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On Flow: A Writer’s Friend and Foe

By Jay Paine

A few summers ago, I picked up a copy of Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way, a book targeted toward helping artists and writers discover and recover their creative selves. Although I probably need to review many of Cameron’s tips, tricks, and habits for maximizing creativity, one concept has continued to stick with me: being in flow. According to Cameron, flow is our God, our good orderly direction, and creative energy. Our goal as artists and writers is to synchronize with this flow because synchronization will help us connect with our most creative selves.

But flow is more than just a metaphor to help us think about creativity; flow is also literal. Cameron says that we artists need to fill our wells; that is, we need to nourish our creative resources, and this nourishing process often involves regular, repetitive actions, many of which can be characterized as having flow. For example, taking a shower helps nourish us as artists, and the water from the faucet flows. Activities like driving a car also count. Cameron mentions that Steven Spielberg attributes some of his best ideas to driving down the freeway, where “negotiating the flow of traffic, he was an artist immersed in an oncoming, ever-altering flow of images.” This flow of images is Spielberg’s secret to inspiration.

Filling our wells via these flows often helps us alleviate creative blocks. Cameron tells us that “solutions to sticky creative problems may emerge on the freeway just as we are executing a tricky merge.” This is excellent news: it appears that the solution to combating struggles like writer’s block is to simply enter a state of flow, potentially by taking a drive down the interstate. But this is also terrible news because the freeway isn’t exactly the safest place to jot down the ending couplet of that sonnet you’ve been trying to finish for months. The shower isn’t promising either: soggy notebook paper isn’t particularly conducive to writing.

Sure, Cameron encourages us to keep a notebook or tape recorder nearby. However, the issue still persists because many creative activities—especially writing—typically involve sitting at a desk or in a chair, basically assuming a position that is anything but in flow, and due to the fleeting nature of ideas, the following paradox arises: being in flow allows us to channel our creative powers, but wielding our creative powers requires us to enter a state of non-flow.

How are we artists and writers supposed to overcome such a paradox? First, take Cameron’s advice: keep a notebook or tape recorder nearby (maybe keep Siri nearby instead of the tape recorder—this is 2021). Yes, many of your ideas will become fugitives you will never recapture, but this won’t always be the case. Sometimes you’ll get lucky, and your idea will hang around long enough for you to turn into a rest stop and jot it down or for you to hop out of the shower and type it onto a document. I disregarded Cameron’s advice for far too long. I used to go on long hikes, my preferred state of flow, without a notebook or my phone, and I remember all these poems would come to me while I marveled at the trees, wildlife, rivers, mountains, etc., but since I had nowhere to write these poems down, all I can say is rest in peace poems that never made it to the page. Please learn from my mistakes and prevent future poetry casualties.

Second, when an idea manifests, keep thinking about it. Preferably, fine-tune it, revise it. The longer you can play with an idea, the less likely it is to flee. Sometimes when I’m hiking, I’ll get caught up with a single line of poetry, and I’ll revise it, tweaking the diction and adjusting the word order. I can sometimes go miles playing with a single line, and playing with it prevents it from fleeing. Then, when I’m finished reworking it, I jot it down in my tiny journal or type it into the Notes app on my phone (I’m careful not to forget these things now).

Even if you lose a few ideas along the way, try to appreciate and keep the ideas that come to you while you’re showering, driving, hiking, and being simply in flow. These ideas may become the ending of a poem, the start of a novel, the subject of a painting, etc. There is something powerful about Cameron’s advice, and I am grateful that I decided to take her up on the whole fill-your-well-through-flow thing. The way I see it, the paradox is just part of being an artist, but overcoming paradoxes leads to some of the best art.

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