guys, we killed flow

Ideas are like fish. If you want to catch little fish, you can stay in the shallow water. But if you want to catch the big fish, you’ve got to go deeper. Down deep, the fish are more powerful and more pure. They’re huge and abstract. And they’re very beautiful.
―David Lynch, Catching the Big Fish

The much-hyped notion of “flow” was a useful one, but over time we’ve rinsed the word clean of any semantic power it once carried. As presented by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in his now-classic book, moments of “optimal experience,” when the “body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile,” are the key to happiness. Intellectually, I agree completely, but the word itself…

In Csikszentmihalyi’s book, the intensity of effort and seriousness of purpose required to experience flow are made clear. But who needs to read a 334-page book when a blog post will do? As with all good ideas over time, “flow” has been appropriated by other experts to suit their own ends. Today, flow’s gone corporate. See a mention of the word today and chances are it’s to conjure the image of a person quietly engaged with the “optimal experience” of assembling a PowerPoint presentation. Ideally, in order to raise VC for an innovative new food-delivery app.

In diluting “flow,” we’re losing touch with something crucial about Csikszentmihalyi’s insight. Now that it’s become little more than a euphemism for enhanced, frustration-free work productivity, the word “flow” needs to be replaced by something that actually conveys its intended power and importance.

As a creator, I want to be transported. Carried away by my work. This isn’t just about a shift in terminology, of course. The trouble with flow goes back to a shift in our cultural attitude toward the making of art of any kind. We’ve learned to create timidly, tentatively, always aware that the wrong word in the wrong place might taint our “permanent record”: social media.

Read any artist’s memoir from the pre-digital age. They’d stay up all night. They’d go a little crazy. They’d put it all out there. No longer. Sure, this shift has happened for good reasons in many cases, but there goes the baby with the bath water.

My Dinner with André is a personal favorite. (Wonderful essay on the film here.) As theater director, André Gregory got carried away. Gregory’s reputation was soiled time and again by one incredibly risky creative experiment after another—but he always bounced back. I don’t think you could repeat that today even if you did have a trust fund like he did. When I saw that Gregory had published his memoir, I snapped it right up. It feels good just to marinate in how this stuff used to work.

Early on, the book touches on the years-long rehearsal process of Alice, the legendary first production of Gregory’s theater company the Manhattan Project, which adapted Lewis Carroll using a bare stage and almost no costumes. Gregory describes the development of the mad tea party scene:

We did improvisations that went for months. Sometimes a single improvisation lasted all night. We worked on the tea party without Alice. We rehearsed with only the three men sitting at that table doing whatever they felt like doing or nothing at all. The rule was that they could not go to the bathroom to pee. I had a teapot in which they could do that.

Reading this, I exulted in the idea that a bunch of artists could sit around making art this way for years, day after day, night after night, without once having to check their email or post something to Instagram to maintain a connection with their fans. Flow? “We just sat at that table until the three of us literally went crazy,” the actor who played the Dormouse recalled. Yes. That kind of crazy is what we’re all missing. Stifled by distractions, robbed by technology of the opportunity to get so deep into creation that we “literally” go crazy, we are literally going crazy.

To enter into this kind of all-absorbing creative process, there’s simply no substitute for escape. An app blocker isn’t going to restore the pre-digital landscape for you. To get truly carried away by your work, you have to go beyond the possibility of returning to the modern day. “The mere presence of your smartphone reduces brainpower.”

I’ve written before about the DIY writer’s retreat I once took, spending a week in a motel room writing stories. It worked for me like nothing before or since. I still think about that experience. There was something so vital about it. I really, really didn’t appreciate it fully enough. If if I’d had an inkling of what I’d stumbled onto, the secret I’d uncovered, the course of my life might have gone very differently. I might have learned, right then at the beginning of my career, the key to digging deep, to getting beneath the surface to where David Lynch’s pure and powerful fish always lurk.

Everyone in my family has their list of things they plan to do “when coronavirus is over,” from dim sum to Disney World. This is mine. My fondest wish is to get a hotel room just like Maya Angelou used to do. Take my technology away, give me a pad of paper and a cup full of pencils, and leave me be. Forget flow. I want nothing more than to be carried away.

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