Folks, a couple of weeks ago we celebrated International Pennebaker Day, which has nothing to do with baked pasta, and which, for some reason, still lacks proper international recognition.
Today, and in that same uplifting spirit, we celebrate International Csikszentmihalyi Day. The word in between “international” and “day” may look like a really terrible attempt at an anagram, or what happens when a Slovakian and a choose to double-barrel their surnames, or just what you get when you put a couple of alphabets into an ordinary domestic liquidiser and hit the Blitz button.
In fact, of course, the name is (a) an example of a nice, straightforward Hungarian name, and (b) one belonging to the US-Hungarian psychologist, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (roughly, “Cheeks Sent Me High”).
Csikszentmihalyi is best known for his work on flow, a mental/emotional state that’s characterised by total immersion in the activity concerned. He says the state takes place when you are:
“Completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz. Your whole being is involved, and you're using your skills to the utmost.”
Writers achieve this state. So do painters and musicians. But sportspeople do as well. I’ve known it, myself, when rock-climbing, but I imagine that the followers of other, lesser sports feel it too.
When Emma Raducanu says of her US Open win, ‘At one point mid-game, I just let my racket go because I just didn’t believe I made that shot,’ you sense the presence of flow in action. That shot wasn’t exactly the consequence of a consciously willed action, but nor was it involuntary or unconscious.
Csikszentmihalyi elaborates the state thus:
- Complete concentration on the task;
- Clarity of goals and reward in mind and immediate feedback;
- Transformation of time (speeding up/slowing down);
- The experience is intrinsically rewarding;
- Effortlessness and ease;
- There is a balance between challenge and skills;
- Actions and awareness are merged, losing self-conscious rumination;
- There is a feeling of control over the task.
I’ve known all of that when writing. Most often when writing fiction, but I’ve certainly known it with non-fiction too. I get it (a bit) when I write these Friday emails.
The merging of actions and awareness is certainly a leading feature for me. So too is the intrinsic reward. So is the complete concentration. So is the loss of time.
When I write, time just vanishes. I can easily miss an appointment by an hour and feel amazed, because I thought I still had ages to go. More weirdly, when I’ve been at peak fitness, I’ve felt it rock-climbing. I’ve had the sense of jumping for a hold and – instead of my normal desperate, failing lunge – I’ve found that I’ve had more time to locate and grasp the hold than I expected. When I see really good climbers climb, the thing that always strikes me isn’t how much stronger they are, but how much more time they always seem to have.
Now, I don’t think you really need me to tell you about flow, because I’m pretty sure you already feel it and understand it from within. So here are some further thoughts or questions that occur to me:
Do you have to have flow to write?
Once you’ve experienced flow, it may seem that it’s the only way to generate quality words on the page. That if you’re not in flow, you should just walk the dogs or fix a shelf or perform some other displacement activity until you feel ready to try again.
I don’t think that’s right, or at least it’s only about half right.
I strongly suspect that a book written entirely by force of will and without the aid of flow won’t ever be entirely satisfying. It may have craft, but won’t have magic, and without the magic, honestly, what’s the point? That’s why I always have a mental reservation about the 2,000-words-a-day brigade, those folks who point out that you should be able to write a 100K thriller in two months, even allowing a bit of time off along the way.
But at the same time, the single best way to bump-start your writing is simply: write.
If you feel locked out of writing, then just forcing yourself to do it – going through the motions, if you like – is still the best way to unlock that inner blockage. That approach has worked often enough for me in the past. If you feel any blockage at the moment, then the same basic approach will work for you.
(Except that if days and weeks go by and you’re still not feeling right, you need to question things more broadly. Is all well in your life? Maybe there’s some deeper issue that needs addressing. Or is all well with the book? Maybe your inability to get into it is because there is some fundamental issue with the project that you need to acknowledge and tackle directly. Writing, like caustic soda, solves most things, but ...)
Can a reader tell the difference between flow-words and non-flow words?
I tend to know, even years afterwards, which pages of a book came awkwardly for me and which came smoothly. It’s as though I still feel the ghost of that early awkwardness haunting the text.
At the same time, I can honestly say that no agent, editor or reader has ever called attention to those patches and suggested that they’re lesser than the rest. I think a book needs, as far as possible, to be written in a flow state, because that’s what lets the magic in, but once the magic is there, it disperses through the text. There may be better scenes or worse scenes, but magic is a quality that adheres (or not) to a book as a whole.
In short: if some scenes just come awkwardly and brutishly onto the page, you don’t need to worry about it. No one else will ever know.
Editing can be a flow state too
For me, this is critical.
Actual writing probably brings the greatest joy. (My very greatest joys have been placing my character in extended peril. Oh, how I loved almost freezing Fiona to death in the Black Mountains. I adored bricking her up at the side of a church in the Brecon Beacons. And I had a rare and deep joy when I sank a trawler, with her on board, in the midst of an Atlantic gale.)
That said, editing has always been a deep, absorbing pleasure for me. I think writers should train themselves to expect flow in editing as well as writing. The rewards of editing are a little different and, OK, perhaps a little shallower too, but they are real for all that.
I love editing so much, it’s always a little grief to hand over a book. I’d like to spend more time with it. If you don’t find editing utterly absorbing, it’s almost certain that you’re cutting corners you don’t really want to cut.
That’s it from me. I’m on holiday next week – as in, really, truly, on a beach somewhere warm – so you won’t get a real email from me. You’re going to get a short “best of selection” that you can sneer at, then tear to shreds.
Normal service will resume the week after that.
Oh yes, and the header photo on this page? That's not me. It's James Pearson on The Quarryman, which is the most dazzlingly beautiful climb in the UK - and about a million miles beyond my pay grade. In my next life, I'm going to come back with the balance of a ballet dancer and forearms like Pop-Eye. I once met Jonny Dawes, the revolutionary who first climbed The Quarryman and I almost fainted with adulation. He's a god.