by Carolyn Kaufman
Coined by a psychologist named Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (pronounced ME-high CHICK-sent-me-high), the term "flow" is that wonderful state in which the words just flow from your fingers. Sometimes it feels like someone (the "muse") is whispering in your ear, or like you're channeling someone or something else, or even that you're just writing down "what's really happening" in your fictional world.
In the end, "flow" is another way of referring to creative dissociation, and dissociation is a natural phenomenon in which some parts of the brain disengage or "split" away from others. It's what happens when you don't remember your drive somewhere because you've been thinking about someone else, or you miss out on part of a conversation because you're daydreaming, or time flies by because you're enjoying a book or movie.
Flow is always a positive experience; in fact, some people refer to it as "optimal experience." And flow doesn't just happen for writers—athletes call it being "in the zone." Chess players, surgeons, dancers, and others also experience flow when they're completely focused on something they love.
Though everybody's experience is a little different, there are certain things many people report, including:
Csikszentmihalyi describes flow as that perfect balance between challenge (task difficulty) and ability (personal skills). The diagram to the right is often used to illustrate the "flow zone."
For example, let's say you're computer illiterate and you need to install a new PC card (circuit board) in your computer. A friend is talking you through the process on the phone, but since you've never even seen the inside of a computer before, you're afraid you're either going to electrocute yourself or fry an expensive piece of equipment. You're probably very anxious.
Washing the dishes is boring because it's so easy and repetitive that you could probably do it with your eyes closed if you had to.
First, the bad news.
According to Csikszentmihalyi, "You can't make flow happen. All you can do is learn to remove obstacles in its way."
If you're a good typist and can type without looking at the keyboard, you know that as long as you don't think about what your fingers are doing, you're fine. As soon as you start thinking about how fast you're hitting the keys, you start to make mistakes. The same thing happens to athletes who are asked to explain how they do something so well...if they try to demonstrate immediately afterward, they have more trouble than usual because now they're analyzing their movements rather than just doing them.
The good news: Something happens in the brain to create that sense of complete absorption, so it's not really a mystical experience that can only be captured by a lucky few. In fact, once that you know what flow is and what it feels like, you can start to pay attention to how you got there and increase your ability to do it on purpose.
Alice Flaherty argues that creativity is due to a balance of frontal and temporal lobe activity. In other words the trick is not, in fact, to get out of your "left brain" and into your right, but to increase activity in the right hemisphere (or reduce activity in the left) so it matches the activity on the other side.
Most people don't realize that if you really got all the way out of your left brain, you wouldn't be able to write—the left brain produces language, and in many people the right brain is completely nonverbal. (That is, if we severed that single connection between your right and left hemispheres, the corpus callosum, and asked the hand controlled by the nonverbal side of your brain to write words, it either wouldn't be able to, or it could only write extremely simple, extremely familiar words, like your name.)
Both sides of your brain work together at all times, but as your brain developed when you were a child, it lateralized functions. In other words, it placed the control centers for some functions on the right side, and the control centers for others on the left. People's brains are organized in similar ways, so we can point to a diagram like the one to the right and say with relative certainty that your brain is organized this way, too.
You'll notice that people who are musicians use the left lobe to listen to music, and non-musicians use the right—that's a good example of how experience can change brain organization. Musicians can hear and identify the logical parts to music; others usually just listen for enjoyment.
Broca's area is a specialized part of the brain in the left frontal lobe responsible for language and speech production. Sometimes, after a stroke, patients cannot speak until they've worked with a speech therapist. That's because Broca's area was affected by the stroke.
Wernicke's area is a specialized part of the brain in the left temporal (side) lobe responsible for language comprehension.
Unfortunately, the left frontal part of the brain is also responsible for that little voice that's trying to edit while you write, and creative drive is actually much more strongly correlated with good creative output than skill.
In other words, if your brain functions normally (i.e. you don't have a tumor), you have the desire to write creatively, and you can shut up that little critical voice, you've got all you need to achieve flow and produce good stuff. (You can get the critic back out when you actually edit, but wait till then!)
So ignore that critical voice until later, because while you may not produce bad work while it's around, you can't write good stuff, either, if you're not writing at all.