I thought that the act of writing would be like reading, but more intense. You know that feeling you get when you’re transported by a story? You’re snug under a blanket on a gray day, sipping cocoa and surrounded by contented, sleeping dogs. The German word is gemütlichkeit; in Danish, it’s hygge. An NPR article on hygge, describes it as the pursuit of everyday happiness, the art of creating a nice atmosphere. Hygge builds in elements of togetherness, savors simple pleasures, and emphasizes relaxation and comfort on an everyday basis.
Writing is the exact opposite of that.
If you’re doing it right, writing is a solitary pursuit that pushes you into your discomfort zone. And there’s no emerging from that until the book is done. You spend your time agonizing over the hair’s breadth of difference in meaning between synonyms and you worry about pace (too slow here? too fast there?). You try to work out character arcs that mesh with the plot and are right for the characters. You wonder if you’d be better off writing non-fiction because that has brisker sales. You experience feelings of inadequacy because you’ve done nothing towards proper marketing this quarter, and you have Talmudic discussions with your writers’ group over commas. [ N.B. There is also a post-marketing discomfort zone, so the fun never stops for writers.]
This still easily beats a day at work in corporate America. I used to spend exorbitant amounts of time in teleconferences that led to no forward motion for projects. I’d practice my search and rescue knot tying skills while some raging extrovert babbled on and on, completely convinced that the number of words expelled was more important than the quality of the idea conveyed.
Figure 8 on a bight—that talking dude bites the big one…
Figure 8 follow through—no one is ever going to follow through on anything discussed today…
Munter hitch—what’s the hitch? Where do I start, dude?
Corporations are creatively impoverished environments, largely because of these endless teleconferences and meetings that fail to engage the higher level thinking needed to solve difficult problems. Thinking at a higher level needs alone-time, not group-babble; it needs deep work, isolated from distraction, not more face-time.
These corporate group activities are unproductive because they lack the fundamental criteria needed to achieve the flow state, otherwise known as “being in the zone.” Flow has been described by Mihály Csíkszentmihályi as an experience of intense and focused concentration, where you lose your sense of self and become one with the activity. Time becomes meaningless and you experience the activity as intrinsically rewarding.
The flow state is also known as introvert nirvana.
If this introvert writer can manage to stop herself from diddling around on the internet and to get down to business, flow is possible. Once in the zone, creating something that hadn’t existed before is also possible.
In addition to slaving away in solitude, all the other basic requirements to achieve flow are met in the writing environment: 1) The goals are clear (I need to write a book); 2) Feedback is immediate (what kind of amateurish garbage did I just type?!); and 3) There is a balance between perceived skills and the perceived challenges (I know a lot of words and I need to choose the right ones and put them down in the proper order).
The best part of the writer’s flow state is that all the niggling annoyances described above fade into nothingness. The story writes itself. It’s been shown that the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, an area of the brain best known for self-monitoring, deactivates during flow. This is the best way to shut up the inner critic and write without hesitation.
Writing truly is more intense than reading. The surprise is that this is not because writing provides a more vivid experience of living in a fictional world. The intensity comes because you burn the mental energy to get to the mountain’s peak and finally reach introvert nirvana. Just like the flow state encountered during strenuous physical activity, endorphins are released during writer’s flow. The receptors in your brain are treated to a delicious shot of dopamine.
In my experience, writing and flow are the active forms of mental process, while reading and hygge are the passive forms. Both are enjoyable, but in vastly different ways.
Get ready for an SAT-level analogy: writing is to reading as flow is to hygge.
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