Over Flow

Although it’s not an especially rigorous representation, I find it helpful to describe hypnosis as a flow state. Most folk will nod along at that explanation, and the pleasurable recollection of being in the zone comes with plenty of positive associations a hypnotist can capitalize on. Because suggestibility hinges on the desire and intentions of the hypnotee, an invitation to enter into a flow state of one’s own volition is terribly enticing.

I also like to think of work in terms of rhythms and patterns, which is why I’m a little off this morning. For the past couple of weeks I’ve been chipping away at a writing project I took on to transition out of novel writing, knowing full well that I’d turn back to writing short stories and poems before long. Each morning I’d tuck in to the project, an eight-part sequence, with a rough count of 1000-1500 words in mind. I’d be pleasantly absorbed in an individual entry for an hour or two, drafting uncritically before subjecting whatever I produced to a rough-and-ready edit, and then I’d set it aside. Yesterday I polished off the last draft of the sequence, however, so today I’m in The Lurch. I need to identify the next project and devise the right rhythm for it, then fit it into the big-picture pattern of my work-day, -week, and -month.

The challenge of doing so, I think, is one of the byproducts of These Uncertain Times that we might not be paying enough attention to. While it’s decidedly not the whole of it, I think it’s one of the reasons that the shifting landscape of COVID-19 is so unsettling and disruptive to so many folks. Our plans–especially our longer-term plans–become more fragile, more contingent and it’s hard to establish larger daily or weekly patterns that make flow at the level of minutes or hours possible. Even a normal day like today will involve for me an unwelcome expenditure of mental energy that will keep me from being pleasantly generative. I’d normally be writing right now, but because I have errands on tap my brainspace is churning with pragmatics. In the past few minutes I had to settle the question of shaving (as a smidge of stubble helps to hold my masks in place), the order of operations (which will likely involve going to two stores on the opposite side of town as soon as they open to limit my exposure to humanoids), and the impact on the remainder of my day (which will now involve submissions rather than the drafting of something new). It all seems small, almost trivial, but even a bit of modest jostling early on can keep me from settling into the right frame of mind to get work done over the course of the day. And arrangements I make today will affect the rest of the week in small but substantive ways.

To me it often feels like the difference between Living With and Living Around someone or something. One involves a kind of simple acceptance and welcome, a concession to the way things have become (which is, incidentally, 1000% different from ugly variations on fatalistic “It is what it is” thinking), while the other involves active accommodation, like tiptoeing around a crime scene in a desert, trying to retrace our own footsteps in shifting sands, reluctant to touch anything. The former can take some getting used to, but once we’re done we can add it to the pattern; the latter requires mindfulness each time, and that can be exhausting.

For that reason it’s not a bad idea to be sensibly gentle with ourselves these days, gentle as far as we are able. And to enjoy those moments of flow when they come, even if we can’t easily fit them into the larger rhythms and patterns of our days and ways.

The Itch

(From the work of Geya Shvecova, who I came across while following the fascinating Twitter feed of Concinnus.)

I’m preparing to teach ENG 201 this spring, which serves as an introduction to more sophisticated kinds of researched reasoning and writing. It’s a challenging course for many students, in part because it asks them to stray from some of the strategies that they’ve been encouraged to depend on in high school and that still remain viable in ENG 101. It can also make for a difficult shift in perspective adoption. Some students intuitively feel the needs of the reader given their own reading needs, so urging them to give their audience something unfamiliar or unexpected that will elicit more serious attention is an easy sell. Some students, however, will understandably want to stick to well-mapped paths in terms of both their structural designs as well as their subject matter. And whether I like it or not, when it comes time for me to evaluate their work it’s virtually impossible to set aside the comparative tendency. Give me five essays on What I Did Last Summer and I’ll inevitably have preferences that bear on my response to the individual members of the set.

As a reader I find that my eye travels far too quickly these days. Efficient skimming comes with the gig, and when I chew on the news each day I generally know when I can breeze through some background information, some exposition, or some referential scaffolding. When I watch TV mysteries I generally know when I can check my phone as the director gets some establishing shots of the English countryside or offers a glimpse into the detective’s domestic life to offer comic relief; in horror movies I generally know when I can fast forward while a director stages some conventional suspense. Getting readers and viewers to slow down and really pay attention, especially those with extensive experience in a given genre, requires a little tactical disorientation. It’s a bit of a paradox: I think most readers want to feel both composed and discomposed, to feel at least a little uncertainty during the journey.

I liken it to an itch we need scratched, though in most cases we’d rather not be gouged or raked by claws in the process. The image above is a good example. My social media diet features at least a few servings of hypnotic imagery each day, but after a while even the most gorgeous moving mandalas can seem a little more ordinary. The wobble in Shvecova’s image caught my eye, however, and I keep scrolling back to give it another look, to consider the effects of the tremor. The same holds true for me in photography: I’ve seen so many framed and centered landscapes that any hint of asymmetry or disorientation occurs as a welcome break. And when it comes to writing just about anything that disrupts the patterns I know is almost guaranteed to engage me more immediately. In short horror fiction, for example, we are taught to look for the hook in the very first line. I’ve seen my fair share of editorial interviews in which that standard is reiterated and reinforced. As a reader I tend to like those stories well enough. The ones I find really compelling, however, often let me know straight away that I shouldn’t be so sure of my footing. I should be wary, a little apprehensive–the writer isn’t going to let me settle in to the readerly rhythms I expect.

I’ve just wrapped up a bunch of professional projects, and I find myself thinking about the itch as I sift through my writing plans for the next few months. Veer too far off the path and editors are apt to set a story aside; stride down the center and the manuscript might well become less memorable, dismissed as something seen before. To my thinking, at least these days, the latter is the less forgivable sin. I like my comfort as much as the next critter, but if I’m taking the time to read for pleasure I want to feel unnerved and unsettled, even if the effect is subliminal, operating at the level of my technical expectations. That comes with the terrible territories, I suppose: the same force that draws us to horror is apt to convince us to walk past the friendly park ranger and trust in the sketchy character who promises us that they know a secret way through the woods.