The Writer’s High

You know that feeling, when you’re in the zone and the words are flowing and something a little bit magical happens, when it feels like the story takes over and you’re just the vessel it flows through?  Your awareness of your body fades away.  You forget to be hungry.  Or tired.  Or care about the fact that you haven’t showered in three days.  Maybe (like me) you respond to questions without remembering what you said and eat everything that’s open on your desk without any memory of doing it.  Just another side effect of the writer’s high. 

Turns out there’s a scientific explanation for that.

I recently came across this Ted Talk with psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (try saying that five times fast) where he talks about creative people and a concept he calls flow.  As Csikszentmihalyi says in his talk, he came at this concept in his attempt to study what made people happy.  It turned out the key factors weren’t necessarily wealth or success, and so he set out to discover which moments in life made people feel truly happy – which led him to a study of creative people and the concept of flow.  

Flow is essentially that writer’s high.  That moment when everything comes together and you almost become your work. 

He speaks a great deal in the Ted talk about an interview with a composer who describes the feeling.  “Once he gets to that point of beginning to create[…], that is a moment of ecstacy.  […] He says also that this is so intense an experience that it feels almost as if he doesn’t exist. And this sounds like a kind of a romantic exaggeration, but actually our nervous system is incapable of processing more than about 110 bits of information per second and in order to hear me and understand what I’m saying you need to process about 60 bits per second. That’s why you can’t hear more than two people, you can’t understand more than two people talking to you. When you are really involved in this completely engaging process of creating something new, as this man does, he doesn’t have enough attention left over to monitor how his body feels or his problems at home.  He can’t feel even that he’s hungry or tired.  His body disappears.  His identity disappears from his consciousness because he doesn’t have enough attention, like none of us do, to really do well something that requires a lot of concentration and at the same time to feel that he really exists. So existence temporarily suspended.”

(It’s a bit of a long talk, but he begins to talk about creative people around the 5 minute mark and the out-of-body experience that sometimes comes with creation around the 8 minute mark.)

Csikszentmihalyi goes on to say that the conditions necessary for flow are a positive combination of challenge and skill.  You must be doing something that stretches your abilities, and you must have the skill to make it happen.  “This automatic, spontaneous process that he’s describing can only happen to someone who is very well trained and who has developed technique.”

But the part we learn from the most is when our challenges outstrip our skill and we must build up skill to achieve flow.  Which is why we put in the hours.  Reading fiction to absorb craft.  Reading craft books to study craft.  Going to workshops.  Talking about writing.  But most importantly – drafting.  And revising.  And starting again.  So we continue to improve… and so we can get to that point.  That moment of flow.

Csikszentmihalyi has characterized it by saying when someone experiences flow they feeling:

  1. Completely involved in what they are doing, focused, concentrated.
  2. A sense of ecstasy – of being outside the everyday reality
  3. Great inner clarity – knowing what needs to be done and how well they are doing
  4. Knowing that the activity is doable  – that their skills are equal to the task
  5. A sense of serenity – no worries about oneself, and a feeling of going beyond the boundaries of the ego
  6. Timelessness – thoroughly focused on the present, hours seem to pass without awareness of them
  7. Intrinsic motivation – whatever they are doing becomes its own reward

Sound familiar?  Our own insecurities and the noise of everyday life can certainly hold us up.  I know the one that trips me up and keeps me from achieving flow most often is #4 – the FEAR that my skills are not up to the task.  But when I can turn off that internal editor and just go… Whoo.  That is one hell of a feeling.

Do you ever experience flow when you are writing?  Or in another aspect of your life?  How would you describe the writer’s high?

17 responses to “The Writer’s High”

  1. It’s so interesting that there was actually a study done on the phenonium we refer to as ‘The Zone.’

    I long for the The Zone to occur each day, but sadly it doesn’t. However, the moments when it did were absolutely wonderful and the memory of it makes work harder to achieve it again.

    Thanks for sharing the Vivi. Very interesting.

  2. Julia Day says:

    Flow doesn’t happen for me until I’m in revisions. First drafts are just miserable. But once I have the messy stuff in place, revisions allow me to almost “discover” the story, and that’s when I start to feel the high.

    • I can’t quite wrap my head around the idea of flow in revisions – I’m such a first draft girl – but it’s a good reminder that all of our writing highs occur at different times depending on our processes. Very cool, Julia!

  3. Elise Hayes says:

    Thanks so much for this link to Mihaly C, Vivi! (erm…I’m not even going to try the last name).

    It’s fascinating to know there’s empirical evidence of this thing we think of as a “writer’s high.” And it also completely makes sense that getting there involves stretching yourself, and preparing yourself for challenge through practice, practice, practice (i.e., drafting!).

    Very cool!

  4. Fascinating, Vivi! I love the science behind things, especially as they relate to the human body and mind. I bet bunches of endorphins are involved in “the zone.” 😉

    And kudos to you for typing that name so many times! LOL I’d bet your spell check was going nuts.

    • LOL – it’s all about copy & paste when you’re trying to spell such impressive names. And yes, I would love to see what goes on in our brains when we are on that high! Sign me up for that study. 🙂

  5. Darynda Jones says:

    OMG this is my favorite state of existence! I love that feeling. It’s almost euphoric and I strive for it constantly while writing. Such a great post, Vivi! Thanks for the video, too. Watching now!

  6. Elisa Beatty says:

    Love this, Vivi!!!

    Flow is the best feeling in the universe…or at least a really, really close second to love.

    As a person with ADD, I struggle mightily with focus…but one of the superpowers of ADD is that when it clicks, it REALLY clicks, and you go down a tunnel called “hyperfocus” that you never want to leave.

    Nobody has conscious control over it, unfortunately, but I’ve done amazing things in that state, like write the last 10,000 words of a manuscript overnight…and even months later look back at it and realize it doesn’t even need much revision. Damn, I wish I could turn that on at will. (It’s much more common that I struggle and stutter to get 500 words out in a day.)

    If only we could turn off our self-consciousness and inner editor more easily….it really does seem like forgetting the “self” is a big part of it.

  7. Lille says:

    I love this subject! Thanks Vivi for bringing it up. A few years ago I started doing a meditation practice (notice the word “practice” here?). I try to do it every day for about 20 minutes before I work and I find that it helps me to focus and slip into that zone.


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