Do you know it when it happens, a state of being that puts you into what the psychologist Csikszentmihalyi calls “flow?” Do you recognize that your frontal cortex, the “internal editor” and its executive functions has been turned off, leaving you free to create, just create without second guessing. Did you know your brain has cooled down, readying itself to let you work uninterrupted with no sense of self, no sense of thirst, a growling stomach, or needy bladder. You have no sense of time passing, or of the place that would otherwise locate you. You become one with the work that is no longer work, free to perform at your very highest “Peak” level. You are an artist, a writer, an elite mountain climber, chess player. (the human performers whose states of flow Csikszentmihalyi studied, trying to understand how the magic occurs).
What takes us us into such a state? How can we get back into flow when we have fallen out of it? These are the questions that lure me back into my thicket (a place that pierces and prickles, not at all conducive to setting up the conditions that put me into a state of flow.)
I have been in such a state, once decades ago, when I was painting, my canvas propped up against a tree in the middle of a West Virginia woods. More recently, I have entered flow during a writing session. Short bursts when my background music disappears, when I don’t feel my fingers on the keyboard or glance at the screen. For fifteen minutes or so I am in the zone, and the words just come, sentences flow, the rhythms are right. Those are the sentences that never need changing, that breathe on their own, and the editor sees that, too.
Once I sat down to write a piece that had gone through four failed drafts. On this, the fifth, I sat in the chair for more than three hours, unaware that lunchtime had come and gone, unaware of anything else around me, and the good draft—the final piece—came out fully formed. It wrote itself. When the last line appeared, I stood up to discover I was famished, exhausted, and in desperate need of the bathroom. My head swam and it took several hours to come down from the high of being at the peak, writing as if for my life, and yet, unaware of any of it. It just happens, this state of flow, the feeling of oneness with the work, whether it lasts for minutes or hours, it just does.
Colin McCann said in an interview once that while he was writing Let The Great World Spin, he sat in the chair, swept up in flow for eleven hours. His wife had to interrupt him to tell him he needed to eat, he hadn’t had anything to drink all day. I wondered if I could tell which chapters he wrote in such a state, but no, the writing was all good.
How did McCan get into flow? How did I? Can’t say, but I know I want more of it. Maybe someday, Csikszentmihalyi will unlock the magic.