Go With the Flow: Finding Balance Among Opposites in the Creative Process

Today I’m honored to have as a guest blogger Carole Jane Treggett, a Canadian photographer and writer who has proven phenomenally encouraging to me as I have charted my dedication to an art-committed life on The Artist’s Road. She is one of the readers who nominated me for the 2011-2012 Top Ten Blogs for Writers Award, for which I am forever grateful. But I value her most because she is so attuned to the creative process, providing great wisdom and personal insight on her blog.

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A few months ago while I was participating in a monthly 10K writing day with Milli Thornton et al over at Fear of Writing blog, I decided to experiment with a recommended technique I read about earlier that day for sneaking past the infernal editor, hoping to enter what is commonly known by creatives as the flow state.

Former U.S. Poet Laureate Mark Strand quips: “Before I enter ‘the flow’ I must extricate myself from ‘the trickle’ of small household duties.'”

I went to get my travel mask, sat down at the computer, slipped the silky black blindfold down over my eyes and began slowly tapping away after a quick peek to make sure my hands were oriented properly on the keyboard. I was relieved to be shielded from the mocking blank screen before me and its evil accomplice, that stationary blinking cursor.

A few moments later a clear image popped into my mind of the ruler-wielding teacher who taught me how to touch-type my first year of high school (on an IBM Selectric machine, remember those?).

She had the habit of slapping that wooden ruler in her palm in time to each deliberate step she took as she marched between our desks, ‘tsking’ at students who would invariably falter and make a typo or two as her shadow fell across their typewriter.

I was intimidated then, but my mouth twitched in amusement now. Oh the irony of using a skill which is second nature to me now that was so tyrannically drilled into me all those years ago, as the means to the hopeful end of getting into a free-flowing creative state!

I realized my fingertips were brushing over the keys steadily and I didn’t seem to be the one who was bringing forth the words while I sat there in reverie; I was simply keeping up with the voice dictating to me. I was now in that wonderful, altered state, not sure or caring how much time had gone past, just enjoying being immersed deeply in the work…

This wasn’t the first time I had experienced creative flow, but I have to admit those glorious sessions are few and very far between for me.

As I mentioned in a recent post on my blog, I find relinquishing a sense of control over my work difficult to do.

Again and again, my long-suffering muse has to wait for me to decide to trust and fall back into her arms.

In her excellent book, Writing in Flow: Keys to Enhanced Creativity, Susan K. Perry Ph.D, offers research findings, advice and valuable quotes highlighting the experiences of 75 authors she interviewed, as well as practical exercises to help writers and artists ‘open the creative floodgates’.

In one particular chapter, Perry addresses the common paradoxes that artists regularly grapple with, asking some great exploratory questions:

Being in control or out of control

Do you always feel in control or out, or do you sometimes purposely take control more actively with a particular project, genre or kind of writing?

Thinking or not thinking

Can you choose not to think (in the usual sense of the word) or is it a shift that you learn to allow to happen?

Asserting one’s will or waiting for inspiration

What is your personal pattern of feeling inspired? Does it happen more often the more regularly you sit down to write? Does it sometimes happen when you’re totally involved in something else, that you get a sudden inspiration and feel the urge to write immediately? What happens if you don’t?

Perry also discusses an important barrier to experiencing flow and enjoyment/productivity in our creative work. She asserts if writers are worrying too much about how their work will be received when they sit down to write, free flow of ideas will be inhibited and it will be nearly impossible to enter a flow state.

I know this chokes me big-time. She suggests we conjure up the most benevolent, accepting reader we can imagine and pretend to write for them, if what we are working on is meant for publication.

So how can we find our own personal formula for creative success, some balance among these opposites?

I long to be more out of control and let myself free fall, but I find it very hard (most days impossible) to allow myself to relax into it. I’m well-read on the suggested methods and routines to try (especially after reviewing Perry’s book again recently!) but I can’t seem to get over my habit of over thinking and wearing out those blasted delete and backspace keys!

The less you fear losing control (in the sense of letting go of your workaday self to move into an alternate reality), and the more you’re willing to explore anything without prior rejection, which is a form of looseness and boundary-hopping, the greater your possibility of enjoying the unself-consciousness of flow. – from Susan Perry’s book

I wanted to write this post to examine the possibility of finding the best of both states: where one can feel reassured and somewhat in control of the process, not completely swept away, but at the same time be in the adventure and really have a great time with quality results to show for it.

Maybe we shouldn’t be looking for the security of a hard-and-fast rule or method though, as efficient as it would be.

Maybe the magic is living the creative paradox to keep us excited and interested, like when we marvel how someone we love and know so well can still surprise us every once in a while.

