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To flow or not to flow: the risks of getting carried away

Many students in their commentaries explain that they changed some word or omitted a phrase “so that my writing would flow better.” And as tutor, my comment is usually: “What do you mean by flow?” I think it’s a dangerous word. I know the word “rhythm” is derived from the Greek word for flow, and as writers we want our writing, whether prose or poetry to have its own rhythms, but we don’t always necessarily want it to flow, a word with connotations of smoothness and lack of complexity or difficulty. If I think of Gerard Manley Hopkins’ sprung rhythm, then flow is the last word to describe his extraordinary use of language: maybe jerkiness, disjointedness would be better descriptors. Similarly, if we look at the way Arundhati Roy uses language in her novel, The God of Small Things, then again disjointed would suit many of her sentences rather than flowing.
Here is Hopkins’ truncated sonnet, Pied Beauty, where he praises things that don’t flow smoothly and uses language where both the meaning and the rhythm imply jerkiness not flow:

GLORY be to God for dappled things –
For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;
For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;
Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings;
Landscape plotted and pieced – fold, fallow, and plough;
And áll trádes, their gear and tackle and trim.

All things counter, original, spare, strange;
Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)
With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;
He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change:
Praise him.

Similarly, Roy invents words and breaks sentences into phrases without a main verb.
“Not old. Not young. But a viable die-able age.” Or “Little events, ordinary things, smashed and reconstituted. Imbued with new meaning. Suddenly, they become the bleached bones of a story.”
In both these examples Roy plays around with punctuation in order to break the flow. And in the second example, like Hopkins, she uses both ideas and style to convey her meaning to the reader
So maybe students who use the word flow for their writing product would actually find it more helpful to think about flow as a description of their writing process. The Hungarian psychologist Mihaly Czikszentmihaly ( Creativity : Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention. New York: Harper 1996) took the meaning of flow in psychological terms as being the state where an individual is totally immersed in what they are doing. Most writers will recognise this state and, of course, its opposite when they cannot write, often referred to as writers’ block.
According to CZikszentmihaly your first draft may well be written in a state of flow. He suggested five stages of creativity: preparation, incubation, illumination which includes the “Ah-ha” moment, evaluation and elaboration. As far back as 1980 Hayes and Flower (in L. Gregg and E. Steinberg eds. Cognitive Processes in Writing, Hillsdale NJ. Erlbaum) referred to three stages: planning what to write, generating and drafting, and finally editing and revision. They were followed by Frank Smith who suggested three stages: pre-writing, writing and re-writing (Writing and the Writer, Routledge 1982). Smith describes some experiments done with writing students where they were asked to write their story on one page and comment on what they were doing on the opposite page. Of course, that might well break the flow since the very fact of observing yourself would inevitably alter what you were writing.
There is an interesting account by Rosalind Brackenbury of how she kept a commentary on the writing of her novel, The Woman in the Tower, and how the comments fed into the text of the novel. (Susan Sellers ed. Delighting the Heart Women’s Press 1989 p 103-109). I’m not sure if the commentary was part of her flow, or whether it interrupted the flow. You could try this out for yourself and see whether it helps or hinders your writing. Here is what Brackenbury wrote about the marginal writing of one book becoming itself another book:
“Realisation –that this book is in the margin of the other, typed one, and if I have a true and unselfconscious voice, it’s here. I see the possibility of using this idea for another book, the free, fluid, ideal, diverse, differentiating one. Which will tell no story but will be in the margin of the story. “ (103)
Other psychologists/writers have offered similar analyses of the writing process. C.L.Doyle (“The Writer Tells: the Creative Process in the Writing of Literary Fiction” in Creativity Research Journal ii (i) 29-37) suggests writers have a “seed incident (P30) which enables them to move from a “fiction world” into a “writing realm” which I suppose is where the flow takes place.
The following diagram comes from a book written by Czikszentmihaly in 1998 ( Finding Flow: The Psychology of Engagement With Everyday Life. Basic Books)
As far as I’m concerned, and it fits the way I write, I like the idea of our brains and working practices using both flow and control. Once you are aroused, you get into flow, then you take control and then you can relax and hopefully you can forget all about boredom, apathy, worry and anxiety.
I found a very useful comment on the way writers use flow in an article by Susan K. Perry (“Writing in Flow” in Kaufman and Kaufman The Psychology of Creative Writing Cambridge 2009) where she explains that flow is an altered state in which the writer finds themselves or recognises later that it is a state they have just come out of, “when time seems to stop and the writing flows through you with little or no angst.” (p213) She compares this altered state to “opening a faucet, peeling layers, moving into a movie screen, entering a cave (p 216)
But Perry also points out that staying in flow depends on getting feedback. (Compare that to Brackenbury’s marginal writing.) I have always argued that the writing process is not complete until writers get to the stage of gaining control by redrafting, usually with some helpful feedback from peers or tutor on the way. Though, of course, feedback from yourself is all important. Grace Wartman and Jonathan Plucker have a very useful suggestion to make about the link between flow and the finished product. They claim that if “aspiring writers approached their craft with the understanding they were not simply subject to the whims of an Ah-ha-like moment of inspiration, they might realise that they possess much greater control over their finished product, allowing them to experience a much greater freedom during their process of writing creatively.” (“Teaching Writing by Demythologising Creativity” in Kaufman and Kaufman, The Psychology of Creative Writing Cambridge 2009 p290)
I know that in student assessments there is a criterion called Creativity but if you want to score on all the other criteria as well as that one, remember that using control over your writing skills in order to redraft may be just as, if not more, important.

Posted by author: Liz Cashdan
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3 thoughts on “To flow or not to flow: the risks of getting carried away

  • I like Frank Smith’s three stages. Pre-writing is definitely when I flow, and it never takes place if I’m sitting at my desk trying to write: it happens at untoward times, like walking the dogs, waking up in the night or doing some household task that does not involve much of my brain. If it happens when I’m out I have to hurry home and get it written down. In fact, I’ve wondered about carrying a dictaphone so there is no chance of losing the flow when it hits.
    I know now that this isn’t writing. It isn’t even really creative, it is just a process which begins in my unconscious and, if captured, provides me with raw material which a lot of hard work and organisation may turn into something worthy of presentation to tutor or colleagues. That’s what writing is. Then comes feedback and …. re-writing, which is the part I enjoy most it feels like a real and purposeful thing to do, a craft, taking and shaping and making and justifying decisions. Somewhere I read this advice: don’t try to think what to write. Just write something to think about. Taking that on board gets one started and past Blank Page Syndrome.
    Thank you Liz for another thought-provoking post.

  • Thank you for a great blog post Liz. I feel a resonance with some of your points here in the dialogue I have with my own artistic practice. I’ll certainly be mulling this over, thank you.

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