Into the Flow

Bruce Robert CoffinLast October I had the great pleasure of taking part in the first annual Murder by the Book, a two day event held at Bar Harbor’s historic Jesup Memorial Library. Is there anything more inspiring than autumn on the coast of Maine? As a rookie, among a dozen accomplished and award-winning Maine novelists, I was thrilled to have been included. On Friday evening, a handful of writers read aloud from unpublished works, gifting those in attendance a rare treat, a sneak peek at upcoming novels.

During one of the Saturday panels, Gerry Boyle and Julia Spencer-Fleming briefly discussed “the flow” that occasionally happens while writing. Being in the zone. Storytelling autopilot. Those times our stories take unexpected turns as they are being written. When characters begin to speak and act for themselves as the writer struggles to keep up. I used to believe this writerly flow was something that famous writers said to sound hip, that is, until it began happening to me. Any writer will tell you, those days are the absolute best, rare though they may be. If we could figure out a way to bottle that flow, manuscripts for entire novels would be completed in mere weeks. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work that way. It happens when it happens, often departing as quickly as it came. Writing a novel is hard work, believe me. Endless hours sitting in a chair, staring at a monitor, trying to untangle thoughts into something comprehensible and entertaining. But still, there are those glorious times when it almost seems to write itself.

As the author panel continued, I began to mentally wonder off, though no fault of Julia or Gerry, pondering this anomaly. I wondered, where does this flow come from? Is it a vehicle by which some magical muse inserts ideas into our heads? Sitting upon our shoulders and whispering suggestions. Or leading our fingers to the correct letters on the keyboard, rendering it into some kind of electronic Ouija board. And why doesn’t it happen to everyone? Why aren’t we all accomplished raconteurs? After all, everyone has a story to tell. Our entire lives are comprised of them. Those things that happen as we traverse the long and bumpy road of life. But if that’s all it takes, if we really are all bursting with stories ready to be told, where is release button to make them flow? Does the muse only appear to some folks and not others? Or could it be something else entirely?

I think it’s far more likely that we writers, who spend an inordinate amount of time inside our own heads, have simply exercised and developed the imagination muscle more than most. We’ve spent so much time poking holes in that thin membrane of the creative mind, the mental fabric restraining our best thoughts, that the stories just flow freely from our mind to the page.

Other writers may disagree. Each of us probably have our own thoughts on the source of this creative wellspring. But whatever the cause, I am sure of one thing. We’d all be eternally grateful if it happened more often.

About Bruce Robert Coffin

Bruce is a retired detective sergeant with more than twenty-seven years in law enforcement. At the time of his retirement, from the Portland, Maine police department, he supervised all homicide and violent crime investigations for Maine's largest city. Bruce also spent four years working counter-terrorism with the FBI, where he earned the Director's Award, the highest honor a non-agent can receive. He is the bestselling author of the Detective Byron Mystery Series from HarperCollins. His short stories appear in a number of anthologies including The Best American Mystery Stories 2016. Bruce lives and writes in Maine.
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22 Responses to Into the Flow

  1. Excellent post, Bruce! Like you, I never believed the flow until I experienced it. I find it happens to me when I’m dedicating myself to consistently writing every day. It almost kind of scares me, because I know there are times I won’t be able to turn it off and it’ll be happening when I’m at work or at 4 a.m. That’s why when I’m in the thick of it, I have legal pads all over the house so I can catch the flow as it’s happening if I’m not sitting at the computer.
    It’s one of the really awesome things about writing!

    • Barb Ross says:

      Walter Moseley says that this is because when you write daily, you have quicker access to your subconscious. For every day you skip, it takes longer to get back there. If you skip a week, it’s like starting writing all over again.

      • I found painting to be the same way. Time away never made the task easier.

      • Skye says:

        Bruce, it’s like relinquishing control that comes as a soothing balm to someone like me. I believe Stephen King writes about this, too, in his text book.

  2. Thanks, Maureen!

  3. Gram says:

    Things like this want to make me write even though I have no story I want to tell. I wish you all many more flow events though…because that means there are more books for me to read. Thank you all for writing.

  4. L.C. Rooney says:

    Legal pads all over the house: check. Bedside paper and pen (and book light): check. Voice recorder in purse: check. And still Flo manages to sneak up on me with some of her best ideas when none of those things are at hand. Or when we’re in a crowd and it would be rude to stop everything to give Flo her due. And flighty? Try putting her off to a more convenient time. Ha! There’s a word for women like her. No, not that word. I was going to say infuriating. But, man, when we connect, she is still the favorite voice in my head.

  5. Peter Murray says:

    Really great post. I always compare “the flow” to a ” runners high,” something else that I didn’t believe in until it happened. Not likely to ever experience the “high” again, I relish those rare occasions of flow. Thanks for this and everything else you share.

  6. Barb Ross says:

    For me, flow is about confidence. The more confident I am feeling in the story, the more the flow. The irony of this is that means it often comes at the end of the book–the climax, the reveal, the denouement, so I have to do all the work to get there. Then, of course, there are the times when I’m not confident at the end of the book. That is torture.

  7. This is why I write every day, no matter what. Excellent piece, Bruce.

  8. Skye says:

    Great topic? I have experienced this ‘flow’ at odd moments, when least expected and when I relinquish my overwhelming nature to be in control. It is a heady experience, too. It’s as if my subconscious has taken charge and characters appear or take a different stance than what I had planned. If you’ve ever read Taylor Caldwell, her ‘flow’ is beyond belief. Thank you for writing this.

  9. In every book there comes a time when the story takes over and drags you along! In each of my books I started out with one thing in mind and then the story said “nuh, nuh we’re going this way.” I have no recourse but to follow along. Moseley is right Barb. It’s one reason why I’ve cut back on attending conferences…after attending a four day conference (two travel days and two conference days) it will take me two weeks or more to get back in the groove.

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