Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has a theory of flow, which defines flow as “‘the state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter; the experience itself is so enjoyable that people will do it even at great cost, for the sheer sake of doing it.” (You can read more about it here).
For me, this is more than a theory, this was my reality as a fiction writer. I can’t begin to tell you the days, weeks, and months, I would lose with a project. This is how my creativity used to work:
- I would get a spark of an idea, scribble down a few notes, but chances are it will sit in my head from anywhere to a few months to years.
- Suddenly, for some unexplained reason, my creativity is ready, and the idea is ready to be born, all I have to do is sit down.
- I will start to work on the idea, not always in chronological order, allowing my creativity to dictate what to work on and when.
- Bliss.The idea would flow out, and I would lose time; just focused on the rapture of the writing. Wow, it was a rush. I can’t imagine a drug touching that feeling of knowing what you are doing on the page. It’s not like playing God, but the creation aspect is there as all the pieces (every sentence, every line of dialogue) fall into the place that they were meant to be in.
Everything would just feel right with the world.
I had a purpose when I was in the midst of a creative “flow.” And, like I said, I would lose time. Seriously, when the flow was starting to subside I would look at the clock and realize it was now 4 AM. This was a common occurrence to me… The key word in that last sentence was “was.”
The fact is now I can’t write at home. My one-time writing office is now my daughter’s room and our house—with a 4-year old “superhero,” a 9-month old baby, and a border collie—is not exactly a serene location for contemplation. It is a place always on the move is the best way to explain it. Everything is always moving. And whenever I have tried to just simply write a few sentences or even scribble a note, it has proven impossible without someone trying to crawl up my back or cry for me to pick them up.
I first noticed this being an issue after my son was born, and I came up with a plan that in theory sounded great. It is my responsibility to do the groceries on Sunday and I would disappear a few hours early to go to a Biggby’s to eat a stale cookie (they always taste stale to me there), drink a hot chocolate, and try to put some ideas on paper. Like I said, great in theory.
The problem is I could not just jump-start my brain.
The part of my brain where all of the inspiration comes from doesn’t seem to like working under orders. And, after two years of going to Biggby’s two or so many times a month, I had only about 140 pages to show for it (the first part of a book with three parts). Hardly something to brag about; especially since it was the first draft and for me the first draft is the easiest (and most fun) of all of the drafts to work on. This was not normal for me, and I felt it down to my bones.
Then my daughter was born, and this as an escape disappeared as well, because frankly, the fact is when I leave the house to do some writing, I feel guilty.
Oh, my wife is very supportive of my writing, but I know what isn’t being said. I am leaving for a few hours to do something solely about me and she is chasing after the kids waiting for my return. I feel that selfishness. And it’s not like I am alone in wanting some time to write. My wife, Heather Vaughan-Southard, is really starting to make a name for herself as a writer about education in dance (you can see her blog, Educating Dancers, here). Her writing, to be honest, will have an easier chance at finding publication than mine; I know that.
In the last nine months, I can only think of once where I have left the house to write. It was on my Birthday and I spent the entire time rereading my adaptation of HAMLET (One of my favorite things I have ever done). While nice, I walked away feeling like the old Scott that wrote that script, was waving at me from the pages with a disappointed and awkward smile on his face, saying, “Scott, dude, what happened?”
Here is a great example of what I mean about this not being normal for me: I created the first draft of my novel MEGAN in only three weeks. 346 pages of sheer creative fiction in just three weeks! Looking back, I have no idea how I did it (My fingers must have sounded like drumsticks). It’s sad, but I almost can’t imagine having that kind of energy and passion for an idea right now.
There were some things that were in the favor of MEGAN’s creation. At the time I had a crappy evening temp job (I was helping my wife get through grad school at the University of Michigan) and I would have mornings and afternoons to myself. Perfect opportunity for flow and losing time. Also, it was a good idea with a lot of potential. It probably didn’t hurt as well that I had a great agency backing up my writing in New York and the possibility of success can definitely stir the creativity. I didn’t feel burdened by the idea having to find an agent or publisher for it after it was done; I just had to worry about creating. Just creating.
The fact is I need to abandon “flow” as I knew it in creation for the time being; especially if I want to get anything done in the current environment of my life. This is what I need my creativity to do now:
- I need it to turn on like a light switch. It can’t dictate to me anymore when it is time to work. It needs to work with my schedule, the few times I can give to it.
- I need to have an active memory for my projects. I cannot lose creativity and time trying to remember a plot point or what is supposed to happen in a paragraph or where I put that great line of dialogue… or, more embarrassing, trying to remember a main character’s name (Argh!).
- I need to learn to work in spurts of energy, not over extended lengths of time.
In other words, I need my writing to work for me and not the other way around and I do not know if that is even possible. If I have learned anything in the last few years, it is that my creativity has no problem leaving if I don’t play by its rules.
How does someone have an intervention with their creativity?