What lurks behind “flow?”
Above all, the idea of naturalness.
“Natural” is a word that invites suspicion.
It should always present itself in quotation marks,
A sign that its meaning is slippery.
Humans can justify almost anything by calling it natural.
Naturalness is the pervasive myth—the one to root out of your head.
There’s nothing natural about writing except the tendency to assume that it’s natural,
Thanks to a false analogy with talking.
The connection between talking and writing is nearly as complex as the connection between reading and writing.
You probably don’t remember learning to talk as a child.
You probably do remember learning to shape letters and spell words.
Talking is natural.
Writing is not.
Most children can say words before they’re two and speak in sentences before they’re three.
They can sing the alphabet song almost as soon as they can sing.
But they can’t write the alphabet until they can hold an instrument of writing.
It may seem strange to think that the manual dexterity needed to hold a pencil—or use a keyboard—comes later than the lingual and mental dexterity needed to speak.
But it does.
In writing, there’s always an artificiality, a separateness,
The sense of manipulating a tool for producing words at arm’s length,
Out there at the ends of your fingers,
Unlike speaking, which arises invisibly from within, like thought and breath.
In writing, there’s a psychological separateness too,
The sense of watching yourself think and thinking about it as you do,
A self-consciousness that interrupts the movement of your thoughts
If you experience it while talking.
Humans have a language instinct
But not necessarily a writing instinct.
The difference between talking and writing
Is the difference between breathing and singing well.
“Natural,” like flow, is also an effect in the reader’s mind.
It doesn’t describe the act of writing.
It describes the effect of writing.
And like “flow,” “natural” is one of the words behind writer’s block.
So let’s suppose there’s no such thing as writer’s block.
There’s loss of confidence
And forgetting to think
And failing to prepare
And not reading enough
And giving up on patience
And hastening to write
And over-visualizing your audience
And never really trying to understand how sentences work.
Above all, there’s never learning to trust yourself
Or your capacity to learn or think or perceive.
People will continue to believe that writing is natural.
This harms only writers who believe it themselves.
And yet good prose often sounds spoken,
As if the writer—or the reader reading aloud—were saying the sentences.
(This isn’t the same as sounding colloquial.)
But the arc of education—and the arc of emulation—is usually
Away from spokenness and toward the unspeakable,
Toward longer, more convoluted sentences
Using more elaborate syntax and more jargon-like diction.
There’s nothing natural about making sentences that sound spoken,
No matter how natural they sound.
What are their characteristics?
They’re fairly short.
They’re rhythmic, often with the rhythms of actual speech.
The diction is simple—very few multi-syllabic words.
So is the construction—almost no suspended phrases or dependent clauses.
This simplicity makes the rhythm more perceptible.
There’s also an acute awareness of the listener’s attention and understanding,
A sense of contextual alertness and a vivid sense of the unspoken.
These are all qualities worth building into your prose.
They must be created, discovered, revealed, constructed.
They don’t appear “naturally.”
It’s always worth asking yourself if you can imagine saying a sentence
And adjusting it until you can.
When your prose begins to stiffen and your thoughts get stuffy,
It’s sometimes worth reworking the piece you’re writing as if it were
A letter or a long e-mail to a friend,
Someone who knows you well but hasn’t seen you in a while.
The prose relaxes, the sentences grow more informal.
You remember to use contractions,
Even the words grow shorter.
Suddenly things are clearer and simpler and more direct, as if they were being spoken.
But something else happens too.
There’s suddenly a wider variety of tone, an emotional latitude,
A sense that the reader will be able to fill in the gaps,
Even the possibility of humor.
Why the difference?
It isn’t the change in genre.
It’s the change in the reader.
You’re writing to someone who knows you, who understands your allusions,
Your patterns of speech, who’s quick and empathetic
In reading your thoughts and feelings, whether they’re spoken or unspoken.
What makes this reader valuable is a sense of connection and kinship,
An intuitive grasp of what you say and don’t say.
You can make any piece feel like an informal letter
By using the generic characteristics of an informal letter.
But it’s far easier to get that feel
By writing to the reader you imagine reading it.
The reader you construct in your imagination
Changes the way you write almost without your noticing it.
Behind “flow” there’s something else,
Even something ecstatic—
The priority of thoughts over sentences.
Thoughts leaping ahead, words barely keeping up,
A hectic chase.
Or the other way around,
Sentences spinning out of each other, one after the next,
Phrase eliciting phrase, words—if not sentences—rushing ahead of thought.
It feels like inspiration.
We’ve all had these moments.
The mistake is overvaluing them.
You have an effusion one day.
It spawns a piece.
As the piece evolves, you try to protect those original, effusive sentences.
Only to realize, at last, that what you’re writing won’t come together until they’ve been removed or revised.
What were you trying to protect?
The memory of the excitement you felt when those words “came to you.”
(Where did they “come” from?)
You were protecting the memory of the excitement of really concentrating,
Of paying close attention to your thoughts and, perhaps, your sentences,
The excitement of feeling the galvanic link between language and thought.
That excitement matters, and the memory of it is worth preserving,
Even if those sentences aren’t.
Concentration, attention, excitement will be part of your working state.
Flow, inspiration—the spontaneous emission of sentences—will not.
That distinction is worth keeping in mind.
The workings of your unconscious mind,
The current of your subterranean thoughts and intuitions,
The flickerings of insight and instinct—
These will always surface, if you learn how to let them.
But they’re only some of the tools of your daily work,
Which is making sentences.
The most damaging and obstructive cluster of ideas you face as a writer are nearly all related to the idea of “flow.”
Distrust these words.
They stand for cherished myths, but myths nonetheless.
“Inspiration” is what gets you to the keyboard,
And that’s where it leaves you.
Inspiration is about the swift transitions of thought,
Almost all of them carefully prepared for by continuous thinking.
Inspiration has nothing to do with the sustained effort of making prose.
You’ll have many serendipitous moments while writing.
You’ll learn to expect them.
But “inspiration,” as it’s commonly used, is just another word for “flow.”
See also: Recent and archived articles by Verlyn Klinkenborg of The New York Times.