Guest Post: Valerie O. Patterson on To Write In Flow

Val at work with her cat Cooper

By Valerie O. Patterson
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

We know it when we feel it. When the words stream onto the page, and we lose track of time. We are in the moment of the book. We are the voice of the story.

When we come to an end point, we blink. We realize the music is repeating itself; the light has gone down with the sun. A family member asks what time’s dinner? The moment is over, and we print out what we’ve written.

Later we’ll read it over and be surprised by some of what’s on the screen or page. The language is raw and from the heart. And, we don’t know if we can get in that place again.

What’s this all about?

Flow. It’s not surprising we think of creative writing (or painting or any other form of art) as being at its best in flow, as if it were in fact water. Water is fluid, shapeless, giver of life, life itself.

Psychologist Mihaly Csíikszentmihíalyi in his book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience identifies certain elements critical to flow: intense concentration, loss of self-consciousness (in other words, the critic has gone home); a loss of a sense of time; and, feelings of euphoria.

Some writers say they never experience flow. Others do but then say that, when the book is finished, they can’t tell what part was written in flow, and what part was a result of “staring at a blank sheet of paper until drops of blood form on your forehead,” as Gene Fowler described.

Flow may not guarantee perfect prose, but I believe it does mean we’ve tapped into our best creative selves.

Flip Flops: Getty Images, Beach: Jupiter Images

For me flow is a state when the writing is going so well I’m not thinking of anything else. It doesn’t happen all the time, but it’s magical when it does. I have a few techniques that seem to help me.

Writing even a little every day. This isn’t a mechanical requirement—X many words a day. Rather, it’s a spiritual one, in the same way we might approach prayer or meditation. We’re seeking those quiet moments, and we’re readying our writerly soul to be fed. When we regularly engage, we are more likely to move quicker into a scene. Jane Yolen said “way will come.”

Engage the hands. Not just for keyboarding. Try another creative outlet, such as knitting or painting. Any other creative endeavor connects us to that inner writer as well.

Take a walk. Outside. Alone. Without headphones. Physical activity combined with mental quiet gives us a chance to clear ourselves of distractions, engage the senses, and tap into that deeper part of ourselves that helps us write.

Wordless music. Try headphones when you’re writing. I recommend “wordless” music because lyrics distract me. I can’t tune out the words being sung, unless they’re in Gaelic, which unfortunately I don’t speak. (I can thank Enya for scenes definitely written in flow.)

What techniques work for you?

Cynsational Notes

Cover art by Richard Tuschman.

Valerie O. Patterson is a writer who lives in Virginia. Operation Oleander, her second novel from Clarion/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, is now available. From the promotional copy:

When Jess’s dad ships out to Afghanistan, she wants nothing more than to feel close to him. They share an interest in an Afghan orphanage, so Jess and her friends form Operation Oleander, a club that collects school supplies for the orphans.

But Jess’s delight in the operation’s success turns to horror when breaking news reveals that the connection between the soldiers and the orphanage has resulted in a bombing.

With her dad injured and her best friend’s mother killed, Jess is suddenly thrust into a political and media firestorm. Was their work helping the orphanage, or making it a target?

Operation Oleander explores questions about the nature of duty, honor, and our responsibilities toward each other at home and in the larger world.

Check out the Operation Oleander discussion guide.

Visit all the stops of Valerie’s Operation Oleander Blog Tour. Highlights include:

2 thoughts on “Guest Post: Valerie O. Patterson on To Write In Flow

  1. Val, great post! Thanks for sharing this with us. I so rarely get to work in that wonderful flow state (except at 5:00 am). 🙂


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