.

Key One: Have a Reason to Write– Believing that you have some control over your writing can make you feel less helpless, and can actually make it easier for you to enter flow. The difference between extrinsic and intrinsic motivators, which type works better, how, and why. Feedback, the belief that your writing matters, mystery and surprise, and challenge. Deadlines, evaluation, competition, and rewards. You’ll find many different perspectives in here so that rather than being told what to do, you can find what will work for you.

Key Two: Think Like a Writer– Without being so foolish as to detail some sort of “writer’s personality,” the author discusses attitudes and personality traits that can help writers to enter flow. Rather than saying, “you need to be this sort of person,” she suggests ways in which you can cultivate attitudes that will help you. She also talks about how you can work with your own personality traits. For example, if you’re rebellious by nature, then deadlines might kill your enthusiasm. The author also discusses whether or not there is such a thing as a natural writer. The conclusion she comes to is that if there is any such thing, it probably refers to those people for whom flow is a natural state within which they spend most of their time, even when they aren’t writing. The wonderful news is that you by no means need to be a “natural writer” in order to be a fantastic writer!

Key Three: Loosen Up– Most writers must “loosen up” before entering flow. Many accomplish this by establishing habits and routines that help them to “make the shift into an alternate consciousness.” This is what allows the creative mind to make unusual connections. If you think I’m exaggerating when I talk about conscious states, you might find this quote interesting:

Carl Jung, contrasting James Joyce to his schizophrenic daughter Lucia, said that they ‘were like two people going to the bottom of a river, one falling and the other diving.’

Or perhaps this one:

Looseness of thinking does seem, then, to be related to creativity, and to the ability of creative writers to access a wide variety of original ideas. If you’re lucky enough to have a personality at the looser end of the continuum, you’re probably able to leap boundaries in separate parts of your mind, leading to better communication among segments of your brain.

It seems that the idea of creativity being right-brained is misleading. It would be more accurate to say that creative people have better communication between the hemispheres of their brain. Fascinating stuff! The author presents various writers’ experience of this phenomenon, and discusses several ways that you can encourage yourself to develop or fall into this same looseness of thinking.

Key Four: Focus In– In this chapter the author attempts to help us learn to focus, to place all of our attention on our work. She does discuss meditation and self-hypnosis, as well as their relationship to the flow state in general.

Key Five: Balance Among Opposites– In this chapter the author addresses a slightly more abstract topic. There are many contradictions and opposites within the craft of writing, and finding our balance among them can help us to feel more confident and comfortable in our work.

A Myriad of Extras

Even if the author had stopped with those five master keys, this book would be very useful. But she goes on to present much more information. You’ll find more material on flow within the context of a writer’s life. Frequently asked questions are answered in sidebars throughout the text. Specific techniques for luring the flow state are discussed (ritual and routine, clutter and lack thereof, timing, music, silence, meditation, tools, and more). The author also discusses the concept of writer’s block, and, more specifically, what that means, how it affects flow, and what you can do about it. Finally there are several appendices on such subjects as how the study was conducted and a long list of references.

Perspectives and Meandering

On the one hand, the wild mix of perspectives is fantastic and extremely educational. There’s also the amusement value of seeing several writers self-importantly declare that writing must be done a certain way, only to see several others contradict them. This really is a good lesson in the fact that almost no writing advice is entirely universal.

On the other hand, I felt that the author allowed the quotes and interview excerpts to take too much control of the book. Because of this, I sometimes had trouble telling which chapter I was in and which topic the author was discussing. This led to some confusion, and kept some of the author’s points from coming through as clearly as they should have.

If you have any interest whatsoever in “writing in flow,” I strongly suggest that you read this book. While flow is not necessary in order to write well, and the author does point out cases where authors told her that they never enter flow, flow is certainly a more fun and pleasurable way in which to write (for most people). Also, if you were one of those people whose parents or teachers berated them for daydreaming, you might enjoy finding out that such a state is a job skill. I know I certainly did!

As for me, now I know what I was missing – the flow state that I had, until about a year or two ago, spent almost all of my time drifting through. Now that I know what was gone and have some idea of how to retrieve it, it has taken very little time for it to start coming back. And suddenly, writing is a whole lot more fun than it was!

Posted in Reviews, Writing

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