“Flow” is a psychological concept conceived by Mihály Csíkszentmihályi that means being in "the zone,” a place where you're so focused on what you're doing that you are not distracted by anything. You are engrossed, immersed. It’s almost like meditation, when you're so completely in the moment that you are immune to the pull of hunger, thirst, temperature, fatigue, noise, time, demands. And most important to "flow" is that you're experiencing JOY in this activity, or some other positive emotion. You can only experience “flow” in something you enjoy doing.
Writing is the only thing that gives me “flow.”
Yoga brings me peace, but I am not good enough yet to “flow.” I feel anxious about poses and transitions. Running puts me in “the zone” but it's more about focus and endurance than "flow." And except for the endorphin high round the middle of a long run, and the exceptional feeling of accomplishment afterward, I would not describe it as joyful. Activities like watching a movie, reading, or coloring in one of those adult coloring books that are all the rage, bring relaxation, but they are not challenging enough to make me forget that I want popcorn or another cup of coffee or that I have to pee.
Here’s another way to think about it, as shown in the diagram:
If…activity is not challenging, and you are not skilled in it…APATHY.
If…activity is not challenging and you are skilled in it…RELAXATION.
If…activity is challenging and you are not skilled in it…ANXIETY.
If…activity is challenging and you are skilled in it…FLOW!!!
As far as those parenting books go, wise educators like Maria Montessori and others like her know that “play is the work of children.” This is why unstructured free play is one of the best activities for children to engage in, better than organized sports and directed learning and all those screens. Children are both challenged by and skilled at play! They are not learning something too hard. They are not being passively entertained. They are experiencing mastery. They are in “flow.” Perhaps this is why they exude joy and have to be reminded to eat or use the bathroom!
Also, they are being creative. I think the creativity part is key. When I write, eventually my subconscious mind takes over, or at least plays nicely with my conscious mind, and I never know what is going to result. That magic is hypnotizing and it sucks me in and when I think of it now I feel so lucky that this work of mine is play, that "play is the work of writers." It is in this "work" that I get closest to the childhood joys of discovery and creation and surprise. When a connection reveals itself to me, or a perfect last sentence mysteriously appears, it's as if I've just seen my first airplane cross the sky, splashed in my first puddle, touched fingerprint and made it slide in swirls of red around the page.
Of course, all writing, if you are doing it for more than just yourself, is not going to produce “flow.” Writing emails, query letters, social media updates, critiques, something in a new genre—these can be produce apathy or anxiety. Which isn’t necessarily bad. But the reason I keep sitting down to a blank page, keep going back to flawed worlds to revise, keep struggling with every syllable, sentence, character, word, is because I crave that oh-my-god-the-potatoes-are-burning oblivion. I'm honestly surprised I don't have more accidents.
And this is why I write.