What Flow Feels Like From the Inside: Part 2

This is the second half of my intense flow interview with Stephen G. Perry.

Posted May 26, 2018

Susan K. Perry

Playing in flow.

Source: Susan K. Perry

If you have been following this blog, you are probably a fan of the flow state. Flow, as you know by now, is that lovely and rewarding mental zone in which so much creative work happens.

My previous post contained Part 1, and here is Part 2 of the complete conversation I once had with Stephen Perry, fresh out of a poetry-writing-in-flow experience.


Susan: How much planning do you do before writing a poem?

Stephen: When I would plan, when I would blueprint it, when I would research it, that research would keep me from being in a state of flow. There was no way I could possibly be as good in my thinking self as I am in the flow state. 

The research I do in that state tends to be all serendipitous. There may be in the push of the flow a need for some fact. The flow process is coordinating an incredible number of things at once that I could not possibly consciously coordinate. It's not that you are no longer thinking, but you become thinking itself. You're no longer watching yourself, you are the activity. 

And you have to rely on that. I keep forgetting that that is the most important part of the creative process for me. Sometimes I try to go back into the research mode but it's almost always deadly.  Sometimes you can prepare. In some of the more complicated poems, I've gone to notebooks that I've previously used, and there will be all the data, the puns, there, but it's changed. You let that other facility take over and take charge of those facts, and it will use them as it will use them.

Randomness is extremely important. I have lots of different kinds of books on the shelf. I have to surprise myself. Surprise, part of not knowing, is an important ingredient. Open a book at random and if you're in a semi-flow state, not quite there, you can start blurring the edges of those facts and see what marches up against those facts. 

Sometimes just simply free associating begins the whole process. 

How long does it take for you to get into flow?

When it happens, it's often almost immediate. If I want it to happen, it happens. Within the first five minutes, oftentimes. 


Is there ever a time you sit down to write and you don't want it to happen?

Sometimes I don't. I don't want it to be that intense. Sometimes I will approach it in a kind of thoughtful way. And then sometimes in thinking things out, you'll get kind of carried along. Intense philosophical concentration will sometimes do that. 

There's this middle realm in which I feel absolutely in command of what I'm doing. If there's any consciousness at all, it's this little flickering of searches for opportunity. Little tiny sparks of “what if you did this?” 

That fits the theory more classically because you have the task and you feel up to the challenge. You don't experience that usually when you're writing poetry?

In some of the exuberant poems, like Angel Punch, or particularly in Squaw Valley when I wrote the Failure poem, what happened was a number of things that got me into flow. There was the camaraderie, the extreme tiredness, the emotional exhaustion, the involvement, the elation of talking to people who are like you. 

You were already in an altered state at the start.

You are already altered. What happened there is, there was just a sense of exuberance pounding through. It was the idea that if Bob Hass can write a failure poem, I can do absolutely anything. It doesn't matter. In the writing of it, there was a sense of building and an assuredness.  Most of the time it's a most curious effect of how can you be at one with something? When you're at one with it, it's almost a neither-here-and-neither-there land. 

When I was doing this poem, there would be a tendency to slip back toward the real world, and there would be various ways I would reattach myself to the poem: visualization, feeling my way into the skin of the poem, feeling my way into the skin of some otter, that would move me back in. I don't think I ever fully lapsed. 

Sometimes when other people are just talking about flow, that can remind you of the conditions, which puts you back actually into the state. Which right now, I'm still feeling the afterdraft of that state, and a tendency to reconform myself to that state.

Can you be self-conscious and still be in flow? 

To a certain degree, yes, as long as that's peripheralized. As long as looking at the self is just a phantasm. Mostly in that state you've reduced the mind, the critic, to a specter. 


Do you think of your audience?

Never. Wait, let me be careful about that. For the poems that I am most in flow in, most involved in, and that I consider my most important, audience doesn't appear. 

Talk about your writing-in-flow pattern.

Daily when I'm doing it. Flow breeds flow. The more that I do it, the more easily I can slip into it. 

I learned early to remove myself from the world as a feature of flow. Getting so involved with reading science fiction that my family would disappear. I wonder if some of the precursors would be simply my zoning out in those jobs where I would be a typist. I would love just simply not thinking, not being. That state partakes of whatever ability you already have. I'm not sure, personally, that the challenge is part of the flow state itself. Challenge may occur in pushing your limits beforehand. There's not even a problem that's being solved.

I think the poem IS solving a problem. How do I evoke this feeling state, how do I make these words come out pretty?

It's solving a problem in the same way that the dishes are getting washed. When a tightrope walker is walking, that involves all the things that have gone into it before, conditioning the subconscious. Same thing with the poem, you know what puns are, you know what rhetorical devices are. 

But you challenge yourself by not writing the same poem over and over, not using the same form each time.

Yes and no. I can come to flow with a different kind of agenda. If I'm bored, and I see it as more avoiding boredom than setting challenges, I want to do something different. I've never written forms before, for instance. Once you get into the flow state, the form disappears. 

Csikszentmihalyi says people regulate their entry into flow by the way they set challenges for themselves to keep themselves from being bored. Once you're in flow it's totally subconscious and irrelevant.

It's a constant complexification, or more of a novelization. It's like, what am I going to discover?

That's the challenge of the poem! Ralph Angel called it the mystery. 

If I know what I'm writing about, I don't value it as much.  True poetry is deep water flow.  Fiction is surface flow, for me. When I was doing that short story, it would be flow insofar as you would be playing around with the characters. But it's very different than kind of scratching off the skin of reality and finding something else.

What keeps you out of flow?

A:  Block for me is the terror of getting over to the chair and sitting down. I had writer's block ages ago when I took time off work to write. I couldn't write because it was too important. If it's too important, I can't do it. As I'd go to the same place and try to do it, it became more and more loathsome. Finally, I took the typewriter with an extension cord into the garden and I found a different place to type. The changed environment didn't have the negative associations that had built up around the other. You can build up positive associations also around a similar event or place that will trigger flow.

I've never not been able to get into flow when I've wanted to get into flow. 

NOTE: For more of Stephen Perry's thinking and writing, see his book Questions About God. You can also hear him read a few of the poems (almost a flow experience in itself) at SoundCloud

IF YOU MISSED Part 1 of this interview, catch it here.

Copyright (c) 2018 by Susan K. Perry, author of Kylie’s Heel