By showing up – happy, mad, sad, or glad – and being ready and willing to spend the time, we’ll be intermittently reinforced for doing so, and be motivated to keep at it.

I think it’s a matter of accepting and allowing ourselves to have different experiences each time we come to the page, or canvas or pick up our musical instrument.

Perhaps sometimes we’ll be writing in a more cerebral or ordered way and other times voluntarily allowing ourselves to fall down the rabbit hole and simply record what we experience, and even further, become part of the experience so deeply that we are barely aware we’re writing.

Whatever our experience, we can derive great satisfaction knowing we’re honoring our commitment to our art in good faith. Willing and open to trust the process yet another day.

What do you think? What ways do you as an artist find balance among the paradoxical states in order to create in flow?
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Carole Jane Treggett is a writer, photographer, and new media producer. She decided to resume her young adult ambition of becoming a creative professional just a few years ago, having worked over 25 years in social services and education. She blogs about inspiring people to reclaim, rejoin and rejuvenate their artistic birthright and go forward to make their creative dreams and life ambition come true. You can follow her on Twitter @cjtreggett or visit her website.

About Patrick Ross

I'm the author of Committed: A Memoir of the Artist's Road.

41 Responses to “Go With the Flow: Finding Balance Among Opposites in the Creative Process”

  1. Carole Jane, thank you so much for joining The Artist’s Road today! I’m still laughing over your IBM Selectric story. I’m a bit envious, though. My high-school typing class featured only manual typewriters; how I would have loved a humming Selectric with its spinning type ball! The upside was the teacher usually spent the period at her desk reading magazines, so no ruler-smacking in that classroom.

    Your discussion of flow reminded me of Mihali Csikszentmihalyi and his book Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention: http://amzn.to/KWT8ON I don’t know the Perry book, but I assume she’s building off of Mihali’s flow theory; your hyperlink for flow leads to that. I’ve always thought “flow” was a fascinating aspect of creativity study.

    As to your bolded exploratory questions, I think I gain flow by operating without control in a controlled environment. In other words, I do a lot of planning in my head, on paper, and on a whiteboard before I start writing. I also tell myself when I will write. But, when I start the actual writing, I take off all restrictions; I go where the words take me. It may feel like dictation, simply typing what I have already written in my head. But it may surprise, and I allow that surprise. I think I can trust my muse because I have started the process in such a controlled way. I know this is what works for me, but most creatives I know prefer a less structured approach. I blogged (well, griped) about this debate awhile back: https://artistsroad.wordpress.com/2011/09/13/putting-creatives-in-a-box/

    Great post, Carole Jane!

  2. Patrick, thank YOU so very much for inviting me to guest post today on The Artist’s Road, I’m truly honoured and excited.

    Your habit of being well prepared beforehand to gain flow, yet readily going where your muse leads you, seems to be very effective and produced beautiful results, given the quality and depth of your blog posts and other creative non-fiction work of yours I’ve read. I know for myself when I travel (as when I write), I have a better time and experience if I’m prepared in advance. There’s security in having some of the bases covered, but can’t deny the thrill and adventure going ‘off road’ or being spontaneous with a new place to discover that wasn’t on the itinerary or in the guide book.

  3. Carole – I can relate to several of your points – e.g., worrying about what readers will think of my writing even before I’ve put one word on the page; and the challenges of maintaining control of what comes out vs. just letting it fly. Thanks for pointing them out. I’ll take this, your statement, to heart:
    “accepting and allowing ourselves to have different experiences each time we come to the page.”

    • “I know whatcha mean, jellybean” is an expression I use instead of “I hear ya”. That worrying about how other people may receive what we write is a difficult hurdle to jump over, isn’t it, Abi?

      I don’t know about you, but I’m a chronic over thinker and so before I get myself into a tizzy and convince myself not to even bother with it all, I try and get straight to just pushing the words out, as early as possible each day. Before I know it (and despite my protests) my muse is taking me somewhere and I’m surprised by how much I want to go along for the ride🙂

  4. What a great post, Carole Jane! I can really relate to sometimes finding it hard to let go and just let the creative flow take over. So much of it depends on the kind of day I’m having, what other things are on my mind, what other items are waiting for me, demanding my attention. It’s good to find a balance but sometimes that can be difficult. My muse and I are still getting to know each other but she always manages to show up at just the right moment. Sometimes she will recommend a simple change of scenery (even just moving my computer to another room!) and that makes the words flow a bit more freely. I’m still working on getting that “flow” on a regular basis. It’s a process!!

