Writing and the psychology of creativity

All writers have days when they don’t want to write. Days when you have to force yourself to sit at a desk even though you’re convinced it’ll be a waste of time.

I had one of those days last week. I have them more often than I like to admit. These are the days that begin normally enough : a swim, breakfast. Then they start to unravel. Routine emails become urgent, bills not yet due suddenly need to be paid. It is shaping up to be a Bad Writing Day.

By the time I drag myself to my office I already know I won’t get anything done.  I go through the motions, boot up the computer, make a large cup of coffee, sit down with a sigh. It’s 10am.

The next time I look it’s 4 in the afternoon. Somehow, I’ve become completely absorbed, so absorbed I haven’t noticed that lunchtime has been and gone, or that the man with the jet engine leafblower has been roaring up and down the street all afternoon.

It’s a strange and wonderful feeling – a mixture of satisfaction and pride and a kind of awe. What happened that I could lose myself like that? And why doesn’t it happen every day?

The closest I’ve come to an explanation of the how and the why comes from the work of Hungarian-American psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. He calls this loss of self consciousness, this immersion in the creative process ‘the flow’. Csikszentmihalyi, whose theory is based on hundreds of interviews with artists painters and writers, found that we are likely go into the zone when we’re engaged in a task that is challenging but not overwhelming, and when we feel we’ve got the necessary skills to tackle it.

Anxiety and self doubt interfere with the flow. So do distractions that stop you from concentrating on what you’re trying to do.

Csikszentmihalyi’s right. You can conjure creativity by immersing yourself totally in your writing. But it takes discipline and focus. You have to banish doubt, relax and forget your worries, switch off the Internet and email and turn off your phone. Only then can you take a breath, plunge in and go with the flow.

You know that what you need to do is possible to do, even though difficult, and sense of time disappears. You forget yourself. You feel part of something larger.” (Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi on experiencing ‘flow’)


  • Your return to the reference to swimming at the very end hit home, Gina. It’s best to write without internet, email or phone, just as it is impossible to swim connected to the internet/email/phone. I still hand-write write first drafts of my little articles – finding the rhythm and hoping the ink will flow.

  • Gina Perry Says

    I’m not surprised you caught the swimming connection! But haven’t you noticed people at the pool plugged into waterproof headphones while they do their laps? I’m guessing they are training and pacing themselves and need sound to keep them motivated. Back to the swimming analogy – I think that meditative state we reach in long swims is ‘the flow’.

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