A chronic reality of writing: It’s a struggle.

Or so it often (always?) seems if you’re the writer. You aren’t sure whether your information is sound, where to start your story, what’s essential and what you can leave out. As for finding a coherent structure … it can feel like torture. Meanwhile, you might marvel at (envy?) writers who make it look easy. They are prolific, creative and seem to be having actual fun while you continue to slog and struggle. Everything they do seems to just flow. Some of them even talk about being in the zone while writing.

Athletes often talk about that state.They lose any sense of time or effort, and are just one with their work.

But psychologists who study the state can apply to any effort, from piloting a plane to rebuilding a spine to playing a symphony. It’s often call flow, and leads to a sense of effortlessness. Time disappears, as does conscious struggle.

I was reminded of this recently when I read a piece in The Washington Post by freelance science writer and Storyboard contributor Jessica Wapner. Wapner cited her own experience of being in the zone while running, then opened her piece to the science of that experience.

I also came across a piece on LitHub about a new book by Adharanand Finn, called “The Rise of the Ultra Runner.” Adharanand reports around the world to talk to people who push themselves to the edge of human endurance, but starts his story for LitHub this way:

I’ve always considered myself something of a purist when it comes to running. I would have as much admiration for a person who could run a mile in less than four minutes as I would for someone who has run around the entire world. To run the entire world would take determination, bloody-mindedness, good planning skills, and a lot of spare time. But to be fast, really fast, that took skill, dedication, the careful honing of a precious talent over many years. To watch athletes like Mo Farah, David Rudisha, or Eliud Kipchoge in full flow was to witness something poetic, at once combining the depths of human effort with incredible grace, balance, and power. It was running made beautiful.

Both pieces left me again wondering if writers reach the same place of grace, power and beauty. And if so, how?

I‘ve been writing professionally for more than 40 years, and remember moments that could, I suppose, be called states of grace. I have lost afternoons on deadline, going from desperation to delivery. I have written forests of pedestrian filler, but occasionally found, from somewhere, a sentence that stirs me or a word I honestly didn’t know I knew.

My years-ago experience as a slow and balky marathoner doesn’t offer those same moments in my memory. What I remember are plodding feet, heavy legs and buckled knees. So I was intrigued when Wapner mentioned getting in the zone as a runner; I reached out to ask if she had felt the same zone as a writer. She seemed a bit stumped by the question — as do most writers when they talk about their process. Somehow, for writers, the struggle seems to override all else.

I don’t know why that’s the case. According to Wapner’s piece, people who study flow say it results from five primary things:

  • Focus on the craft or effort itself, and not on whether you think you are doing things “right” or what others might be thinking about you
  • Confidence, which can come from the belief that a skill is as much about learning and practice as it is about some innate, magical talent
  • Autonomy, which involves the ability to choose when you want feedback or guidance
  • The elusive practice of quieting the mind — just doing the thing you’re doing rather than thinking about the thin you’re doing
  • And finally, of course, practice, practice and more practice. Simply put, doing the thing, and doing it again and again, until it is part of you

The lessons in that for writers seem apparent. And yet, we struggle. Maybe it’s because writing requires active thinking — or so we think. How does a pursuit of the mind achieve a quiet mind?

All of this sent me on a search in Storyboard for a series call “Narrative Sweat and Flow,” by Simina Mistreanu, a Romanian journalist who studied flow among writers for her graduate project at the Missouri School of Journalism, and now reports from China. Mistreanu interviewed several top narrative writers — David Finkel, Anne Hull, Lane DeGregory, Chris Jones and others — about whether and how they achieve a state that allows their version of an athlete’s peak performance.

Mistreanu’s main piece was followed by drill-down Q&As with

Since the struggle seems chronic, and the quest never-ending, we recommend them again here.

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