The Pleasure Of...Flow

River-based metaphors abound.

When I taught writing, one of the hardest things to tackle—even to articulate—was the mystery of “flow.” Students were deeply attached to this idea, usually in the negative, pointing to their work unhappily. It just doesn’t flow. How do I make it flow? It’s a mystery, I think, because it confuses process and product—how writing feels, and how it reads. It usually isn’t hard to write badly, awkwardly, flow-lessly,* while writing well can feel like scrambling over boulders, slipping into rapids, constantly shoved back to where you started from. Like bullying the brain down a passageway full of shiny distracting objects, like Tahani in The Good Place walking down her hallway of celebrity-gossip temptations. It’s why we’ve developed all these tools to keep the doors locked, systems and tricks to force focus, to force that mysterious flow.

(*Truly bad writing—meretricious, hollow, self-interested, bad-faith writing—often flows very well, of course. This barnstormer of a piece by Tobi Haslett in Bookforum does a great job taking aim at the elegant bullshit of, specifically, Thomas Chatterton Williams, but in general the larger establishment of “incoherence” so beloved of the right-wing NYT op-ed columnists and other pundits wielding unexamined privilege.)

So from flow to workflow, an ugly word for what’s preoccupied my week: essentially, how to create a bridge between the enormous mess of pitches, ideas, and sparks of thought piled on one mental riverbank, to the equally unwieldy stack of editor contacts and pitch calls and lists of venues I’d like to write for on the other. I made progress, I think, at least in deleting notes from editors that are several years old, and all the pitch information for outlets that have gone under (that was fun). I messed around with categories and tried sorting the notes thematically, chronologically, all sorts of things, but I kept having to break off and, stupid as it sounds, write out what I was trying to do.

It’s easy to think of workflow as a system, a neat series of tasks, mechanical rather than intellectual or emotional labor. But working out how to work isn’t easy. I’ve been hovering at the edges of book writing trying to remind myself how it happens, or how to make it happen when deadline terror doesn’t do the work for me by locking down all the distraction-doors at once. And part of what makes it hard is that it feels stupid to keep breaking off and writing out questions like what am I trying to do here? Literally, how does this process of reading and note-taking and transcribing and editing and drafting and revising actually work? It’s what I’ve been doing all my life, pretty much, but it’s astonishing how a new project, a literal blank page, can make you feel like you’ve been dropped on your head in a strange new country. Is this unique to writers, or do painters find themselves standing in front of a new canvas holding a brush, asking which end is it again?

This is the problem with the “flow” myth: it presupposes that the route is already set. It’s easy to send water down a channel that’s already carved, but most of writing is digging out that channel in the first place. These are the tools that work for me:

  • I’m an intermittent and very non-Instagram-worthy Bullet Journal-er, but I do feel better when I make layouts and lists by hand. This piece by Ryder Carroll, the founder/popularizer of the whole thing, about ADHD, focus, and managing information overload, resonated with me—not least because he also seems to be a fan of beating metaphors into the ground.

  • I use Evernote constantly for notes, drafts, ideas, lists—pretty much everything I write, including this, starts here, in a low-stakes version.

  • Yesterday I finally caved and bought the newest version of Scrivener, and I plan to actually devote some time this weekend to learning it properly.

Here’s to remembering that we don’t have to reinvent every wheel.

Purchasing Pleasures**

This past weekend was our seventh wedding anniversary, and we finally replaced our rings. The originals were, like everything to do with our wedding, the product of waking up in the middle of the night a few days out and saying with horror, fuck, do we need X? We found an Etsy seller in Brooklyn who made us simple gold-plated thin bands for about twenty bucks each, which have been getting battered around now for considerably longer than the five years max she said they’d last. T lost his a couple weeks ago, so on Saturday we obeyed the Instagram algorithm and went to Mejuri, an online retailer of relatively affordable jewelry, which has a showroom in Soho with a hilariously perfunctory velvet rope outside, because the whole neighborhood is now full of people waiting in line for things the internet has told them to want. Well, we joined them, and managed to find perfect new rings, with a higher gold quotient but basically identical to our originals, for $150 for the pair. Small upgrades, but perfect for us.

Speaking of which, we went to Vite, our local Italian, for dinner. Ranking culture and information saturation and living in a city with nine million restaurants can put a ridiculous amount of pressure on dinner, especially special occasion dinner. Is this the best Italian food in the city? Of course not. But we get hugged by the owners when we go there, the light is beautiful, the wine is cheap, and we have memories here. That’s the whole point of anniversaries, and perhaps the whole point of love and commitment—learning the difference between perfect and perfect for you, and celebrating that.

**I don’t have $1.9 million lying around, but if you do, the villa in Lombardy from Call Me By Your Name is on sale, and would probably be quite pleasurable to own.

Reading Pleasures

Nothing new of mine this week, but I was delighted to be able to help celebrate the launch of my friend Lauren Walsh’s new book, Conversations on Conflict Photography, which I helped edit. It’s an excellent, timely look at photojournalism in the age of social media and authoritarianism, and includes searching interviews with practicing photographers, editors, and heads of humanitarian agencies, as well as essays by Lauren that put the larger issues in context.

^ In the gallery at Gallatin, which hosted an exhibition of images and text from the book.