Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Go with the Flow

For better or worse, the solitary writing world exists in a cosmos of mass distraction. 
While millions of sensations bombard us every moment, we write.
While we blot out the chaos, we write.
While we ignore base instincts like eating and sleeping––sometimes for hours, sometimes for days––we write.
We sit at our office desks, our kitchen table, the local coffee shop, the library––wherever––and we breathe a different air, an air that excites, intoxicates, and captivates.
We focus our minds on a story that must be told. We write and we write. Not just to earn a living. Not even because we want to. 
We are enthralled! We write because we have to.
So hours later, we glance up at the clock, gasp and marvel, "How did that happen? What was I thinking?"
The answer is we weren't; we were simply ultra-motivated.
But what kind of motivation erases reality? Historically, the two most employed motivators––the two utilized most often by governments, religions, parents, and teachers––are reward and fear. 
"Eat your vegetables, and I'll give you a cookie."
"Be good or you're goin' ta hell!"
"Why, I oughta.... I tap my foot at you!"
The use of reward and fear as motivation has been long chronicled, Susan Cain explains in her bestselling book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking.
Cain says “Since the days of Aristotle, philosophers have observed that these two modes––approaching things that appear to give pleasure and avoiding others that seem to cause pain––lie at the heart of all human activity.” (p. 171) 
But those factors are not enough to explain "binge writing," are they? 
No. Cain adds that such a philosophy "runs counter to the experience of people who just love to do their work." People, like writers.
Instead she cites psychological research, particularly that of Mihaly Csiksgentmihalyi, who calls total task absorption "flow." Cain defines flow as "the state in which you feel totally engaged in an activity. In a state of flow, you’re neither bored nor anxious, and you don’t question your adequacy. Hours pass without your noticing.” (p. 172)
In other words, no thought of "What am I gonna get?" or "What's gonna happen if I don't?"  “The key to flow," Cain states, "is to pursue an activity for its own sake, not for the reward it brings.” (p. 172)
How can that happen? By breathing the air mentioned above. Using Csiksgentmihalyi's words, Cain explains that flow occurs when people "become independent of the social environment to the degree that they no longer respond exclusively in terms of its rewards and punishments. To achieve such an autonomy, a person has to learn to provide rewards to herself.” 
She continues: “In a sense, Csikszentmihalyi transcends Aristotle; he is telling us that there are some activities that are not about approach or avoidance, but about something deeper: the fulfillment that comes from absorption in an activity outside yourself.” (p. 172)
Things like time and space become meaningless. Csikszentmihalyi says that in flow, “a person could work around the clock for days on end, for no better reason than to keep on working.”
While unexpectedly waking up to a new date on the calendar can intimidate anybody, it should not frighten writers. In fact, later in the chapter, Cain encourages us to abandon all restraint on the urge to write without ceasing. She says, “[F]ind your flow by using your gifts….[W]hen you’re focused on a project…your energy is boundless.” (p. 173)
And don’t let anybody or anything try to stop us.
“…[S]tay true to your one nature…. [D]on’t let others make you feel as if you have to race. If you enjoy depth, don’t force yourself to seek breadth. If you prefer single-tasking to multitasking, stick to your guns. Being relatively unmoved by rewards gives you incalculable power to go your own way. It’s up to you to use that independence to good effect.” (p. 173)
To utilize an old cliche or two: Don’t fight the feeling. Go with the flow AND WRITE!