Ilana Simons

Ilana Simons Ph.D.

The Literary Mind

Painting Might Help You Find Flow

A little color gets a word to flow

Posted Aug 25, 2010

I spent a lot of energy in my 20s and 30s trying to become a famous writer, which fuelled nasty habits like isolation, alcohol dependence, and self-criticism. There were many vacations, sunny weekends, and midnights that I spent alone at a desk, writing and rewriting and hoping that if a magnificent voice hadn't yet emerged, it was only because I had to work harder.

It was not fun. It was the un-fun: dire drive for what wasn't coming to me naturally. And while I hope that one day I can return to writing with less frustration, for now I'm looking for modes of self-expression that include more flow.

"Flow" sounds like a flimsy word but it is actually a technical word in psychology, established by Mihály Csikzentmihalyi. If you haven't read him, maybe do. He has conducted research on successful creative people through history and established that there is a state of consciousness that most successful people enter when they create. That state of "flow" is characterized by the following: sustained concentration, loss of self-consciousness, loss of sense of time, strong sense of control, sense of intrinsic reward, full absorption in the task itself, and positive emotion. Positive emotion is key: When you're in flow, you don't think too much.

Maybe big novels can't be written in a state of flow. After all, words almost demand self-consciousness, and structuring a plot probably demands intermittent reality-checking wracked with doubt. So it might be true that flow comes easier with nonverbal tasks like piano-playing, rowing, painting, and dance, in which you can enter a rhythm without the knot of language.

In this light, I'm admiring Maira Kalman these days, who writes books for kids and adults but gets her writing to dance and sing by juxtaposing it with almost childishly painted pictures. Kalman's best-known book might be her illustrated Elements of Style, in which she gave new, whimsical depth to William Strunk and E.B. White's classic 1918 grammar book, which many school kids had thought of as dry. She did this by juxtaposing grammar lessons with poignant and pitiful pictures which flicked at the words like picks that raised the irony from the typeface. Her pictures showed the fun hiding out in words.

See here below, for example. Strunk and White had written a stylistic rule in their grammar book that "rich, ornate prose is hard to digest, generally unwholesome, and sometimes nauseating." Kalman saw both the stodginess and the truth in that line; and with the right nudge of nuance, it was hilarious. So she drew this picture to accompany the sentence in the book:

The drawing magnifies the life in the idea: See here a bare room which is neither stodgy nor nauseating. Overshoot the isolation of reading through the joint joke of a well-drawn picture.  Something about painted color can make words seem lighter.

In the spirit of Maira--trying to get a little lighter in what had become a too-serious writing routine in my life--I have tried reverting to childhood fantasy while writing lately. I'm using bright pencils to color pieces of paper, then I'm covering them all up in thick black crayons, like we used to do in elementary school. Then I'm etching into the crayon to reveal the bright color. I'm painting and writing words and trying to be totally like a kid, without isolation or (much) alcohol. The point is to work and feel like I'm having fun in flow, not in words alone. Maira; come Maira; sit. Here's my song to Virginia Woolf:

What do you do for flow?  How do you feel most non-neurotically but creatively yourself?