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An Experiment in Fostering Creative Flow

Creativity Denise Krebs [1]I am always interested in the psychology of creativity and the writing process. What fosters high focus, flow, and what works against it? I’ve had a very interesting experience with this recently, and hope we can discuss these ideas more in the comments.

While I was visiting my son’s family over Christmas, we all piled into his SUV for an outing. My kid slapped his phone into a holder on the dashboard and tapped in commands for music. It was a Pandora mix of electronica, not exactly what I would choose, but fine for the afternoon.

I was in the backseat with my 4-year-old granddaughter when Miles said, “Mom, watch this.” A song came on and the little one cried, “The Toast song!” and started dancing in her seat. Well, not exactly dancing. She was doing the car-seat equivalent of a rave, slamming her body back and forth against the sides, eyes closed.

A few weeks later, back at home, I was looking for some new music for workouts and remembered the Lindsey Sterling station he had played. Gave it a try, and it worked fine, but what I noticed is that I was really thinking as I rowed and lifted. All kinds of things. Bright, strong things.

It didn’t click, not yet. Even though I am a student of creativity methods and higher brain function, I didn’t realize there might be something to this music.

Two or three months later, I was shifting gears from a historical project set in the 17th century to a modern-day novel about young backpackers in Europe. None of the music I had was working, and I scanned around the blogs written by young travelers to see if there might be something I could learn. One of them had…you guessed it, electronica.

Or as I later learned it is more commonly called, dubstep.

What the heck, maybe it would get me into the right mood. I selected the Lindsey Stirling station, slapped on my headphones and started writing.

Three hours later, I had added 3748 words.

Nearly four thousand words. In three hours. 2269 of those words were written in one hour.

Now, I’m a fairly prolific writer, due in part to my own pleasure in the process and in part to my training as a journalist, and at the very, very end of a book, I might get three or four thousand words in a day. But it usually takes all day.

In the interest of scientific observation, I asked myself if there were other reasons I might write so fast. In my log, I noted that the book has had an unusually rich brewing period, about 18 months. I have been looking forward to writing the main character a lot. I also have a pretty solid deadline for it.

I tried the experiment again. Again, a phenomenal number of words in a shorter amount of time than is usual for me. Also, I forgot to eat lunch because I was in such a deep state of concentration. Trust me, friends I’m just not the kind of person who forgets to eat lunch.

Then, a lot of events knocked me off track. Edits for another project, some family stuff, a foot injury. It was a couple of weeks before I could get back to the book and in the meantime, I forgot about dubstep. I eased back into the book, wondering why it was going so slowly. Deadline anxiety started rearing its ugly head.

One morning, my Pandora app suggested I might enjoy the Electronica for Studying station. Oh, yeah, yeah. Maybe I would like that.

Another 3000 word day.

And another, and another, always within three to four 48-minute sessions. (I’ve been experimenting with lengths of blocks, too, and this is a pretty good length for me. I know some love the 25-minute pomodoro, but I need a longer focus, and I only want a few minutes to get up and walk around and get a cup of coffee between sessions so I don’t lose the mood.)

The creativity scientist in the basement announced it a success and I’m sticking with it. Now that I’ve been working to it, I notice that I don’t actually notice the music much. It’s quite repetitive and moves back and forth across the headphones, which might be part of what creates the focus—right brain, left brain, right brain, left brain. I might do some research and I might not. As I’m experimenting on myself and my own creativity, I’m not as interested in the why as I am in the results.

I thought perhaps for a time that it might just be the new adult novel that would flow to this music, but I’ve since done some experiments —and nope. It’s the music that creates the focus.

In the upcoming WU book Author In Progress, one of the things I wrote about was my tricks for writing faster. We’re all dealing with increasingly complex lives and greater and greater numbers of distractions from that tiny computer in our back pockets. To do our work, whatever methods we can find to keep us focused and on task helps bring our babies into the world more efficiently.

In light of that, I could help but share this strange, weirdly productive experiment with you. Which may not work for you at all. We all have different brains, different methods, different triggers.

The point is the experiment. I didn’t even know what to call this music and now I am working at a level I would have said was impossible, without even trying, which makes the process ever so much more enjoyable. What if there is music, or a location, or a time of day that will do that for your brain/creativity centers?

Have you experimented with methods to increase your productivity? Have you ever found something like this that seems almost magical? Tell us about it in the comments.


About Barbara O'Neal [2]

Barbara O'Neal [3] has written a number of highly acclaimed novels, including 2012 RITA winner, How To Bake A Perfect Life [4], which landed her in the RWA Hall of Fame and was a Target Club Pick. She is a highly respected teacher who also publishes material for writers at Patreon.com/barbaraoneal. She is at work on her next novel to be published by Lake Union in July. A complete backlist is available here [5].