The Deadlift and the Flow State
Or, what weight-training taught me about writing
Weight training has surprised me. This winter, I joined teammates in twice-weekly weight-lifting sessions under the guidance of our rowing coach. The focus was on building strength that would help us once we got back into our boats for the rowing season, and so we executed exercises with very specific functions: a hinge, a squat, a press, a pull, and a few other things to target very specific muscles. While I’m familiar with circuit training, I’d never done weight-training with its focus on doing one movement just a few times for four rounds, and adding weight as you grew more capable, week by week.
I’ve loved it. It’s been so gratifying to make incremental progress from whatever weight I started with to where I am now. There is something incredibly satisfying about having one very limited job and trying to do it better each session. That’s all we do. We pick things up and we put them down. Bench press, squat, deadlift, they’re all essentially the same: taking something heavy, moving it a very small distance (inches!), and returning it to its starting point. And with every Tuesday or Thursday session, we add a little more weight and a little more and see if, yup, we can move that new weight too.
This sort of athletic experience is a lot like the kind of writing many of us do. We set ourselves goals to write, say, 500 words a day. We might use things like the Pacemaker app to set goals that gradually increase in word-count over time. We chip away at the hypothetical total word-count of a novel in 500-word increments, week after week. While this is great for weight-lifting, I’ve been wondering lately, whether it is indeed the best way to write a novel.
First, let me acknowledge that I know plenty of writers who don’t write their novels this way, in a steady production of new-prose installments. So I’m not necessarily saying, hey, you’re all already doing it wrong. What I want to look into is a very different kind of experience that we tend, as writers, (I think) to pooh-pooh a little. The groove, the flow state, the I-just-kept-going-and-couldn’t-stop.
Be honest. How many times have you heard someone say they, wow, just sat down and wrote a ton and, look, they’re already half way done and thought: yeah, right. it’s probably all dreck?
We tend to equate struggle with quality, in creative work. Even though we want so very much to write those 80,000-100,000 words that will add up to a novel—and to do it yesterday—we tend to equate scarcity with excellence. But why? It’s not like our own words will somehow gain value for being rarer, like a lithograph in a limited series. And we’re not engaged in a physical toil, so ease of production doesn’t have to mean the writer is somehow coasting, not creating up to standards.
So I’m here to champion the groove, the flow. And I’m not going to apologize about it, in the hopes that the next person who has a flow experience, a non-deadlifting experience, won’t question their worth as a creator of writing.
I’ve been working on a particular novel for, apparently, five years. During that time, I set the project aside to rewrite Terra Nova; I set it aside to write an entirely different novel; and I just plain old took time away from all novels all the time, for certain stretches. I got back into it again last fall and got a good chunk of work done. And then Terra Nova came out and then I was busy, and then holidays, and then still busy with TN, and then spring was looming and I had that awful feeling that yet again I was going to leave this poor novel in the lurch.
With a group of writer/student/friends, we planned a virtual retreat for early March where we would all zoom in at the end of each writing day for cocktail hour and to share what we’d done. I looked ahead to those three days as the time to jumpstart my re-engagement with the novel, in the hope that I could continue a steady—incremental!—progress on it and finally finish.
Reader, it was amazing. After not producing a single word on this novel from mid-November to end of February, I wrote an insane amount on the first day. Surely this won’t last, I thought to myself. And yet it did, and I wrote insane amounts on the second and third days, too. And since the retreat, I’ve had lucky days of few commitments when I’ve also produced insane amounts. (I’m talking 16, 17 pages of double-spaced Word document prose each time.)
Of course, I figured it was dreck. But you know what? It’s not perfect, but it’s not dreck, either. So what happened?
I was definitely in a good groove, which I’ll call a flow state, though I didn’t think of that term until I read Crystal King’s comment on Cathy Elcik’s lastest HIBOU piece. I’m certainly familiar with it from sports, where I’m familiar with the feeling of being in the zone, and with the feeling of the runner’s high. Here’s how—I think—I got there in writing.
All the time I was Not Writing, I was Thinking. And before the retreat, I wrote several pages of notes to myself about the novel. On the eve of the first full day of the retreat, I stayed up until one in the morning writing more specific notes for what I planned to do. When I got up early the next day, I was prepared. And so, off I went. I was able to experience the writing equivalent of training for weeks with runs of various distances so that, on race day, you can crank out 30 slow and steady miles.
I’m now considering whether this isn’t the actual best way to write a novel.
Rather than chip away, little by little, at an idea that you might be crushing the soul out of through this incremental approach, what if you set aside two or three days out of every month and just went for broke on those days? It would be a bit like being in the Reserves, where you’re in the military but you only show up one weekend a month (I apologize if I’ve messed up the details of that arrangement) to be in the military. The rest of the time, you go about your life. You go to work, you do your other stuff. And for those two or three days out of each thirty-day period, you go into a zone.
To do this, of course, you’d have to prepare. You’d have to train. You’d have to allow your brain to think about your novel while you were busy with other things. And you’d have to let yourself take notes on those thoughts. Notes are so low-stakes, aren’t they? We never set goals for ourselves in notes. So this is good. It should be possible to just write notes whenever the idea or spirit moves us, without pressure or angst. Notes that will be available for us (even without our having to reread them) when the time comes to write.
So, the Deadlift approach to writing, or the Flow State approach. Which one works for you? Maybe the best thing—as with sports—would be a combination of the two. Thinking and note-taking, little by little, to be ready for the burst of energy that cranks those pages out.
One final note: writing a lot like that is a sport. You get breathless, your hand hurts, your shoulders get tight, you need to stretch. You come up for air every now and then and then take a big breath and dive back in. It’s exhilarating. Why not set ourselves up for a writing process that’s exhilarating? And once we do, why not go ahead and claim it? Yeah, I wrote a ton in one sitting, and it was fun.
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