Poetry in Practice: Creative Flow

By Mark McGuinness

Years ago I read that Isaac Asimov couldn’t wait to sit down at his writing desk in the morning and had to be dragged away from it at night because he was enjoying himself so much. I was amazed. How often do writers talk about their work as something enjoyable? Perhaps I’m being unfair, but the more typical response seems to be this one from Peter de Vries: “I love being a writer. What I can’t stand is the paperwork.” On the other hand, there must be some pleasure in the act of writing, especially for poets, since most of us are certainly not in it for the money and there are surer routes to fame. For this article I spoke to some leading contemporary poets and trawled through the writings of past masters, as well as dipping a toe in the waters of psychology, to see what I could learn about the elusive joy of writing.

Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi uses the term ‘flow’ to describe the state of absorption in the creative process. He defines flow as “an automatic, effortless, yet highly focused state of consciousness”, which results from stretching our abilities in the pursuit of a meaningful challenge. The elements of creative flow include: clear goals; a balance between challenges and skills; total absorption in the task; a distorted sense of time; and an absence of distractions, worry and selfconsciousness. Csikszentmihalyi distinguishes flow from mere indulgence in pleasure (which is typically short-lived and unsatisfying) and characterises it as ‘autotelic’ – an end in itself. Or as Noel Coward put it more pithily, “Work is more fun than fun”. To which most writers would probably add “sometimes”.

I asked Susan Wicks if her experience of writing was anything like Asimov’s or Coward’s:

It can be, when I’m writing in the right circumstances, and especially when I’m writing poetry. I certainly lose all sense of time when I’m concentrating, and it’s a luxury to be able to indulge that… At its best it brings a kind of euphoria.

This is strikingly similar to Csikszentmihalyi’s description of flow: the emphasis on the ‘right circumstances’, a distorted sense of time, and feelings of intense enjoyment. It is also interesting to hear Wicks say that she is more likely to experience flow when writing poetry, since poetry has long been ascribed a magical quality that distinguishes it from prose, partly because of the altered state of consciousness which was thought necessary for its composition – as reflected in old-fashioned terms such as poetic ‘inspiration’, ‘trance’ or ‘ecstasy’.

Paul Farley also found it easy to recognise the experience of flow when I described it to him:

Yes, being ‘in the zone’ when you’re writing well is pleasurable, effortless, and anything can and often does bubble up from God knows where. It’s like you’re conducting an orchestra of everything that is the case with you, what you’ve done, who you’ve loved, what you’ve seen and read, all the sensory data you’ve stored: there are different sections which can all play together in concert, which normally wouldn’t.

This orchestra is a wonderful metaphor for the unifying, organising and harmonising qualities of creative flow. Farley’s description gives us a vivid sense of the engagement of his whole mental, emotional and physical being in the act of writing. Satisfying as this is,it is not an experience that can be guaranteed. Most poets seem to agree with Shelley that “A man cannot say ‘I will compose poetry’”. Paul Farley was quite definite on this point when I asked him:

I don’t tend to deliberately try and fall into a state conducive to writing … It’d be good to be able to, but it doesn’t quite work like that. I think you get better at recognising it, over time, though, and become more able to sustain the mood.

The initial inspiration for his poems seems to arise out of an openness to the life around him, and the ability to ‘recognise’ the promptings of his imagination in response to certain stimuli:

Mostly, I’m not a writer: I’m living my life and getting on with things. Like I say, sudden re-alignments and urges to write are essentially mysterious, and tend to mug you … I’ve always found the triggers, the little clicks that make you want to stop whatever it is you’re doing and start writing, completely unpredictable … Maybe chime is a better verb. Something you hadn’t thought or felt before in a certain way or relationship clicks into place, and there’s a harmonious feeling to it all. A slight re-alignment. I’m not claiming any great originality: as long as it has the force of revelation to me, then it’s worth paying attention to. More often than not you’re nowhere near writing equipment or a computer, but I’ve found I’m usually able to recall the initial phrase or line. It’s more than simply the act of remembering.

This seems closer to Hardy’s concept of the poet as “a man who used to notice such things” than Wordsworth’s more deliberate “emotion recollected in tranquility”. The unpredictable character of his Muse means that Farley’s poems are frequently written in spite of a conscious intention to do something else:

I don’t have any set routines or ‘poem traps’ … Wim Wenders said something that rings true: he was able to do all kinds of thinking on journeys or while he was out in the world, but once he sat himself down at a desk … nothing. It all dried up. A large part of writing poetry for me has been skiving, wriggling out of things that needed doing, carving out time in an already busy day.

For Farley, the idea of poetry as “something I’m not supposed to be doing” is “a great enabler”. Susan Wicks shares this view, saying “I still sometimes have that feeling of being allowed to do something delicious and not obviously useful, and perhaps forbidden”. Yet she is also happy to use more deliberate strategies for getting into creative flow. I showed her the following passage from Spender’s article as a springboard for discussion:

the problem of creative writing is essentially one of concentration, and the supposed eccentricities of poets are usually due to mechanical habits or rituals developed in order to concentrate … Schiller liked to have a smell of rotten apples, concealed beneath the lid of his desk, under his nose when he was composing poetry. Walter de la Mare has told me that he must smoke when writing. Auden drinks endless cups of tea. Coffee is my own addiction, besides smoking a great deal, which I hardly ever do except when I am writing.

With my own background in using hypnosis to facilitate creativity, I suggested that the various rituals and other stimuli Spender describes actually work by association: reproduce the appropriate stimulus and the body reproduces the state of mind. Wicks replied:

I do absolutely believe in the association mechanism you describe. I brought a bottle of Dial handwash back with me from the US one summer to remind me of working among the visual artists at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts… At MacDowell last January I was waking at 4 a.m. almost with poems already in my head and trudging out into the woods with my torch in the snow to my studio to write as much as I could as soon as I could. Just stepping out into the dark and the falling snow was enough. The desire to write poems was so clear and near the surface that it was as if the real work had been happening while I slept. At home it’s much harder – but still there’s a rhythm of ‘clearing the decks’, then ‘writing as a habit’, e.g. in my diary, notes, etc, and then a kind of feeling of space where a poem or the idea for a story or novel might start to happen.

Speaking of the ‘euphoria’ of creative flow, she said

When you learn to connect it with a certain conjunction of circumstances I think your brain begins to expect it and – so to speak – salivate. Reproduce the circumstances, and you find you get the same euphoric anticipation, and then the same high-quality attention, very quickly and easily.

At times she goes beyond reproducing the external triggers for the creative flow state, and uses visualisation to change her state of consciousness while writing:

But when I wasn’t well about fifteen years ago I somehow got into the habit of thinking of my brain as a tree stretching its leaves towards the sun. It sounds really stupid when I write it down – but the fact is that when I’m writing I still stop for a moment and do it sometimes and it brings intense pleasure and a feeling of possibility and renewal.(I’m trusting you not to laugh at this!)

Having worked with numerous creative professionals, this doesn’t sound “stupid” at all to me, but rather very familiar; whenever we get close to the intimate workings of the imagination, there can be a concern that it will seem odd to others, yet these very idiosyncrasies create the distinctive character of an individual talent. Though I encountered many such individual differences in the poets I interviewed for this article, I also noticed many similarities in their descriptions of creative flow. And they all agreed that the experience of flow can make many of the frustrations of the writing life worthwhile. As Matthew Sweeney says:

it comes so easily that afterwards I wonder why I don’t write poems all the time.

Finally, how about you? Can you relate to these descriptions of creative flow? If so, what helps you get into flow? Share your experiences with other readers on the Magma web forums

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