    Thanks to Patrick for sharing your post! I thoroughly enjoyed it🙂

    • Dear Valeka, I only started to spend time with my muse on a regular basis lately as well. It’s interesting to look back though, and realize maybe she was there with you all along, preparing you to write the first draft of the book you just finished (yay!). I’m a big believer in changing locales to get the flow going too; I’m lucky to live close enough to go write in a wonderful little park by a river dam when weather permits, and I love writing to the rushing rhythm of the water there as it fills my senses.

    • You’re welcome, Valeka. Glad you enjoyed it!

  5. Carole, such a deeply satisfying post to be on the receiving end of. Loved the humor about the typing teacher! I admire how you relaxed your reader with some humor before exploring an issue that can cause so much angst for writers. Your warm and friendly voice takes the angst out of it and encourages us all to find more opportunities to go with the flow. Loved the trick about the travel mask. Sounds like it put you immediately into the deeper sensory experience of creativity.

    I could write a volume in response to your excellent question but I’ll try to sum it up with two points:

    (a) practicing my creativity over time, even when it was very angsty and I just had to force myself to start, has reaped the rewards of increased self-belief and connection with my muse and flow state;

    (b) for the other approach that I grew into over time (by building trust in my process), you worded it more beautifully than I can this morning after only one cup of coffee:😀

    “Maybe the magic is living the creative paradox to keep us excited and interested, like when we marvel how someone we love and know so well can still surprise us every once in a while.”

    Kudos to Patrick for adding to his impressive portfolio of high-quality guest bloggers.🙂

    P.S. The photo gallery on your blog is stunning! And thank you for mentioning the 10K Day.

    • Ok, Ms Thornton, your check (or ‘cheque’ as we Canadians spell it) is definitely in the mail!😀

      I think my biggest takeaway from preparing and writing this post was the key to being a happy, successful writer or creative is to write and create a lot and often and not to quit doing that, no matter what. Hear it all the time but it’s hard to put into practice! All the recent quotes from Ray Bradbury circulating all over the internet this past week or so have been reinforcing this as well for me.

      Thanks for your indefatigable encouragement to so many writers out there. I’m really grateful to Patrick for creating this blog and fostering such a strong, supportive community of amazing writers and artists.

  6. I write my blog posts in flow with no problem, which is probably why I love blogging so much. I also wrote the novel that is going to be published next year in flow. But my current novel is different–I keep going back and tinkering on it, telling myself I want to get the first chapters just right before I move on. I know better! It is clear I’m not trusting myself on this project yet. I need to dive in–perhaps with a blindfold on.

    • I don’t think I’ve ever heard someone say they completed a whole project feeling in flow the whole time, Charlotte; that’s amazing!

      I wonder if you were to think back on the conditions during the time you wrote your first novel, compared to now as you are working on your second one. Perhaps find something that worked so well for you before so you can get back in flow.

      I know for myself I’m spending way too much time lately on social media, and the Internet in general. I’m convinced this has affected the quality of my creative work beyond the obvious fact that I’m not spending enough time writing. I believe I’m taking in too much information and it’s a lot noisier in my head now, and hard for me to hear the subtleties and great clues/ideas I used to be so attuned to before. So I’m trying to wean myself off this ‘addiction’ and stimulate my mind by going out in the natural world more often, as well as quietly reading or quilting most evenings.

  7. Hi, Carole! Funny that you and I are guest posting one after the other (on different blogs) and both used the phrase “Oh, the irony!”😀

    I actually don’t have too much trouble getting into flow once I show up for my creative work. Like Patrick, having structure and order around the process allows me to let ‘er rip once I’m there. I really believe in ritual for this purpose. For me, it’s like a message to my inhibited, overly controlling self that everything is okay and it can take a nap now.

    HOWEVER. I struggle with being too formulaic. I seem to do the same things over and over, in writing, painting, photography, etc. Maybe that’s why things seem to flow so easily once I get started–on some level, I already know what I’m going to do before I start because it’s just a variation on what I always do.

    So I would add to these questions of creative balance the problem of having a well-developed style and spending extended time exploring a certain approach (along the lines of Picasso’s blue period, for example) versus playing around in new territory.

    Terrific post!

    • Hiya Sue,
      I know, I read your post yesterday and smiled at your ‘ironic’ intro; gotta love that synchronicity!

      The advice of getting out of our own formulaic tendencies seems to regularly encourage trying a variety of different types of writing, something we don’t usually do; as you say, ‘new territory’. For example, if one normally writes persuasive or expository content, to switch it up and write a few haikus or stream of consciousness narrative, that sort of thing. I definitely think the ‘tried-and-true’ versus style experimentation should be considered along with the other questions when trying to find the right alchemy for achieving creative flow. Thanks for adding this🙂

    • Hi Sue, a question for you. What was the creativity book you won in my contest? Was it Mihali’s book on flow?

