What Flow Feels Like From the Inside: Part 1

Have you known deep flow? It was "natural" for this poet.

Posted May 18, 2018

Susan K. Perry
Source: Susan K. Perry

It hasn't been easy for me to read over this in-person interview with my late husband Stephen Perry with an eye toward posting it here. For one reason, we did the interview on our living room sofa, Stephen having just that moment come out of an intense writing-in-flow experience.

For another reason, it seems like just yesterday that I participated in this conversation, though it took place 22 years ago. Stephen died eight months ago.

This is the first time you can read the full interview. Previously I had sorted various bits of all my interviews with dozens of successful poets and authors into themes for Writing in Flow (the book that was the genesis of this blog). I believe that reading whole conversations can offer an even more complete idea of what flow is and how it feels, physically and emotionally.

Early that day, Stephen emerged from his writing room and joined me on the couch. I turned on the tape recorder.


Susan: You've obviously just come out of a poetry writing experience in which you were in flow and time "stopped."

Stephen: The aftermath of doing it makes me feel extremely shakey. I know you're not looking for the experience of flow itself but what triggers you into it. But there are physiological changes that go on and I'm still a little bit out of breath. Nervous now, after I finish. I don't know if I keep the critic just at bay when I'm in it. There's almost an exhaustion. I have only the vaguest idea of what I've got on the paper.

Sounds like it was a very emotional experience you've come out of.

First when I started off I was thinking of what other people in your survey had said about becoming too aware of flow and it contaminating the process, like being aware of your breathing. I didn't know if it was possible to enter flow while thinking about whether I was entering flow, even though I tend to be pretty expert at it. 

I think I did shift into flow, and I vaguely remember describing the cognitive thought patterns as being kind of sparks that were trying to catch up, but by writing extremely quickly, I felt like I was able to outrun that cognitive process. Many times after I finish, anxiety is the aftermath.

The other thing was a technique that Galway Kinnell suggests, of becoming what you're describing. I kept trying to keep that state going by getting into the skin of an otter, getting into the skin of a moose, trying to keep things visualized and tactile. I don't know if I was trying purposely to stir my emotions up, or if that just started happening. Because when you're feeling, you're not thinking. 

That's why you sometimes chose to write about—and become—animals?  Anything to get away from thinking.

I was actually doing something about flow just now, that was in my mind, I was concerned with it and it would keep coming back.  

It may be an atypical experience, because sometimes you can start with a subject and you let the water wash over that subject. Once you get into flow, it partakes of that subject. 

When I start thinking about the mood or the rush that I was in, it starts rushing me back into that. 

You have said you don't revise, but other writers say they revise by getting back into the same state they were in when they first wrote it.

When I get back into that emotional state, it becomes a different poem. I've never understood how someone can redo the same material, because flow for me is not a state of control. 

When you got up this morning, what made you decide to write today?

I've been thinking of getting back into writing for some time. You mentioned you wanted to catch me right after writing. I was thinking, I've been putting it off. I came in and put my breakfast bowl on the table and then I thought, No, don't postpone it, go back and do it right now. 

First there was just a fear that it can't happen because I'm going to be thinking about it. The whole thing was can I do flow if I've got flow on my mind?

As I usually do, I will start snipping the strings on my consciousness, like releasing a hot-air balloon. It's kind of like getting into a meditative state, it's kind of like when I was doing the biofeedback thing and putting my brain into alpha waves. Although that's different, more of a state of relaxation. This is actually a kind of brain loosening. It's finding out how to let go of the normal way you think, the normal constraints of how you think.

Sometimes you can use breathing exercises to start doing that. Sometimes it's just simply knowing somehow that mechanism. You've learned to do it. I definitely know how to do it and pretty much do it at will, and the hardest thing is untying the synapses. 

It's like opening a door that's floating in the middle of nowhere and all you have to do is go and turn the handle and open it and let yourself sink into it. You can't particularly force yourself through it. You just have to float.  If there's any gravitational pull, it's from the outside world trying to keep you back from the door.  It's not willing.


