I first heard about Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi about 20 years ago. The Hungarian psychology professor — now at Claremont, formerly at University of Chicago — is famous for more than his ridiculously unpronounceable name (phoenetically it’s: Mee-hy Cheek-sent-mə-hy-ee).
An expert in what’s called “positive psychology,” Professor C is also frequently cited in books and articles about creativity. He is renowned for coining the term “flow” — a state of concentration and complete absorption — and for writing a book about it: Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience.
This work had been on my must-read list for more than a decade but somehow I’d always resisted it. I think I pictured it as an academic book, laden with complicated footnotes, filled with graphs and, if not written in Hungarian, at least poorly translated.
Oh, how wrong I was! In his preface Professor C writes, “I have avoided footnotes, references, and other tools scholars usually employ in their technical writing. I have tried to present the results of psychological research, and the ideas derived from the interpretation of such research, in a way that any educated reader can evaluate and apply to his or her own life.”
The result is a highly readable book written in plain English and with such captivating ideas that most readers will find it thoroughly engaging. A friend of mine who read it describes it as “life-changing.”
Flow seldom refers to the act of writing (and, regrettably, the book lacks an index), but I think that many of the principles outlined do apply directly to writing.
Says Professor C: “Outside forces do not determine whether adversity will be able to be turned into enjoyment. A person who is healthy, rich, strong, and powerful has no greater odds of being in control of his consciousness than one who is sickly, poor, weak and oppressed.”
According to Flow, an “autotelic self” is a person who turns potential threats into enjoyable challenges, is never bored, is seldom anxious and has self-contained goals.
How does this apply to writing? Flow outlines four principles for the autotelic self and I relate them here to writing:
- Setting clear goals. For the writer this includes both micro and macro objectives. For example, what is the piece you have to write right now? How many words is it? Who is your audience? How long do you expect it to take you write? (And, by the way, have you set a timer?) From a macro perspective, the questions are different. What type of a writer do you want to become? Is writing a sideline, designed to polish your credentials (say, by writing a book?), or do you aspire to become a fulltime writer on a variety of subjects? Fiction or non? Oh, and did you choose these goals for yourself? Warning: it’s much harder for you to succeed if your goals have been imposed upon you by a boss or a parent.
- Becoming immersed in the activity. Do you spend some time each day writing? Are you able to persist even when writing becomes difficult? When you become bored? Next, what are the challenges that you face? Is your writing too long-winded? Too dull? Too painful to do regularly? What plan have you developed for addressing these challenges?
- Paying attention to what is happening. Self-consciousness is the most common source of distraction for writers, but if you are able to write — to turn off the internal editor until you produce a first draft at least — then you are more likely to enjoy the benefits of flow. Work to separate writing from publication. While you write, you should attend only to the task of writing (leaving worrying about editing and publishing for a separate occasion!)
- Learning to enjoy immediate experience. Says Professor C: “Being in control of the mind means that literally anything that happens can be a source of joy.” While you write, be sure to enjoy the small achievements: finding exactly the right word, producing a stellar sentence, having thoughts move quickly from your fingers onto the page. Recognize that none of these things is likely to happen for ALL of your writing time, but if you can enjoy them when they do occur, then writing is more likely to become a cherished experience rather than a dreaded chore.
I find it invigorating to read books like Flow, but if video is more to your taste, you can also see Professor C on a TED Talk. Read or listen to what he has to say — it’s invaluable for all writers.
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