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Become a prolific writer by harnessing creative flow

A landscape painter friend asked me yesterday if I’d ever studied the work of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. My friend described how when he goes out into nature to paint, he enters a surreal state of mind in which time has no meaning and the sounds of cars on a nearby highway fade away.

I told him that my idea of a blissful writing session is to put myself into a trance and get into that same state of flow. If you’ve ever been there, you’ll know how amazing it is. The words just tumble out and time stops. I’ve tried to analyze what sets up those conditions by studying Csikszentmihalyi’s book Flow and reflecting on my own experiences.

Find a cue to alert your brain that you’re “going in.” This could be as simple as drinking a particular tea or coffee, playing the same favorite piece of music, or lighting a specific scented candle each time. Invoking these sensory triggers can help you find a way into your writing. If you repetitively do these things when you put your fingers to the keyboard or pen to paper, you can wire your brain to associate the two and prime your conscious and subconscious mind into a state of flow.

To become completely absorbed in your writing, shut out everything around you. This includes computer applications, e-mail, Facebook, Twitter and any other outside distraction that would tear your attention away from thinking deeply about what you’re writing. Turn off your phone and find a place free from people who might interrupt you.

Develop a ritual. In a previous post, Scientific experiments indicate a “writer’s uniform” could make you more effective, I wrote about how some people like to wear a specific article of clothing when they write. This ritual can also signal your intention. Some people begin each writing session by clearing off their desk.

Create a habit of writing at a specific time or place. Maybe you’ve established a pattern of writing for a specific period of time a couple hours before anyone else wakes up in your house or during the period of time between between leaving work and eating dinner. Some people write on their commute. Robert Olen Butler tells about how early in his career, he wrote only on his train ride to work. Even despite the distractions of people talking, he says in his book, From Where You Dream: The Process of Writing Fiction, that the repetitive act of writing during that time in that place built an association that led him to an intense focus.

Find tools that work for you. If you find it difficult to avoid noise, try wearing noise-cancelling headphones. They can help erase the ambient noises that knock you out of a good trance. Various writing applications can take over your screen and provide a writing-only experience to reduce distractions.

The best thing about trying these techniques is that you’ll soon develop a good habit that makes it easier to delete the bad habits that get in the way of writing on a regular basis. You’ll find it’s easier to ignore your e-mail, refrain from surfing the web, or stop to do some unrelated writing task, such as laundry.

Do you have writing routines or rituals that take you to your writing zone? Feel free to share in the comments below.

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