‘Flow’

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, the man with the unprounounceable name, introduced us some years ago to the concept of ‘Flow’, defined in Wikipedia thus:

Flow, also known as Zone, is the mental state of operation in which a person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity.

This is what I want to think about today, sitting waiting for a cab to take me to the airport in Winnipeg and thence to Fredericton, NB, to start – hopefully – ‘flowing’ through next week. You would think that as a writer I would be extolling the impact of writing, making me feel fully immersed, etc etc. but during the past weeks in Winnipeg I’ve not been writing my fourth novel, I’ve been earning the money to publish it.

At least, that’s what I thought this work was for, but I’d forgotten what a challenge and a joy it can be to present ideas that are part of your life to other people. There have been times during this work when ‘flow’ exactly captures my state of mind. I’ve never done any extreme sports, but I think this may be the intellectual equivalent, using all your brain, senses and responses to get ideas across. No script, and several variables to juggle –  the prior knowledge of the group, the ways they learn, the ideas that interest them, time, lunch, the goals to be reached by the end of the day. You’re prepared, obviously, but what really prompts the words that come out of your mouth is ‘flow’, and when that happens you hear yourself making connections you didn’t even know were in your mind, remembering apposite facts and ideas from long ago and weaving them in, spontaneously.

That’s teaching. In my case it’s teaching adults. Subject knowledge is important only because it releases your mind from remembering things to the qualitatively different activity of making connections and adapting what you know to the particular circumstances of the moment. My subject knowledge is about teaching and student assessment, and it’s been accumulating over forty years. I should be pretty good at it by now.

But this wasn’t the plan. Six years ago I made up my mind to learn how to write fiction, and I’m doing that. I wanted to write a novel, and I did – eventually – and then I wrote two more and I’m slowly getting better. There are times in the writing process when I achieve that flow, when hours pass unnoticed, and I feel that same exhilaration as I’ve felt at times in the past weeks here in Winnipeg. But the difference lies in the very private nature of writing as opposed to the public nature of teaching. Imagine writing with the reader at your shoulder, thinking, asking questions, laughing, being moved, right there, on the spot. That’s what teaching feels like sometimes. And when I’m writing I miss that. It’s a lonely business, and I’m a social animal. That doesn’t mean I need people all around me all the time, not at all. I live alone, travel and work alone, and crave my own company from time to time. But somehow I need to bring the buzz of interaction into my writing life. Maybe that’s where I could run workshops about writing, but I don’t have the forty years accumulated understanding that my education life has provided, and which is so central to the ‘flow’ of teaching. Maybe I should just keep going with the education side of my life, not just to earn money to support my writing, but to reward myself with additional opportunities for the ‘rush’ of ‘flow’. I’ll have to think about that.

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