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People Who Need People... Get Writer's Block

The wrong audience can stifle your creativity.

When I sit down at my computer most mornings and ponder how to craft a sentence, I try not to think of you. My intention may be to revise a scene in my novel-in-progress. Or, like today, I may be drafting my first ever blog entry.

You—the readers I picture in my mind's eye—are probably curious as to what this blog, called "Creating in Flow," might offer that's insightful or inspiring about the act—the art and science—of creative expression. Fair enough. But until I finish the first draft, I labor to keep you out of my mind. It's not that I don't care about you. Clearly, audiences matter to those who write and create. But thinking of mine while I'm writing puts a stop to my bashful creativity more quickly than the wail of OoVoo announcing a friend calling via my computer (think French police siren).

Who Needs Flow

With so much being written about creativity, I sought a fresh lens through which to view the topic for this blog. The psychological construct of flow was first described as such by Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi in his book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. In brief, when you're so engrossed in what you're doing that time seems to stop, you're in flow. Surely we've all had the experience of talking to friends past midnight, reading a compelling book, or having great sex, and looking up with surprise at the clock. I've come to appreciate that sensation so much that I find it a superb prism through which to consider just about everything I do. (In this sense, "consider" equals "Is it worth my time?")

When you create in flow, the output—language if you're a writer like me—pours more readily from your brain. And you're more likely to produce good stuff in the long run. That's because, as creativity researcher Dean Simonton has explained, creators do not learn to increase the ratio of successful "hits" to overall output over a lifetime of work. Simonton's studies (see abstracts #15, 44, 63) of eminent creators over time found, rather, that the more prolific a creator was, the more likelihood of producing better work (i.e., it stands the test of time).

Flow and Feedback

Feedback lets you know you're moving in the right direction (whether you're carving a totem pole, dancing a ballet, or writing a novel), and thus helps you enter and stay in flow. With writing and other solitary creative pursuits, it gets tricky. Ever wondered what novelists think about when they picture who is going to read their work? First I'll suggest who they don't imagine (and who you shouldn't imagine if you're going to behave like most of the successful writers I interviewed):

  • Bad audiences:
1. Your ex-husband. (Mine thought writing wasn't a real job.)
2. The English teacher who gave you an F for an essay that didn't conform to her rules. (Mine said "it's not a real story because the end happens first.")

3. Your mother or your father-in-law. (Mine read only mysteries, and I don't write mysteries.)

  • Good audiences:
1. A famous writer, living or dead, whose work you admire.

2. A select group of readers (especially good is if they admire your work and are also writers whose work you admire).

  • Best audience:

1. Yourself.

You're the Best

I asked novelist Judith Freeman, "At what stage do you think of your audience?" She responded, "Quite rarely. It's an unappreciated intrusion. Occasionally I might single out a person whom I admire or whose opinion matters to me, and they will come into my consciousness. A friend usually. But sometimes that's only as a prompter, someone who might say, 'go ahead and be more brave, go ahead and try this.'" Freemans' writing coach is all in her mind.

David Gerrold wrote one of my favorite time travel novels of all time, The Man Who Folded Himself. During our delightfully frank phone interview, we talked about audience.

D.G.: There's a couple of times when I've said, "Gee, I'd like to write this scene," and what comes up for me is I'll think, "My God, the audience will freak if I do that." Most of the time, I say the hell with them. A couple of times I've put stuff in that I know they'll freak and sometimes the freakingness is nowhere near what I'd expected it to be, and sometimes they go way overboard. But I have never really held back. If I do think of the audience, I say, "Well, if I'm going to try this, let me see if I can sell it in a way that's tasteful or in a way that they'll get what I'm working for."

Me: Who is the "they" you're thinking of?

D.G.: The faceless masses. I sort of imagine them as a crowd with torches and pitchforks. I've met them—I do speaking at conventions and I kind of imagine that room.

Gerrold's occasional picturing of a hostile audience works for him because he's an old hand at writing. And a thorough scamp.

A couple of the writers who have hired me as a consultant or writing coach have told me, "I don't know what I would do without you." The truth is that I always feel a little dismayed at that. The best case scenario is that my would-be writers—any writers or creators—will learn to provide feedback for themselves. Eventually, if they stick with it, they do.

But Really, Who Is Your Audience?

Stanford-based linguistic anthropologist Shirley Brice Heath, recipient of a MacArthur prize, carried out a long-term study in the 1980s and early 1990s of fiction readers. Novelist Jonathan Franzen wrote about her analysis in a 1996 Harper's essay, "Perchance to Dream," which he updated for his book How to Be Alone). He reported her findings about one kind of reader:

"There's the social isolate—the child who from an early age felt very different from everyone around him.... What happens is you take that sense of being different into an imaginary world. But that world, then, is a world you can't share with the people around you—because it's imaginary. And so the important dialogue in your life is with the authors of the books you read. Though they aren't present, they become your community."

Those isolates, according to Heath, are more likely to become writers. Perhaps that is our real audience: readers who, like us, have always felt different. Think of them—a motley crew—when you write, or think of yourself. Same difference.

Coming Soon

If I discuss fiction writing a lot, it's not because the psychological process is so different, but because novelists tend to be quirky and a lot of fun to learn about. They are whom I studied (along with poets) when I did my dissertation and book (Writing in Flow: Keys to Enhanced Creativity). That's also why I've turned to writing a novel after ages as a nonfiction writer.

In coming blog entries, I'll aim for a hybrid of how-to pointers and intriguing details about creating in flow, whether experienced by writers, photographers, musicians, inventors, performers, or any other creative person. (By the way, much gratitude to photographer Steven Barber for the loan of the image at the top of this post.)

I'll write about a way to visualize that pesky blocking wall so you can walk right through it. I will also cover dealing with distractions, creative rituals, good motivators, the place of mystery (even when you're not writing a father-in-law-pleasing mystery), and the role of deadlines in creative flow.

So stay tuned!

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