As a writer, I am always searching for tools that will improve my productivity. For me, writing is on-again, off-again: some days my fingers fly across the keyboard so fast that my brain has trouble keeping up; while others it’s a titanic struggle just to squeeze a single word onto the blank page. Many of my writer friends also complain of similar periods of feast or famine, so I guess this is a common phenomenon of our field. But does the creative process have to be so hit or miss?
While I have yet to find a book dedicated to finding your nonfiction writing muse, the fiction-writing world contains many attempts to teach writers how to write in flow or find their muse. And while the systems described in these books are intended for the fiction writer, they can be applied by the nonfiction ink-stained wretch who may be struggling with putting words to paper. One treasure that I discovered is Writing in Flow: Keys to Enhanced Creativity, by Susan K. Perry (Writers Digest Books, 1999).
What is “writing in flow”? Writing in flow is the currently fashionable phrase for the old writers’ term, “finding your muse.” When writing in flow, the writer loses all sense of time and space, becoming totally immersed in her work until some time later–minutes, hours, or even after an entire day–she remembers to breathe and pulls herself back into the physical world. During this time there are usually no thoughts of hunger or thirst, quotidian trivia like the bills and the laundry, or impossible deadlines. You are the words and the words are you. Writing in flow is the closest thing I’ve found to achieving a writer’s heavenly high without actually ingesting mind-altering drugs.
So, how do you achieve this writer’s nirvana? Perry’s book delves into the subject, explaining exactly what writing in flow is and what it feels like, the master keys to writing in flow, and finally how to make your writer’s flow happen. In this last section, Perry discusses several techniques writers can use to help induce the state of flow. And while I am sure that many of you already practice these techniques, it never hurts to be reminded of what we can do to improve our writing technique and productivity. A few of the techniques discussed by Dr. Perry:
Ritual and routine. Ritualizing your behavior focuses your mind on your current task and removes the pressure of what others might think of your writing when you are finished. During this time there is no room for any distractions or thoughts except for what you are writing.
Clearing your desk. Sometimes, when shifting priorities force us to begin a new project before the previous one is complete, staring at your notes and e-mails about the previous project can distract you. Clear this material from your desk so that it is out of sight, out of mind, before beginning the new project.
Just do it. Many experienced writers have developed the ability, through years of patient practice, to enter the flow state simply by immersing themselves immediately and fully into their current work. If this works for you, then “just do it.”
Musical aids. Often, listening to certain types or even specific pieces of music can instill a flow state. This is one of my favorite flow techniques, and I use different kinds of music for different kinds of writing: classical and instrumental movie sound tracks for fiction; and folk music, certain types of rock, and jazz for nonfiction pieces.
Simple silence. Often, loud voices, ringing phones, and other interruptions stifle a writer’s creativity. This was a really big killer for me when I first began writing, and under certain circumstances it still is. If silence is your road to flow, buy some sort of white noise machine for your cubical, or if you are lucky enough to have an office with a door, close it before you begin to write. Better yet, invest in a pair of high-quality headphones capable of blocking extraneous sounds. Silence, you’ll find, is golden.
I’ve tried all of the techniques discussed by Perry at least once and have chosen those that work best for me. And if you too need help with rediscovering or improving your writing productivity, I recommend Perry’s book. After all, what could be better than having writer’s nirvana at your beck and call, rather than waiting for a balky muse that may never sing? Writing in flow, how smooth the sound!