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Academic Coaching & Writing

IX. Hitting the Writer’s Jackpot: Flow States and Eureka Moments

Oct 29, 2014 by Amy Benson Brown

This blog series has explored how to handle obstacles and smooth the rough edges of your writing process. But what about finding the sweet spot? Though academic writing surely requires hard work, many authors also experience periods of deep satisfaction. Some moments of discovery in writing can only be described at transcendent. These rewarding experiences nourish the drive to write, even when the going gets rough. So, the final blog in this series explores what investigators of creativity call “flow” states and “eureka” moments and suggests ways to increase your likelihood of hitting these writing jackpots.

Flow states are characterized by a feeling of being so deeply absorbed in what you’re doing that your focus is effortless, as Winifred Gallagher explains in Rapt: Attention and the Focused Life. This rich state of engagement can sweep up people practicing almost any endeavor—from doctors performing surgery to marathon runners, graphic artists, landscape designers, musicians, and, of course, writers. People in a flow state often say that time passes without their noticing. Their awareness of themselves—their ego and the insecurities that hover around it—vanishes into the far reaches of their consciousness. This pleasurable state of absorption brings with it a profound sense of satisfaction. Some even say it’s when they know they are doing what they were born to do.

Perhaps, as an author, you feel being in a flow state when writing is your ideal, unless your favorite aspect of the writing process is that rare but unforgettable burst of insight—the eureka, or “aha” moment. The rush that follows such blinding moments of clarity may seem to suggest these insights come from a tremendous push of effort. But research points to something else. In her study of writers and artists, neuroscientist Nancy Andreasen has found that eureka moments “tend to be precipitated by long periods of preparation and incubation, and to strike when the mind is relaxed.” So, how can you prepare your mind or set your intellectual speedometer at just the right pace to bring you to these desirable experiences?

Treat Writing as a Practice

You may be more likely to experience flow states and eureka moments if you approach writing as a practice—an ongoing activity you work on daily or several days a week over time. This kind of practice, after all, is at the heart of being a professional.

Recently, German neuroscientists used fMRI scanners to compare what happens in the brains of novice writers with professional writers. In the brains of expert writers, a region vital to developing skills through intense practice lit up. That same region is known to become active in professional athletes as they think through moves in a game. The scientists speculate that substantial investment in regular practice makes the minds of experts—whether authors or athletes—more efficient. In other words, because of years of daily practice, their brains may expend less effort or direct their concentration more efficiently when they are engaged in their area of expertise. And, remember, it appears to be exactly this kind of relaxed focus that triggers flow states.

Remember to Play at Work

The old saying that all work and no play makes you dull may be true in more ways than one. Though professional writers have deadlines and feel pressure to deliver, most find that a single-minded focus on productivity, ironically, often produces work that feels hollow. It is indeed essential to show up diligently for regular sessions of work on research and writing. But it seems also to be essential to allow yourself some time for creative exploration and experimentation—for play, in other words.

Sometimes, making room for exploration and play means allowing yourself to chase ideas that intrigue you, even if they seem tangential to your work’s primary focus. Or, take time to daydream, to allow your mind to wander. Allowing your thoughts to stray can open the door to intuition and other subconscious ways of understanding. As Gallagher argues in Rapt, this kind of soft focus can help you see new perspectives and make the kind of surprising connections that lead to those rare, but priceless, moments of true discovery.

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