Zen and the art of genius

Have you ever been in the state of “flow”? Everything seems easy and effortless. Problems that would usually stump you for hours you can now solve in minutes.

I’ve had those states sometimes in my writing. The words pour out of me, and I can tell they’re good. When I was writing my second novel, A Virtual Love, I wrote the whole of the last chapter in one go, while sitting on a log in a north London cemetery. It was a beautiful experience, and that chapter is my favourite part of the book.

That kind of experience, let me emphasise, is rare. My usual writing day is a more of a struggle against boredom, desperation, self-doubt, self-hatred and the urge to distract myself by tweeting, blogging, making tea, folding sheets, answering email — anything to escape from the horror of a blank page and a blank mind.

I’ve tried all kinds of ways of inducing that “flow” state more often. I’ve tried writing in the morning and the evening, with coffee and without, I’ve tried exercise and I’ve tried yoga, I’ve tried writing by hand and dictating into a machine, I’ve gone out and I’ve stayed in, I’ve investigated Taoism and Buddhism and hypnotism and self-help, I’ve tried music and incense and light and darkness and lying down and standing up and working in short bursts and working all day, and my conclusion from all these experiments is very simple and very chastening: the flow state cannot be induced. It comes for a while, and then it goes away again, and there’s nothing you can do about it.

So it would be an understatement to say I was excited to read an article in NewScientist magazine called Zen and the Art of Genius, that contained the paragraph:

Flow has been maddeningly difficult to pin down, let alone harness, but a wealth of new technologies could soon allow us all to conjure up this state. The plan is to provide a short cut to virtuosity.

Hey, short cuts are right up my alley. Where can I get the pill? Sign me up!

Of course, it’s not that simple. NewScientist reports on nascent technologies, which means that almost all its articles contain a sentence like “Of course, much more research is needed before bla bla bla…”

But still, it’s an interesting article, and not only for writers. This flow state is something that can apply to any task. In fact, the example used in the article, somewhat worryingly, is killing people in a war simulation. Even more worryingly, the researcher who’s pioneering this stuff is working for the DARPA, the research arm of the US military, and has been using the technology “to cut the time it takes to train snipers”. That would be just like us, wouldn’t it? To discover the secret of virtuosity, and to use it as a weapon. Can you imagine battalions of “in the zone” troops, rampaging through a foreign country, killing everything in sight? Just beautiful.

In any case, I still harbour hopes that the techniques can be used for something more innocent like helping me to be a better writer without overdosing on semi-digested Eastern philosophies.

How about you? Have you experienced the “flow” state? Are you excited by the possibilities outlined in the article, or scared by them? Are we capable of possessing a powerful new technology without using it to kill each other?

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There are 12 comments

  1. Hm, interesting thought.

    I’d like to have the “flow technique” for work and spend less time in the office.
    Then I’d have more time to do things with my family, to read, to practice the piano and be idle. Bref, to have more time for what really matters.

    1. Yes, wouldn’t that be great? Finding time for what really matters is more difficult than it should be. Sometimes even remembering what really matters is tough!

      I have a suspicion, though, that if we did start using these techniques to work more efficiently, it would somehow end up meaning more profit for employers, not more free time for employees to play the piano. Call me cynical…

  2. It is indeed wonderful when I get to experience that state of “flow”, as you call it. It’s like an energy that flows through the air around you and it’s in your power to grab it and make the best of it while it lasts. When that translates into writing it’s even better. It might sound strange but I feel when that energy is around me and especially when it’s not. Might it be possible to harness it? Perhaps, but I think it’s rather a question of being open to it when you feel it and taking full advantage while it lasts. And maybe in time we can train ourselves to be in the right state of mind so as to attract that energy rather than trying to capture it. Does that make sense?

    As for shortcuts, I don’t believe in them, especially when working towards something that requires a lot of time and dedication, being training for something, writing or anything else that it’s supposed to last. It’s like diet pills – sure, they might work as long as you take them, but in the long run it’s the exercise and the healthy diet that allow us to feel and look good for extended periods of time.

    1. Hi Delia

      Yes, that certainly makes sense! Doesn’t sound strange at all – I recognise exactly what you’re talking about. Right now I try to do the first part, being open to it and taking full advantage. If I can’t control when “flow” comes my way, then at least I can be ready when it does. The second part would be wonderful, but I’m not there yet. I think you’re absolutely right about shortcuts, but that doesn’t stop me from reaching for them at every opportunity!

  3. I find flow easier to reach if I have thought a lot in a dreamy ‘reverie’ sort of way about what I’m going to write before I write it. The best writing I’ve done has been after some sort of frustration, a week or more out unable to write because of other commitments or illness, but I’ve had time to do a lot of thinking about what I want to write, if I only could. Then when I finally get to sit down with it, it goes easier.

    However, I am extremely cynical about this sort of event being something we can do more efficiently. There’s always a reason why elusive states are elusive. Flow feels effortless, but it isn’t. Sports players may well win more matches in the zone, but they are just as tired afterwards. I think we would pay for more time spent in the flow one way or another, with greater fatigue, or empty minds or lack of concentration at other times. Look, we’re human and flawed and we don’t have control over ourselves or our circumstances. Nothing that we do is going to change that, and scientific dreams of us all becoming bionic are, alas, highly unlikely. They only show how little we accept the incontrovertible limitations of our condition.

    1. That makes perfect sense. I don’t tend to write well if I’ve thought about it a lot consciously and over-planned it, but in the ‘reverie’ sort of way it works very well.

      Good point about the cost. We are not machines, after all – there’s likely to be a cost. Just as caffeine gives you a temporary boost but makes you pay later on, an induced flow state would probably lead to a payback at some point.

      I think the refusal to accept limitations is part of being human, and it has both positive and negative effects. The positive side is constant progress and ingenuity, but the negative side is a somewhat unrealistic attitude to life sometimes!

  4. Have experienced that whilst cycling, some days it’s effortless & it’s as though old ma Gravity’s taken the day off & I’m soaring up with the raptors.

    1. Sounds great, Parrish! I’ve heard of that happening with things like cycling and running, but never experienced it myself – maybe need to push myself a little harder!

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