Flow, Inspiration, and Seizing the Moment
I believe it’s best to let inspiration sweep you along while the flow is coursing through you. Or perhaps you could look at it as surrendering to the moment when cupid is gunning for you. He’s notoriously fickle and his attention doesn’t keep—your love may not be as strong later. Passion can fizzle. When an idea takes you it’s good to get down to the passionate core.
So your inspiration can be the phoenix that rises again the next day.
Pantsing Versus Plotting
I think this love affair with flow is what is at the core of pantsing (the style of writing where you don’t preplan and pre-outline but rather explore). They are courting cupid. They want to be struck by the arrow of inspiration—and swept away by the flow. Inspiration has mystique. The ancient Greeks attributed it to the muses, Romans called it having a genius, your internal, personal, divine. We love this idea of a higher power—it speaks to us, and we fear it might stop. That dread, and the all too real experience of it plants superstition, waters it. The flow might leave me! I must worship the flow and avoid that which might sabotage it. I suspect we’ve all had that glorious idea for a scene, where the words just started coursing through our internal monologue—while we were in the shower or on the road. The feeling of flying, of shooting the rapids of the story—treacherous, fluid, and quick! Slick-slipping over the hard parts, plunging into full immersion, drenched with details, caught out of time—breathtaking. Horrifying that you’ll never get back this moment and presently you can’t write it down.
That’s why there’s now a waterproof pad of paper on the wall of my shower. And a notebook in my car. I pull into random parking lots and scribble down phrases, like pinning scuttling beetles through the thorax for an immortal entomological display—escape foiled. There really is something to flow—the deep magic lives there. I want to live there.
Does Plotting Kill Inspiration?
Pantsers say plotting kills inspiration. But, I don’t think outlining is the problem. Not light outlining anyway—where you put down what basically happens, the core idea of each scene. I’ve had my fair share of inspiration in the shower, obviously, otherwise I wouldn’t have purchased Aqua Notes (well worth it if you are a shower thinker). I’ve also had the problem occur from outlining—but I examined the mechanic in detail—and this is what I found.
You Need to Capture the Idea Kernel
The trick is to get to know what makes a tempting jumping off point for you—one that includes the distilled liquor of the awesome—but doesn’t toss you overboard into the deep end of flow before you’re ready. When you plunge into flow you start getting those glittering sapphire phrases, the interlocking demand that sweeps you from one whiplash into the next, that gestalt of sinuous, morphing perfection that you will never recapture.
If you’re late to work you don’t want to go there—because once you’re in its teeth it hurts your soul to stop. You’ll never get that exact experience of writing that idea again. It’s like a snowflake crystalizing. Start another day and you start with a slightly different conformation of dust mote of who you are at the core—different result. Not a bad result mind you. But the memory of that other touch of the divine that you left incomplete leaves you feeling the traitor.
That feeling is poison—that grief, you are inconsolable for what was lost—never to be. Your fault. Your lack of follow through. Looking at that—locked up in that emotion, you can’t grow the snowflake of now.
The snowflake of now, think about that for a moment. If you’d started the flow plunge for that idea now it would have been different—but not necessarily bad. I had the idea for this article yesterday—while on the road, driving to work with the sun not up. I clung to it fiercely until I could get into the building and write it down. Write down the title that is. The Kernel. I knew I couldn’t write it—not then. My job is not so kind. But I also knew I’d resisted the urge to follow the idea over the cusp into the flow of execution. Instead I’d kept it in the creative genesis of the idea itself.
I’d had two other article ideas while I was dressing for work—same scenario—no time, so I wrote them down. In addition to the one I’m writing now I had a second in the car, and I got a third physically walking in the building. One morning—five blog post ideas.
I wrote down the kernel of each—so I’d have a jumping off point when I woke up at 2:30 AM this morning with two hours to write.
You Can Redirect Flow to Idea Brainstorming
I’ve gotten better at this—if I’m in a situation where I can’t write at length but I find myself with flow courting me I redirect it to collecting kernels. Reach for the next idea and you may find you’re actually in that arctic seed vault!
