Reaching for The Optimal Experience

I know the jokes about writers.  We work in our pajamas, for one.  We’re obviously at home too, so we ought to be able get the laundry done while we work.  And since our time is our own, it’s only logical that we can run the dog to the vet, clean up the dishes, remember those birthday cards, have the repair guy in when the refrigerator starts making that noise like it’s housing a sick cat.  And the thing is, I think most of us partly agree.  It is only logical.  Intrusive and crazy-making, but logical.  It all needs to be done, even if it means something is always banging on the door of our writing time. 

For a while, I tried clearing the decks daily before I started writing.  I was quickly reminded of Betty Friedan’s astute observation, “Housework expands to fill the time available.”  And I’ve noticed the “…expands to fill the time available,” principle applies not only to housework but also to the business side of the writing life:  e-mails, reading The Author’s Guild communications and Publisher’s Lunch, primary sources of information for authors, and the increasing responsibility publishers expect authors to take for marketing.  Having other things caught up in order to be able to fully focus didn’t work for me, because things weren’t ever caught up.  Doing a bit of it and then turning to my writing leaves me with too divided a mind, leftover ‘to-dos’ jumping around my mind like antsy cats.

For me, it’s become a matter of steering myself past non-emergency distractions during time I’ve designated for writing to go directly to the work.  It’s almost like putting on blinders.  My aim is to get myself to flow, that state of complete focus in which one’s self disappears, energized and merged with the work.  Everything else drops away and, for a while, nothing else matters.  While creative artists have always known about these productive periods of being in the zone, it was named, studied and written about starting c. 1975 by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (yes, my fingers were on the right keys), Ph.D., author of  Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. (New York, NY: Harper and Row, 1990.)   If  I remind myself of this concept, and tell myself to concentrate on going there until that experience has run its course, I’ll finally get up from the chair—reeling, surprised at the clock, satisfied, happy—and then maybe I’ll get that mail taken care of.  Or that laundry.   Or attend to another job, as so many writers and artists do.  Depends on the day.  And now I also keep a written list of junk tasks and errands that need to be done, my goal being to ignore it until a designated half-day to run around town.  I admit that as the list grows, items on it can start to eat at my mind like mice that find the spilled birdseed on the garage floor (on the list to clean up).  If I let it go too long, the mice take over and my mind—which I’d love to be an orderly, organized, uncluttered house—more resembles a tenement, littered, infested, crap-filled.  So I have learned not to let the list become a three day project instead of a half-day. 

And I’ve learned that to live as an actively creating writer means making conscious choices about how I’ll do that.  Internal reward—the experience of flow, for example—may be the primary gratification a writer gets between publications.  And that can be years when the publications are books.  So I’m arranging time to maximize my best, most joyful experience.

Do you have a way of approaching the creative life that has (or hasn’t) worked for you?  Do you experience flow?  I hope you’ll share your experience.

3 Responses to Reaching for The Optimal Experience

  1. I love the days when I get to “flow.” In order to optimize that, I get up from bed and go from the coffee pot to my writing chair without passing GO. It seems that the less awake I am, the greater the chance that I’ll be less resistant. As for the housework and the demands, if I get up early, think 5:30, it feels like the time is mine. Later in the day when I’ve put in my hours and feel tired, I can fold laundry, sweep up kitty litter, drive around doing errands. Such mindless tasks can actually be useful when I’m stuck in the work, giving me just the mulling time I need while also occupying (sort of) my conscious mind. But this only works if I’ve already done my writing. I can’t resolve a problem I don’t know I have.

    I know I’m in flow when the undone housework doesn’t bother me. So what if the puppy just chewed up her toy and left the stuffing all over the rug? When the work is going well, it can stay there forever. A week ago, that happened. When I finally got to the vacuum cleaner, I was relieved to have it gone, but meanwhile … I was writing.

    As for the assumptions of other people, well, the beauty of being a woman of a certain age is that I no longer care. After all, at 5:30 AM, I am in my pajamas.

  2. I know exactly of what you speak when using the term, “flow.” There are days when it doesn’t happen; the days when the harsh concept of “butt in chair” will not work. For me, being the uber-scheduled person that I am, having a defined writing time is essential. Uncluttering my mind of daily requirements is a prerequisite for being able to tune out everything else, and let the creativity begin. Without it, my mind is comprised of fragmented shards of thought which can never be assembled into a whole. I’ve discovered that my best writing time is from 4 to 7 in the afternoon. My family has come to accept the fact that dinner will be served some time after 9. Ish. They know that, if I’m permitted to devote my full attention to the task at hand, be it writing, or creating a gourmet dinner, the fruits of these labors of love will be worth it. What I most notice is if, after reading a section from a previous days’ work, it seems to be written by someone else, a someone who is a complete stranger, then I am “flowing” with creativity. If I can impress myself with my own compositions, if the words on the page appear as a surprise, so that I say to myself, “wow! This sounds great,” then I know I was so deeply into writing that my subconscious was doing the work. At those times, I am only a vessel. For me, this is what writing is all about.

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