How do you get to the not-willing unless you decide to?

The will gets you to the chair. The not-will gets you to the flow.

Poems happen at maybe what would be called flow. There is a sense of mostly letting go. You haven't become schizophrenic, you haven't become absolutely incomprehensibly free-associating. Although I don't know if that doesn't make poetry too, for some. There is a medium ground where there is a being in charge and not being in charge of what I'm doing.  Where the looseness is spilling by itself but there is some control being exerted. I'm not even sure if that's true. 

Once you're in flow, how do you keep yourself in flow? 

I kept myself in flow just now for a long, long time, much longer than I usually would be. I did free writing for about five pages for about 45 minutes in as intensive a state and as continuous a state of flow that I could get into. Usually what would happen when I reach the end of a poem, there will be an acceleration of flow, an intensification of flow, an intensification of involvement at oneness. That will combine into a very heady feeling that produces the conclusion to the poem. When you get to that extremely heady point, oftentimes the poem ends.

And there were several points in this freewriting where it would have ended naturally but I still let myself go. There's a kind of seduction of keeping in it, plus there was the idea for myself of “can I keep myself in it?” particularly when I'm thinking about, at the periphery, the process of flow itself.

I very strongly connect the flow process with not thinking, with outrunning thinking. If you totally successfully outrun thinking, you may lose the poem. You may not lose flow, but you may lose the poem because the sense of the shaper itself can be totally lost. The shaper is there only in a very ghostly kind of form, occasionally whispering “don't go this way,” “don't go that way, this is a cul de sac, this is wrong.” Which may be a critical voice, but it's also a kind of shaping voice too that can keep you on the esthetic track of things. So there were wanings and waftings in this piece where I'd be deeper and less deep. My purpose in here was not necessarily to write a poem, although poems do become by-products of this kind of state, but just simply to be in a flow state.

Are there other ways you get into flow?

How I get into this state is real varied. When I used to drink, one of the best things I've ever written, when I was absolutely without a doubt in a flow state, was when I wrote “On the Road with the Astronomer.” I was dead drunk. I was so drunk that it was hard for me to type. My fingers were as liquid as my brain was. In that state, I was also propelled by extraordinary despondency and extraordinary self-criticism and self-evisceration. And during the poem itself, in becoming the crippled astronomer, who was myself, there in the flow state was a lot of angst.  I wonder if, for myself, it's possible to have intense, intense emotion, and negative emotion at that, and still get into a state of flow. I was absolutely at one with what I was doing, the words were coming absolutely by themselves, I was the breath of what was happening itself. And at the same time, there was this incredible emotion.

Another way way of getting into flow is waking up out of sleep and then purposefully not letting myself wake up. So in a way you're already in flow. The brain is already in an altered place so all you have to do is maintain that altered place, get over to the computer. I try to not think about things too clearly. Sometimes I'll control my breathing. It's like keeping a kind of gauze barrier against cognitive thought. If there are real world activities, like the clanking of a gruel pan, that can serve as a kind of reality alarm clock and start to pull me out. But I can keep myself smothered in cotton. 

I wonder if this style evolved because you tend to be more of a night person, slow to wake in the morning.

I don't know how this style evolved. I can go way back to a high school class where we were reading lots of poetry. I wasn't particularly interested in being a poet, but a science fiction writer. And I can remember that the first poem I had no idea how particularly I was producing it. This is odd, these aren't word constructions I wouldn't normally come up with. It's a different place. I know from that very beginning, it was a slight tilting. 

I don't think I fully learned to write poems until I fully was able to release into flow. They aren't poems unless it's flow. Flow and poetry for me are identical phenomena. 

NOTE: For more of Stephen Perry's thinking and writing, see his book Questions About God. You can also hear him read a few of the poems (almost a flow experience in itself) at SoundCloud.

Copyright (c) 2018 by Susan K. Perry, author of Kylie’s Heel.