  8. Was just reading Stephen King’s “On Writing” in which he calls his first draft “the closed door draft” because no one’s going to see it. He locks himself in the room and doesn’t come out till he’s written 2000 words, his daily quota, no matter how long it takes. That’s sure to create flow.

    Myself, I’ve been living by the slogan, “Don’t get it right, get it written.” But now I’m trying somethng new… first get the “situation” to my liking, then I’ll start writing the first draft. In my experience, the writing flows when my characters are in a “situation”. I know what everyone “wants”. That’s my key to a fictional flow. This morning, I may have nailed that “situation”. We’ll see how it works.

  9. I’ve recently been re-reading On Writing too and I agree, pj, that prolific horror fiction machine of a man really does exemplify your wonderful motto: Don’t get it right, get it written. Mr. King keeps it real and pretty simple, doesn’t he? Write for about 4 hours a day (same time, same place usually in the mornings, I believe),then read for several hours a day. He sounds as constant in his creative work as the ocean tides.Throw in a wee bit of ‘other work’ and relaxation, go to bed, and then start all over again. I’m sure there’s more to it than that, but his gazillion books speak volumes how well his routine has worked for him🙂

    It sounds like you’ve done a heck of a lot of necessary prep work and now can dive into flow for your first draft. Wishing you all the best with it!

  10. Hi Carole! I think fast-drafting helps with “outrunning’ that inner-editor, but constantly fast-drafting isn’t necessarily the best way to write, in my opinion. I find that meditation (whether intentional or accidental, like staring out the window) and near-sleep both loosen my control. I always keep a notepad by my bed so that when I’m falling asleep and get that bolt of uncontrolled idea, I can sit up and jot it down. Great topic!

    • Ah yes, meditation. I’m really making a concerted effort to get into the routine of the intentional practice, but I have the accidental kind down to a fine art, especially when traveling by car (as a passenger that is!) on long road trips😀 Love the idea of fast-drafting, out running the inner editor, and I think I’m going to really give this a whirl to jump start the first draft of a book I’m now working on.

      Thanks for your suggestions and great ideas, Annie. It’s so valuable and interesting learning about what works for other writers and creatives.

  11. Oh, I appreciated this post, very much! I am going to have to check out those books!

    The hard part for me about flow is that I often work to sabatoge myself when I’m at the cusp. I can tell there are more words, and words that I want to write, and yet, that seems to be the time I automatically turn to Facebook, chores, anything.but.writing. It’s frustrating, especially when I see myself doing it, but somehow “rationalize” it. I wonder if more control/structure would help get past those points, and into the flow moments?

    • Oh Stephanie, you don’t know how much I relate to what you share here! I can honestly tell you from recent experience each time I just go and spend time writing rather than psyching myself out of it, I’m working towards turning my dream into reality. There’s this quote I heard on Twitter recently and it goes something like:”the stronger the resistance, the more important the work.” I’m starting to take that very seriously.

      What I’ve found extremely helpful is having an accountability buddy or frequent communication with a few other supportive and serious writers who are asking about the progress of your work, cheering you on and motivating you by example as you see them moving ahead successfully with their writing and creative projects.

      • Oh, that’s a great way to look at it – that it’s not about the writing, per se (though it is). It’s about turning dream to reality.

        Thank you for that quote from Twitter. (My guess is it could be lots of people, but Stephen Pressfield comes to mind immediately, as I’m currently reading the War of Art.)

        I definitely agree with your comment and what’s helpful. I have a friend I meet with once a week (virtually). We chat, then write for a half hour. She’s been doing wonderfully with her submissions and is encouraging me to submit to an anthology she pointed me toward. I’ve gotten more writing done around a single item than I have in a long long time.🙂

  12. I’m so glad that there are so many ways to write. So glad that it’s a magical process! Imagine if there really was a formula… would we still be in thrall of this art form?

  13. Thanks, Carole (and Patrick) for mentioning my book Writing in Flow. You’re right, Patrick, I did take off from Csikszentmihalyi’s work on flow. He wrote the foreword for my book, in fact. Since then, I’ve continued to think about and write about flow, especially in my PsychologyToday blog Creating in Flow.

    Of course, getting and staying in flow for any length of time is really hard for some of us (me included). An ongoing battle, which wouldn’t be a battle, if only… we could let go, forget results, focus, make writing a habit, and so on. More of my posts on this topic to come soon.

