I went through this period of time in my life, a little more than a year ago, where I would listen to ebooks on my headphones and cry while cleaning my house.
Don’t judge. You have your vices. I have mine.
One book I enjoyed listening and crying to was Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s Finding Flow: The Psychology of Engagement with Everyday Life. Csikszentmihalyi described and defined the autotelic personality and experience, most notably the state of flow, where a person thrives in an activity that is rewarding both because the activity is challenging and the performer has adequate skill. You could say I had skill at cleaning toilets, but that wasn’t my epiphany which led me to tears while gripping a toilet brush.
I have experienced flow when I write. Cziksentmihalyi defines flow as “a state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter; the experience is so enjoyable that people will continue to do it even at great cost, for the sheer sake of doing it” (Cskikszentmihalyi 4). The first time was when I was in the first grade. My teacher asked the class to write a one-page story, and while we were only required to write one page, I kept writing and writing because nothing was stopping me, and I was pretty sure I didn’t have to stop my story ever. I wasn’t doing it for a grade or for recognition, but because writing was exhilarating and I was lost in the process. I remember a boy who sat across from me saying, “You can’t write a story that long.”
I told him he was wrong. My story could keep going as long as I wanted it to. I felt inspired for the first time. I get the same feeling when I really dig and become immersed in my writing. I think this is the feeling of flow Cziksentmihalyi describes in his book. Cziksentmihalyi says that to achieve a flow state, a balance must be struck between the challenge of the task and the skill of the performer. In his book, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, Cziksentmihalyi says, “The best moments in our lives are not the passive, receptive, relaxing times… The best moments usually occur if a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile” (Csikszentmihalyi).
I first consciously recognized the connection between being hyper-focused and writing when I was co-developing an OER textbook for my students at the college where I work. When I buckled down and focused on readings, I observed how I was able to focus and be diligent as I learned a new skill: citing open resources, researching them, and applying them to the outcomes for community college students. It felt exhilarating. FYI: this is why some people call me weird.
I would describe the exhilaration of writing as not only wordgasms and inspiration. Exhilaration, for me, feels the same as panic. When I pay attention to my body, and I close my eyes, they feel the same: like a dream where I am falling. Sometimes it feels good when my flesh trembles after I write a motherfucking metaphor.
Being committed to writing is hard because commitment is not always exhilarating, and there are lulls in the writing process. Which leads me to listening to ebooks, sobbing, cleaning the toilet, and having an epiphany. Sometimes writing feels like listening to ebooks while crying and cleaning the toilet. And other times, writing feels perfect, hyper-focused, and joyful. As I held a toilet brush, listened to Csikszentmihalyi’s ideas on flow, and thought about my writing life, I wept at the thought that maybe I was exactly where I needed to be, consciously integrating the act of writing into my life.
Time to get my headphones. And my scrubber. It’s a good day to weep.
Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly (1990). Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. New York, NY: Harper and Row.