Yesterday Morning’s Post Ideas:
- Writing Edward Must Die
- Struggling with Foreshadowing
- Inspiration—Strike While the Iron’s Hot (the current article you’re reading)
- Romancing a Pedestrian Super Power
- Writing Creativity—The Alchemy of the Peculiar Hodgepodge
These are quick to jot down and easier to remember than paragraphs of perfect prose. Plus you don’t feel the traitor for cutting things off after 15 minutes of perfection you can never recapture.
Outlining for Flow Enthusiasts
So how do you leverage this to become a devote of flow who can still reap the benefits of outlining your plot? Simple, I make an outline out of Kernels. I may then flesh it out with a few mechanical tidbits that won’t trigger the actual writing flow—such as who’s present in that scene, viewpoint character, timeframe, location etc.
If some random stranger came up and asked me, “Are you a pantser or a plotter?” I’d tell them plotter—because I do outline, I don’t have much choice since verbosity is my great bane. But these days my outline is geared as much as possible to trigger flow. It’s like a row of those little diving (mounts, platforms) which Olympic swimmers use to launch themselves into the water. Speed of immersion is my goal.
So What’s in a Kernel?
For me a kernel is the distillation of the idea that most effectively accomplishes two things: the core concept of the idea, and the temptation to write it. What I’m trying to do is give myself an effortless springboard—one I’m excited about when I wake up at 2am. I try to get these two things into the most succinct snippet possible—article titles are great for this. Sometimes I use a premise statement instead, or a thesis sentence, or the core conflict of a scene, or its pivotal occurrence. I don’t want to risk forgetting what the idea was about—so if my catchy article title might not remind me exactly what its about if I don’t get to that one for a couple weeks I’ll want to add a premise statement. Think of it like crafting writing prompts just for you.
What About Perfect Phrases that Do Occur to Me?
Yes there are times when I still get so excited about a new idea that I get tempted into prose mode. Sometimes the words aren’t earthshattering and I’m confident I’ll get something as good or better when I return to that topic—those I don’t stress about. Others though are unique. I can’t bear to lose those. I’m rather the antithesis of the kill your darlings type—I salvage them, and I actually reliably reuse the whispers of my muse—weaving them back in again here and there, wherever I can. Incandescent phrases—unusual analogies, cool thought transitions—I write those down under the kernel and then if I’m late for work I let the flow go or I redirect it to article topic generation, or how I’m going to handle some non-writerly situation.
When Inspiration Strikes
Inspiration is fantastic! I want more of it in my life—and I’m already swimming in it. If it takes you when convenient—early on a Saturday morning—then just plunge in. Immerse yourself—you’ll come up for air, or lunch, sometime.
But if you’re like me and inspiration seems to love those times when you can’t pursue it, in the shower, on the road, doing laundry? Well, okay, I usually stop doing the laundry and go write—that might explain the state of the laundry. Still, if you get great ideas at the most inconvenient times—then it’s worth finding a way to follow your muse—on your own time.
Kindle your own perpetual flame.
Increase Your Inspiration, Immerse Yourself in Flow At Will, Seize the Moment for Tomorrow!
If flow matters to you—if it defines your writing style, and your identity as a writer—then doesn’t increasing it matter? Understanding how to make the magic happen, and how to stick that magic in a Ziploc baggy for next week should be valuable. We’re talking about the flavor saver of your passion here. Deeper understanding won’t make your magic desert you. Self-hacks for inspiration and self-hacks for flow are based on getting to know yourself intimately—the nuances of what works for you. This isn’t exactly new stuff either—a lot of pantsers talk about the best place to leave off writing so you can easily return to it the next day. We’re talking about the same thing—just in regards to the initial idea. So seize the present moment for tomorrow, then you can immerse yourself in your flow at will. Once you know you can save passion for later your subconscious can dare to crank open the facet unleashing a firehose of inspiration—because ideas you can’t take the plunge with right now are no longer a tragedy—that five idea morning is right around the corner.
Next time in a pair of articles Writing Skills: Voice—The Kudzu You Cultivate, and You as Seiyū: Finding Your Voice & Owning New Roles, we will talk about the deep magic of voice. How you can become more than who you are and take over the world. Mwhahahahah!