01 June 2007

Flow and Non-flow (writers' block)

It's been nearly a month since I posted. I hadn't realized it had been quite so long, although I know I have thought for days that I should post something. Yet, I couldn't find the motivation to write, even when I had topics I knew I could post.

I recently read Finding Flow: The Psychology of Engagement with Everyday Life by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. Published in 1998, but building on years of his work, Csikszentmihalyi's book is about finding "flow experiences" in one's life, those ecstatic, exciting moments when one feels an energized sense of accomplishment and mastery. Csikszentmihalyi describes it as this:
The metaphor of "flow" is one that many people have used to describe the sense of effortless action they feel in moments that stand out as the best in their lives. Athletes refer to it as "being in the zone", religious mystics as being in "ecstasy", artists and musicians as aesthetic rapture. Athletes, mystics, and artists do very different things when they reach flow yet their descriptions of the experience are remarkably similar.
I think that ecstasy and rapture are apt words to describe this feeling. There is an energizing --almost electrifying -- feeling when one finishes a creative work. I might struggle with writing a poem or a blog post, but when I'm ready to call it done, the emotion is one of not just accomplishment, but also one of pleasure and satisfaction. Similarly, I can perform a task such as cooking that might bring me a similar experience in some situations. At the end of a long day, it is just a chore, a necessity to provide myself and my family with a suitable meal. Some days it's even a difficult task just to order the pizza and drive 3 more miles in rush hour traffic! Flow doesn't occur for me in this instance. But, on a weekend, when I am not rushed, when I can actually plan to cook, rather than simply to prepare, I love being in the "zone". I can get lost in the activity as it becomes something more than just a task.

I think about the so-called "runners' high", a sense of euphoria produced by the release of brain chemicals. As our knowledge of the brain grows, I wonder if scientist won't find biochemical changes in our brain when we experience "flow"? Helen Fisher (who I wrote about here) has done research into brain activity when one is "in love". If discernible differences are identifiable in medical tests (MRIs) when one has "fallen in love",why wouldn't our brains do something similar when we are engaged in an activity that makes us feel good?

There is a lot in this short book to ponder; having read this following reading a few books and articles about culture and arts, and thinking about the "culture wars", feminism, post-modernism and spirituality (yes -- my head starts to hurt sometimes!), I'm sure that there is much I might say about "flow" in both creative and quotidian endeavors, certainly more than what I will write about this evening. But, as I sat down to write a post this evening -- fully intending to write about beginning Cormac McCarthy's The Road -- I was struck by one thing in Csikszentmihalyi's book and how it applies to not writing.

Csikszentmihalyi defines as a requirement for a being able to produce a flow experience that the activity have a degree of challenge and mental engagement. I think this can be applied to writing and writers' block. I don't think that someone would write if they didn't experience immense satisfaction in the end product. I think that all writers must experience "flow", though not necessarily every time they write. (Csikszentmihalyi has done research regarding flow & creativity and, although he does touch upon it in this book, he does a deep dive into it in other works.)

The problem is, though, that to get to that level of "flow", one needs to work very hard. Especially when your inner critics are telling you that what you are writing is a piece of junk, it can be extremely difficult to find the motivation to write. Frequently, it doesn't seem worthwhile. Avoidance sinks in, followed by thoughts like "Why do I even bother?", or sometimes impulsive behaviors to abandon or destroy the work in progress. How many times have I thought in the last month "If I don't write something today, I might as well just sign in to Blogger and say 'goodbye'"? (Obviously, I didn't.)

The more one procrastinates in beginning to write, the more difficult it becomes to write. The anxiety produced can be strong enough to deter one from continuing onward. The mental engagement can be daunting. Yet, if you work through the anxiety (or despite it), you are likely to eventually experience "flow". Then, the hard work seems worth it. I wonder if there isn't a negating experience that can happen, something within our brain that stops us from pursuing an activity that might bring us happiness?

Maybe writers' block is the antithesis of flow.


chiefbiscuit said...

Interesting indeed. Thanks.
(I need a 'flow' right now to help me with the housework - oh and writing too - but the housework seems the more urgent right now.)

Courtney said...

i really enjoyed this post and know exactly where you are coming from. The interesting part of writing, for me, is the fact that the more I do, the more I WANT to do. It's when I stop that everything seems to stop up and my flow ends. It's just so hard to remember when caught up in writer's block.

I am glad to see a new post from you!

Cam said...

CB -- Czetszenmihalyi writes that "maintenance" tasks, such as housework, don't typically produce flow unless there is a high degree of motivation and skill. Hmmm-- I'm never motivated to do housework,although I usually am motivated to cross a task off my to-do list! Much more fun and challenging to write than to dust!

Courtney -- what you write about wanting to do more certainly sounds like a "flow experience".