By Rachel Riederer
Every once in a while when I’m writing I really get “in the zone,” and experience that kind of dreamy hyperproductive state of “flow” where you lose track of time and get totally engrossed in the work. For me, this tends to happen when I’m writing something that I’m really interested in, where I’ve already done all the research I need to do, and have a deadline looming. It’s kind of rare. I’ve been thinking recently about ways to try to induce “the zone,” both for myself in my own practice and for students here at the Writing Center.
My first impulse for how to do this was very simple: just write. For myself, or for students, I would give instructions to freewrite. Just start, don’t stop typing for the next half hour, or don’t pick up your pen from the notebook for 10 minutes. This works sometimes. Definitely not always though. I started thinking of “just do it” as necessary but not sufficient for getting into the magic “zone.”
I recently read an essay about game theory that helped me think about this process in a new and I think more productive way. The professor and video game designer Jesse Schell, in his book The Art of Game Design, identifies four key factors that put a game player into a “flow state”:
- clear goals
- lack of distractions
- direct feedback
- continuous challenge
It makes sense that these ideas apply to writing too. Having clear goals and being in a space without distractions are obvious. (Hello, internet-blocking software.) The last two are, to me, newer and more interesting ideas. The “continuous challenge” is especially interesting—Schell writes that it’s really a balancing act. “If we think we can’t achieve the goal, we feel frustrated … if the challenge is too easy, we feel bored.”
Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihaly, who was among the first to identify and write about “flow states,” talks about this balancing act of finding the right amount of challenge as an oscillation between anxiety and boredom.
I have been trying to incorporate the first and last of these notions into my practice as a teacher and writer—that it is not enough to just sit down and get to work, but to also give myself, and my students, tasks that are of the right size and scale, not so hard that they’re prohibitively daunting, but not so easy that they’re dull and boring.
How to incorporate the third of these ideas—the constant feedback—is an open question. It’s easy to think of ways to do this in the Writing Center, by sharing back and responding to the writing that students produce. I wonder if there are ways for us to incorporate this idea into our own personal writing practices too.
Published April 23, 2015