    • Hi Susan,

      Welcome to The Artist’s Road! Happy and honored to have you here. I’ll have to read your book and find your columns on the Psychology Today blog; I almost always find good columns there.

      It would seem your book spoke to Carole Jane, and has triggered a flow of creative comments, so we’ve captured it here at least!

      • And now I’ve RSSed your blog and already discovered others for writers by following your links (and your award thingie, top 10). Have to be careful not to spend ALL my time catching up with your posts and following links.

        (By the way, just click my name to get to my blog.)

    • Hello Susan,
      How wonderful of you to join in the discussion here at The Artist’s Road! I have found your book to be immensely encouraging and helpful again and again over the years as I move forward with my writing ambitions. I really hope Patrick’s readers will indeed get Writing in Flow for themselves as it truly is chock-full of thought-provoking,inspiring,and practical information.

      I admire your work a lot (I guess that’s obvious by now!) and I look forward to reading more from your blog at Psychology Today!

  14. “By showing up – happy, mad, sad, or glad – and being ready and willing to spend the time, we’ll be intermittently reinforced for doing so, and be motivated to keep at it.”

    That right there is the key, I think, Carole. Just showing up. It seems so difficult, for some. They want to write when they are inspired, not ‘on a schedule’.

    I like your next line too: “I think it’s a matter of accepting and allowing ourselves to have different experiences each time we come to the page, or canvas or pick up our musical instrument.” I so agree. It’s not going to be the same every time, some days will be more productive, or more inspired and magical. But even the ‘bad’ days often produce something that can be used. It’s just the commitment to get the words down, and accept what is given.

    • I really do believe if we take the pressure off ourselves “to produce” and just show up and ‘accept what is given’ as you most aptly say, Cynthia, then we’ll get through, with often surprising rewards for our commitment. I think I need to remind myself of this one constantly.

      Sharing and communing here on The Artist’s Road helps too. Almost every week I’m encouraged in some practical way, after reading Patrick’s posts, and then from the great comments that follow.

  15. What a great post and discussion. “Maybe the magic is living the creative paradox to keep us excited and interested, like when we marvel how someone we love and know so well can still surprise us every once in a while.” So true!

    My “flow” sometimes takes over too much. I know, that’s supposed to be a good thing, right? But, when words come to me and beg to be written at 11 pm, there’s a good chance I won’t be sleeping until they’re all out on the page (or screen). Sometimes that has meant 3 am.

    When I’m making dinner, poof, an idea comes … and I have to go write it down. When I’m in bed, poof! When I’m in the car, poof! Remember John Boy (I’m dating myself) in the Walton’s “Homecoming” — the Christmas episode wherein he keeps running upstairs to his journal, and his mama says, “are you smokin’ up there, boy?!”

    And he answers something like, “Mama, all these thoughts — the way a whippoorwill calls to its mate, the way the train sounds at night and where is it headin’?, how the river runs and will it make it to the sea? – start swirlin’ ’round in my head, and I gotta get ’em out or they’ll drive me crazy.

    Me and John Boy. We’ve got a lot in common, creatively speaking. My inner critic has grown relatively quiet over the years (when it comes to my art — when it comes to the rest of my life, not so much). Perhaps because I majored in art and got used to critique? Maybe because I’ve found myself in life-circumstances that forced vulnerability … and willingness to be vulnerable scares the inner critic?

    “I think it’s a matter of accepting and allowing ourselves to have different experiences each time we come to the page, or canvas or pick up our musical instrument.”

    I resonate with this, also. Very much like meditation.

    It’s a double-edged sword, creativity, for me anyway. But I wouldn’t trade it. Thank you so much for your post.

  16. I love this! The way creativity flows into the entire writing process is so fun and exciting–if you want to read my version of a similar topic, check out The 7 Stages of Writing on my blog! Thanks for this great post!

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. 5 articles about writing you may have missed (part 3) #freelance « @charlotteclark - July 3, 2012

    […] Go With the Flow: Finding Balance Among Opposites in the Creative Process by Carole Jane Treggett “A few months ago while I was participating in a monthly 10K writing day with Milli […]

  2. Kudos to the Artist’s Road Commenters of 2012 | The Artist's Road - January 14, 2013

    […] CAROLE JANE TREGGETT: My other top Canadian commenter, Carole Jane played a role in me winning the Top 10 Blog for Writers award, nominating me when I didn’t even know the award existed. She’s been a loyal supporter when I’ve struggled to keep this blog going, and is quick to tweet new posts. A photographer, writer, and all-around creative person, she guest blogged here on the creative process. […]

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