Perhaps you’ve experienced flow writing. You sit down, watch your fingers tap away at the keyboard, and wonder, Where did that come from? Did I write that? That’s really good!
Sometimes the experience of flow can be as simple and subtle as, Hey! I have an idea! Where did that idea spring from? You didn’t ask for it. You were walking along thinking about nothing in particular and then suddenly—!—you have an idea!
Such is the magic and mystery of creative flow. Whether ideas flood in from your subconscious, aggregate from a collective superconsciousness, or channel in through divine sources, you discover your connection to some sort of something. Writing and creating become joyful and transcendent, and sometimes addictive. You are the medium through which inspired ideas flow.
When I wrote my first novel, The Dance, I had no idea how it was going to end but my characters had run their races and I knew I needed to untangle their loose threads. I woke up at 3:00 in the morning with the answer, ran to my desk, and finished the book.
A friend faced a computer coding conundrum. He woke in the middle of the night, wrote the missing function, tested it to make sure it worked, and then returned to bed. In the morning he couldn’t figure out how or why the routine functioned; he just knew it did.
Listen to the lyrics to James McMurtry’s “Lights of Cheyenne.” You don’t write a dreamlike song like that without tapping into flow—without generous assistance from the subconscious mind … or something else.
And yet, there is structure—a rhyme scheme, a pattern of verses with a chorus in 3:4 time. This brilliant song is a marriage of flowed ideas and standard forms.
Sometimes, in an attempt to honor the “purity” of the flow experience, writers reject form and structure. Though the resulting work may offer brilliance and insight, the divine does not often send us messages in tidy paragraphs with tight timelimes. Like a rushing river of thought, flow writing can run deep, wide, and long before the stream exhausts itself.
I took a guitar lesson with one of my favorite bluegrass improvisers. He informed me proudly that he “don’t read music or know nothin’ about music theory or any of that stuff.” I felt bad for him. His entrenched ignorance was reinforced by his unfounded fear that knowledge of the structure of music might impair his ability to flow.
A writer wanted to hire me to edit his 270,000-word spy novel manuscript. The problems were twofold: Few people want to read an 800-page book, and the editing process would have been laboriously time-consuming and very expensive. Few manuscripts like that—even inspired ones—are ever released. Writing is an art; publishing is a business. Inspired or not, the creative work was neither practical nor economically sensible to produce. The would-be publisher became a victim of writer’s flow.
How can we harness the magic power of flow while not digging a creative hole that’s too deep to climb out of … or worse, embracing life at the bottom of it?
Jazz musicians offer a valuable approach. The jazz idiom offers a huge selection of “standard” tunes by composers like Jerome Kern, Duke Ellington, and Cole Porter who wrote mostly for theater in the 1930s and 40s. Performers play the melodies over the chords and then improvise over those chords. The improvisational flow must honor the original melody, harmonize with the chord structure, and still sound inspired—a balance of flow and structure.
Through years of practice, jazz musicians develop familiarity with a library of tunes and a vocabulary of melodic ideas. When it’s time to improvise, musical ideas flow out in much the same way that words flow out of you in spoken conversation. None of us knows what we’ll say ten seconds from now but the expression of ideas is natural.
And yet, we may sometimes need to pause and think about how to structure an idea. Is it “a group that believes in magic” or “a group who believes in magic?” Do you have “an idea which will make a difference” or “an idea that will make a difference?” Sometimes we defer to the “music” of the prose—to what sounds best to us—and at other times, we follow the dictates of grammar and syntax.
In the same way, a jazz musician may make a mental note about the harmonic structure of a tune and fall back on structured ideas to navigate it. The third bar of Duke Ellington’s “Take the A-Train” contains an augmented chord. I’ll play a whole-tone scale there to imply that harmony during my improvised melody. As long as the musician has a selection of “licks”—fragments of melodic vocabulary—to drop into the improvised solo, the informed listener hears a statement that’s musical and relevant to the tune.
Listen to the Vince Guaraldi trio tackle Count Basie’s standard, “Fly Me to the Moon.” Guaraldi starts off almost in a “cocktail piano” style and slowly grows in intensity. The music swings harder and harder as the performance progresses. The technique is astonishing. And yet, throughout, it’s clear that he’s playing an interpretation of “Fly Me to the Moon” rather than just an improvisation over the chords to “Fly Me to the Moon.” Any listener who’s familiar with the jazz idiom could jump into the middle of the recording and quickly name the song.
Words work the same way. You have your favorite turns of phrase, jokes, and speech patterns that allow you to improvise—to flow—while writing or conversing. Rarely do you think about verbs or adjectives or grammar because that understanding is baked into your natural use of language. But sometimes—especially when written prose affords us the opportunity to polish our original ideas, rethink them, and state them as eloquently as possible—awareness of structure and form creates the scaffolding upon which inspiring ideas are shared.
Structure and flow work together. When writing a story or a speech, create the transformation first: How do you want your reader or audience to think, act, or feel different after they’ve been exposed to your ideas? Outline the steps to get to that result. Create the introduction only after you’ve nailed down exactly what final result you’ll be introducing. Then flow into your outline.
Embrace the full spectrum of creativity. If, like many artists, you’ve discovered the magic of flow or like many jazz aficionados, you’ve gained enough knowledge of the idiom to appreciate the magic of an inspired improvised solo, you have nothing to fear from structure—from grammar, music theory, or the creation of an outline. Without flow, structure becomes dry and uninspired. Without structure, flow tends to ramble and loop. Flow and structure are yin and yang—conscious and subconscious partners in the creative process. Each has its own magic to contribute to your best and most-inspired work.