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?