Creative Flow or Wasteland? Nancy Drew Provides the Clues
My calendar did not include an emergency meeting with the PR department that entailed challenging negotiations about technically accurate nutrition information versus consumer-friendly language. Although tensions between the nutrition and PR functions predated my tenure … the dynamics were escalating too far.
During the meeting, my team (nutrition communications) was criticized for creating dull, uninteresting copy—and sucking the energy out of copy that their agencies and consultants produced. Ouch! Reviewing a few examples, I saw the opportunity to develop my team’s skills to use more compelling language to convey the science. When I acknowledged this, my PR colleagues agreed to back us up on technical accuracy as a baseline standard.
In the aftermath of this meeting, I began to plan a creativity offsite for my team. We were a small, compatible group of 5-6 dietitians with strong writing skills. But none of us were trained in creative writing. I had no budget to hire a creativity consultant. After searching for local/cheap resources, it dawned on me: perhaps someone from the PR department could lead the event? Our PR colleague Tom Johnson took on the challenge.
We gathered at the Open Books/Loft Literary Center in downtown Minneapolis on the third floor. Our meeting room felt like an attic reading nook with a gabled window, old-fashioned rag rug, and rocking chairs. This cozy space in a literary environment set the stage for our creativity retreat.
Tom introduced us to the work of Mihaly Csikszentmihályi (mee-HAH-ee CHEEK-sehnt-mee-hah-yee). In the 1980s, Csikszdntmiklyi theorized that people are happiest when they are in a state of flow—a state of concentration or complete absorption with the activity at hand and the situation. Called the “Flow” or “Zone,” it’s the experience of total immersion in a creative task. Sometimes, people lose track of time and neglect their need for food, water, or sleep. But they emerge on the other end of a Flow experience with a liberated sense of accomplishment.
He explained how research into the creative flow debunked the myth that creativity comes from a muse—an outside force that we can’t control. Exploring ways to find the zone we discovered a key theme: delving deep into a topic, then stepping away. By researching, analyzing, and immersing in a creative challenge you “fill up.” Then after going for a walk, sitting in nature, or taking a shower … you let go of the challenge. That’s when the creative inspiration (muse) hits.
My team resonated with this new paradigm for our creative work. We brainstormed ways to “fill” ourselves up with human angles and analogous ways to communicate nutrition science. Team members shared their creative angles. Then we brainstormed more “ways in”:
- Rhymes and lyrical language
- Hot trends
I’m glad that my schedule derailed that day. My team and I discovered a new way of thinking about creativity. We improved our collaboration with PR. And we applied this creativity framework and tools to develop innovative nutrition education/communication programs for several years. I’ve applied these principles for two decades.
Getting Out of a Writing Wasteland
At the close of 2020, I found myself stranded in a writing wasteland.
Before that, it was easy for me to find story gems (raw story ideas) and turn them into character-driven narratives that relate to business challenges. But since then, I’ve struggled to find shiny nuggets. The few stones I unearthed seemed unworthy of developing into stories I’d want to share. The stories I wrote took months instead of hours to progress from idea to blog post. I questioned myself every step of the way.
While it wasn’t my plan, COVID introduced the opportunity for me to dabble in a retirement lifestyle. So, I decided to pursue the activities I enjoy! Reading novels and fitness/outdoor adventure topped my list.
I spent many hours swishing around cross-country ski trails, snowshoeing through meadows, and paddling rivers and lakes. Through outdoor adventures and daily fitness routines like cycling, hiking, and neighborhood walking, I stepped away—very far away from my previously, driven lifestyle.
Mysteries and crime fiction that dissect human struggles and conflict always intrigued me. Ever since my sisters and I devoured the Trixie Beldon and Nancy Drew mystery series as kids, I’ve been drawn to books that present a problem to solve. The last four years, I read 150+ novels—a large percentage in the Nordic Noir genre.
My writing wasteland continues to produce angst when I choose to read rather than write … or to walk/exercise rather than sit at my desk. Procrastination has nagged me since 2021.
However, through my immersion into fiction, I’m experiencing more than the stories being told. I find myself deconstructing characters, plots, and settings. I spot vivid language and take note.
For example, last week, I read how a female detective in Sweden, in an emotionally awkward interview, couldn’t resist breaking the “thin layer of ice that had formed in the tire tracks” with the toes of her boots. This simple phrase portrayed many facets of the story even though I’ve never set foot in Sweden. First, I know that the temperature is just below freezing and it’s a rugged, rural location. Second, her childlike instinct to shatter the ice crystals shows a glimmer of uncertainty … maybe anxiety. I could imagine myself in her situation.
The simple phrase that Tove Alsterdal used, “thin layer of ice that had formed in the tire tracks,” moved the narrative forward. I suddenly realized that my fiction-reading binges are not an unproductive escape. No, they’re filling me up.
1) Tove Alsterdal, You Will Never Be Found, 2021: HarperCollins Publishers
2) Our meeting at the Open Books/Loft Literary Center was circa 2005. The facility no longer rents the book club and small meeting room spaces as described in this story.
Wasteland Photo Credit: Rocky arid terrain on an alien planet. Space exploration. NASA Public Domain Imagery