Flow

by mark neely

Thanks to TJ and the TRY101 crew for inviting me aboard this virtual vessel!

I thought I’d introduce myself by taking a stab at one of the most common questions people ask of writers: Why do you write?

The truth, of course, is complicated. I write for a lot of reasons. First, I have always loved reading, and writing seemed like a logical extension of that passion. Most kids who love watching basketball eventually get the urge to shoot the rock themselves. And inspiring thought, feeling, and action in others as my favorite writers have inspired these things in me seems a grand and noble goal—an idea worth building a life around.

I write to please others. Like many people, I started writing partly because my parents and teachers thought I was good at it. I wanted to make them happy.

On a more practical level—if indeed there’s anything more practical than the desire for love and affirmation—I write because my employer requires it. Roughly a third of my job is supposed to be dedicated to writing and publishing. An even larger percentage of my job is teaching writing, and I’d look and feel like a pretty monumental fraud if I weren’t doing the deed myself. Besides, writing regularly is probably a requirement for the competent writing teacher. As someone once said on this very blog, “When we teach ourselves our life’s work, we’re also developing an extremely effective method of teaching others.”

I also like (maybe love) seeing my poems in books and magazines. I love the thrill of the acceptance letter. “You like me, you really like me!” I inwardly shout each time a friendly editor’s email pops up in my inbox. But this kind of pleasure is fleeting, and, like an addict’s drug of choice, it takes more and more to achieve the same effect.

But the purest drug for the writer is something no teacher, parent, editor, or even reader can give you. It’s called flow. And I think it’s the real reason I write.

Flow is psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s term for the intensely focused (but relaxed) state we sometimes enter when engaged in a challenging task. The task is usually one for which we’ve studied/ trained/ practiced.

In sports this is called being in the zone. Unlike writers, professional athletes are lucky enough to have their moments of flow happen in front of thousands of cheering fans, but most will tell you when they do get in the zone the crowd seems to disappear.

According to Csikszentmihalyi, a flow state is most likely to occur when engaging in a challenging task that is a good match for our skills. If you throw a person who’s never cooked before into one of those Iron Chef-type kitchen battles, he or she is not going to have the necessary skills to get in the zone the way an experienced chef might.

When I’m writing well the words come easily, almost without thought. The inner critic who tells me I’m a failure and a hack goes and torments some other poor soul for a while. My inner angel (who knows the poem I’m working on is sure to be accepted by POETRY Magazine and win a Pushcart Prize and gain me mountains of love and admiration) goes out for a beer.

In those rare moments, only the next word or line or sentence matters. As Csikszentmihalyi puts it:

Alienation gives way to involvement, enjoyment replaces boredom, helplessness turns into a feeling of control, and psychic energy works to reinforce the sense of self, instead of being lost in the service of external goals.

Of course, this state of mind is nothing new. The ancient Greeks knew all about it. They called it divine inspiration, the gift of a benevolent muse. “Happy is he whom the muses love; sweet flows speech from his mouth,” said Hesiod, who realized long ago that a poet in this divine attitude “forgets his heaviness and remembers not his sorrows at all.”

It took me a long time to really understand this—and it still takes almost daily reminders to remember—but these moments provide a deeper and more meaningful satisfaction than “professional” achievements like publications and awards ever can. The true joys of the writer always come with the scratch of the pencil or the clicking of the keys under the fingertips.

Once I heard the poet Bruce Smith liken writing to fishing. You have to enjoy sitting in the boat, tying on the lure, throwing out the line, reeling it in, throwing it out again. “If you only enjoy actually catching the fish,” he said, “you aren’t going to like fishing very much.”

Flow is elusive. It doesn’t always come. Writing can be difficult, frustrating, slow-going. Mostly when I’m working I feel like I’m trying to build the Taj Mahal with a box of old Legos and a crusty tube of Elmer’s glue. But every time I sit down there’s always the possibility that I’ll be given the gift of one minute, or ten, or even a blessed hour when the world lifts away, the self disappears, and the sweet speech flows.