Years ago, as a freelance journalist, I was commissioned by one of the UK’s top glossy women’s magazines to visit a silent retreat and write a short article about the experience. This was the first time I’d received an assignment from this particular magazine and I was determined to do a good job so they’d follow it up with more work.
I’ve always been one of those writers who crafts consecutively – by which I mean, to write anything at all I have to start at the beginning. If I can’t articulate the opening paragraph (to a book, article, or blog post), nothing else gets written.
For this particular magazine article the opening paragraph just wouldn’t come. I knew the rest of what I wanted to say, but how was I going to start my story?
The day before the deadline I was flying back from the US (I was living in England at the time) and a sense of panic hit me. If I couldn’t complete a high-quality article in the next 24 hours I was likely never to receive another commission from that magazine. My name would be mud, at least to them. So I did what seemed the sensible thing to do. Instead of pulling an all-nighter and churning out crap, I went to bed, confident that whatever was meant to happen would happen. Heck, no one was going to die!
The next morning I went to my computer and typed out 750 of the best words I’ve ever written. The editor loved my article. It was published unedited, although ironically I never did write anything else for them.
What’s the point of sharing this with you? Here it is – via a brief detour on the fallacy of “flow.”
People often talk about how creative types continually get into the “flow” when working…meaning they lose track of time and sometimes even a sense of self. We are supposed to become so absorbed in what we’re doing that time and our external environment become utterly irrelevant.
I’ve rarely experienced flow, and never while I’m writing. The only time I remember being in that state was during a watercolor class at a spa, when I was concentrating so hard at copying a picture from a book that three hours disappeared in a flash.
I mention flow because when it comes to writing it’s challenging for me to focus over an extended period of time because I’m so aware of how much external stimuli seeps into my consciousness when I’m trying to write. Frankly, I’ve given up worrying about that.[Every day I give thanks that no one had coined the term ADHD when I was a kid so I didn’t get drugged up to the eyeballs and have this innate creative disposition muted or – worse still – irrevocably destroyed by misplaced over-medicating.]
It was therefore interesting to read in Jonah Lehrer’s new book Imagine: How Creativity Works (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012) that:
…the inability to focus perhaps ensures a richer mixture of thoughts in consciousness. Because these people (in this study) had difficulty filtering out the world, they ended up letting in more.
Ergo, those of us who find it hard to focus when we’re writing absorb more stuff to connect together, resulting in a higher probability of the “conceptual blending” of disparate ideas that produces something really special.
Indeed, it is this lack of extended focus that allowed access to the kind of insights that helped me write that silent retreat article – on target, and on time.
Again, the scientific validation for what works for me in practice can be found in Lehrer’s book. Whenever something isn’t coming I either go out and take the dog for a walk, or go to bed and imagine I’m at my beach house (the imaginary one, for now!) by the ocean.
According to Lehrer’s investigations, research has shown that the brain is at its busiest during times when we are “performing a task that requires little conscious attention, such as routine driving on the highway or reading a tedious book.” When we don’t have external stuff demanding our attention, “the brain starts to explore its inner database, searching for relationships in a more relaxed fashion.”
It’s this kind of thinking – the “default,” offline state, that provides those “aha” insights that folks I know who insist on slogging it out at their computers rarely get.
So, if you’re like me and find it hard to focus for hours at a time, at least with respect to your writing, be thankful and don’t fight it. Think of all the additional information seeping into your consciousness that could provide the building blocks for your next amazing insight.
Don’t worry about not getting into the flow, just go with the flow: get out into the world, let your mind wander, and allow the brain to work harder when you’re not forcing it to do so.