Really, writing is both a wonderful and terrible choice for a career, but one of the best parts is an experience so sweet and pure that it truly rivals the other great pleasures in life. No, it’s not the first time you sign a book for your parents.
I’m talking about The Flow.
The Flow is that magical experience when the words come as naturally as breathing, popping into your head like fireworks that seem to type themselves across your screen. When you’re in The Flow, writing seems like the easiest, most blissful vocation on the planet.
I only wish it lasted.
I don’t know about you, but when I sit down to write, it usually takes me a little time to warm up. I don’t bother with pre-game exercises; I just dive in. I read back over the previous day’s work, maybe jot down a couple notes as I try to find the narrative moment where I left off. Within half an hour, I’m typically chugging away. Then comes the make-or-break period. Somewhere toward the end of the first hour, I’ll either snag The Flow and cruise through a productive session or the magic eludes me and I have to fight to make my daily quota.
That’s the magic and wonder of The Flow. It comes and goes. But is it possible to encourage that spark to visit and maybe stick around for a while? Drawing solely from my own experience, I say yes. Er, sorta.
Over the years, I’ve developed a few ways to trick my brain into the right framework. The first is physiological. You see, I have an addiction to M&Ms. Peanut, almond, peanut butter, or plain, I love the damned things. So when the writing isn’t coming, I often devour a handful of these pieces of chocolate heaven and pop open a can of soda (the real stuff, not diet.) I don’t know how long it actually takes caffeine and sugar to get to the brain, but the effect is almost instantaneous for me. So fortified, I start again, and more times than not I’ll see a nice bump in production. If not, at least I’ll be in a better mood.
The second arrow in my quiver is music. I don’t always listen to music while I write, but when I do, good old Flow seems to hear the beat and come running. I’m tempted to say I listen to classical music because it might make me sound more intellectual, but I’m a heavy metal child of the 70’s and 80’s, so that’s where I run to when I need soul-shattering inspiration. I dial up some Iron Maiden or Judas Priest, maybe some AC/DC, and it’s smooth sailing from there.
But what if The Flow comes for a bit and then wants to leave? Have you ever been in the middle of a great sentence when the gist of it just… slips away? Then you spend five minutes staring at the screen, wondering what the fudge just happened. Flow has left the building.
So, aside from gorging myself on candy and blowing out my eardrums, what can I do to keep The Flow going? I make sure my workplace is free from (most) distractions. I tell my family that I’m going to be working and not to disturb me unless there’s a fire or someone is leaking significant amounts of blood.
I also don’t fret about “getting it right” on the first pass. When I’m writing a first draft, I don’t stop and analyze every phrase. I don’t comb through the thesaurus to find the exact right word. I hit it as best I can and keep moving. Continual motion is the key. Every time I stop, I’m giving The Flow a chance to slip out the back door.
Lastly, when I do eventually lose my mojo (“Don’t worry,” she said, “it happens to everyone.”), I get up and take a little break. I go out to see what my wife and son are doing. I use the bathroom and get another soda (and a couple more M&Ms). Maybe I even pump out a set of push-ups to get the blood churning. I take a break, and then I come back to my desk.
Sometimes I come back to find my old pal Flow waiting for me.
Jon Sprunk is the author of the fantasy epic Blood and Iron as well as the Shadow Saga trilogy (Shadow’s Son, Shadow’s Lure, and Shadow’s Master). He’s also a mentor at the Seton Hill University fiction writing program. For more on his life and writing, check out www.jonsprunk.com.