At this very moment I’m tearing at my brain for words. I’m attempting to write something witty and well-formed but it’s hard. That sort of writing requires me to be ‘in the zone’ and right now I’m not. In fact, I’m editing every fourth word and trying to make it seem like I haven’t. Writing shouldn’t be like this—words should spill from my unconscious in reams of genius, goddamit. At least I think they should.
As a former advertising copywriter I’ve never had to write anything longer than one hundred words. If I’m going to become a well-paid features writer, the sentences better start flowing, or I’ll need to find a new job. This desk is costing me rent and I really don’t want to write about yoghurt ever again.
At first I thought I was afflicted by some psychological anomaly. Maybe I’m doing something wrong, I thought. Maybe I’m dumb. Pushed by this neuroses and self-doubt, I stumbled through Wikipedia articles about psychological conditions, falling at the feet of a thing called flow. The article described flow as “the mental state of operation in which a person is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and success in the process of an activity.” I’m convinced this is what I’m missing. Wikipedia doesn’t lie.
Apparently flow was first discovered by Hungarian psychology professor, Mihaly Csikzentmihalyi, a key figure in positive psychology for over twenty years. He seems like a self-help weirdo to me, but a harmless one with a PhD in Psychology, so I gave him a break and bought some books from Amazon in order to find out more.
In his 1990 bestseller, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, Csikzentmihalyi studies the processes of writers, painters, chess-players, factory-workers, students and other people who partake in activities requiring focus. Through his research he discovers the most successful ones experience a feeling of flow and each feel incredibly productive, happy and content with their life. He says the way to flow depends on our ability to control consciousness.
Our brains have the capacity to process 126 bits of information in any given second. If we’re able to devote one hundred per cent of that capacity on a task, we’ll control consciousness and fall into the productive abyss called flow, bursting with creativity.
But our attention is in a constant state of division and chaos. Our senses (sound, sight, touch, smell and taste) each demand a part of our consciousness—otherwise known asDistraction. It’s up to us to focus on what we want to achieve, to control consciousness, and direct our attention on completing whatever it is we’re trying to complete.
But the most interesting element of Csikzentmihalyi’s theory of flow, is that flow experiences only occur when our skills match the challenge at hand. If we’re under-skilled we get anxious; if we’re under-challenged we get bored. If we continually match our skills to an appropriate challenge, we’ll achieve flow, gradually becoming better at what we do and enjoying every moment.
I think I get it now. Maybe this isn’t a psychological problem with achieving flow, but my brain telling me I need to get more skills. In my state of neurotic panic I thought I might not be suited to long-form writing, but I suppose that’s probably wrong, and all writers must train themselves to write in a state of flow for longer and longer each day.
In Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention, Csikzentmihalyi devotes twenty-six pages to flow in writing, asking authors what flow feels like for them. A poet, Mark Strand, says, “I could never stay in that frame of mind for an entire day. It comes and goes. If I’m working well, it’s there. I will be in a daze, I mean, I will be very disconnected from everything around me.”
This makes me think I should speak to other writers about this thing I feel. It’s a much better way to beat neuroses than half-reading Wikipedia pages about Psychology.
In a final sweeping conclusion, Csikzentmihalyi finds a way to jam the writing process into some sort of logic, and even though it reeks of spoil-sporting, it kinda makes sense.
“[Writers] usually start a working day with a word, a phrase, or an image, rather than a concept or planned composition. The work evolves on its own rather than the author’s intentions, but it is always monitored by the critical eye of the writer. What is so difficult about this process is that one must keep the mind focused on two contradictory goals: not to miss the message whispered by the unconscious and at the same time force it into a suitable form. The first requires openness, the second critical judgement. If these processes are not kept in a constantly shifting balance, the flow of writing dries up. After a few hours the tremendous concentration required for this balancing act becomes so exhausting that the writer has to change gears and focus on something else, something mundane. But while it lasts, creative writing is the next best thing to having a world of one’s own in which what’s wrong with the ‘real’ world can be set right.”
Thanks Dr. Csikzentmihalyi. You’ve made me realise I don’t have a psychological condition at all. In fact, all I need is some more skills, to relax, and flow the hell out.
On my second trip to Japan, standing next to a large bush of hydrangeas, I caught a fragrant whiff of its sprawling ancient culture. It’s sprawling because I imagine it like the endless suburbs of six-storey apartments, hundreds-of-thousands, maybe millions, bleeding into the horizon, piled on top of each other.
For over 2,000 years Japan has been generating people. 35 million live in greater Tokyo today. They’ve been making new human beings with new ideas for a long time.
In comparison, Australia has been its current anglo-shaped nation for 250 years. 4 million people live in greater Melbourne, a much emptier city filled with Italians, Greeks, Chinese, Vietnamese, Irish, English—ancient cultures that have coalesced into walking ideas, trying to get along, watching American television in a moderate climate, debating whether the Sudanese should stay.
In the early days, Japanese culture appropriated bits of Chinese, Korean and Indian cultures. Now they just call it Japanese. Buddhism, India’s great export, is unmistakably Japanese, in its own Zen way, for chrissakes.
So when a third-generation Greek named George asks a second-generation Italian named Don for a cigarette, walking the main street in the outer Eastern suburbs of Mooroolbark—where the Wurundjeri once stood and made their plans—thousands of years fly through their fingertips, one lighting the flame, the other raising the stick to his lips. George exhales and lets the smoke trail off into the distance, only disappearing visually, but remaining as particles in the air for others to breathe, to whiff, their lungs to filter.