Jennifer Hodgson writes:

Flow is that pleasurable state of complete absorption in the task at hand. It’s a kind of deep focus, where all else falls away, the mind stops its wondering, and you become fully engaged in what you are doing. Time flies when you’re experiencing flow; other concerns – even bodily needs – lapse, self-consciousness breaks and every thought and action seems to unfurl effortlessly, one after the other.

Sportspeople refer to it as being “in the zone”, characterising the experience as one of optimum athletic performance: a string of perfect passes, or the uncanny ability to find oneself in exactly the right place at the right time on the sports field. But such experiences are not only confined to athletic endeavour.

For the psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, who coined the term in the 1970s to flowdescribe an experience that has existed under various names throughout history, flow is universal and a crucial part of human happiness. Anyone can experience flow, he argues, given a task that is sufficiently engaging – challenging but still just about achievable. Most of us will have had experiences of flow, be it whilst running, dancing, playing chess, reading or being engrossed in our work.

Flow is intimately associated with the creative process. Of course, the stereotype of the otherworldly ‘creative genius’, oblivious to all but their muse, is a familiar one. But describing exactly how it feels to experience flow is a trickier matter. During it, our sense of self-awareness is lost and when it stops, it can be difficult to reconstitute exactly how it felt. With this in mind, who better to ask what flow feels like than a group of people well-versed in putting into words those aspects of our experience that seem to defy easy description: writers.

Here are comments on what it feels like to experience flow from several of the authors taking part in our study:

This writer reports feeling at once lost in the task of writing but also very much ‘present’ and ‘grounded’:

For me, it always feels completely normal… I don’t mean it’s coming out all perfect and everything’s all wonderful, you know, there’s stuff there and it’s coming out, and I’m in that presence and I’m in that character. It feels a very present thing to be and to do… There’s the consciousness, there’s this thing that you’re in it and you’re doing it, and in one sense you’re lost in it, but in the other sense it’s entirely, there’s a consciousness… You don’t feel, for example, kind of spaced out in any way, or that sort of a thing, I always feel really quite grounded. In fact, you know, very, in my own body actually.

This one speaks of the loss of self-awareness:

You’re absent from yourself. If you’re actually writing – rather than researching or lolloping around or thinking – you’re absent from yourself. You don’t have the usual interior drone. You’re not physically aware of yourself. You’re in the zone, if you’re a sportsman.

This writer describes the experience of flow as like donning ‘mental blinkers’:

It’s like being somewhere else… It’s almost as if somebody puts blinkers on me, sort of mental blinkers, and I am watching what’s going on.

This one uses music to try to create the optimum conditions for flow. They know they’ve experienced it when the songs have changed and they haven’t noticed:

Well sometimes you sit with a piece of paper and nothing comes, and nothing comes and nothing comes. And then if there’s a bit of a breakthrough… and suddenly you forget you’re writing. I always have music on in the background when I’m writing, and I’ve purposely got a stereo that I can get three of four CDs in at one, and spend half the morning choosing what order they come in. But if I press play at the beginning and then it goes through and I haven’t noticed the changing of songs, I haven’t noticed the changing of CDs, and suddenly it’s silence in the room, and I’ve produced a couple of pages, then that’s when yes this has worked. It’s flowing, it doesn’t feel like hard work, it doesn’t feel like a struggle.

This writer reports not feeling conscious of bodily needs or time during flow. And interestingly also comments that flow brings with it a kind of optimum creativity:

It’s very hard to know because you do go into a sort of zone when you’re not really terribly conscious of what you’re doing. You don’t feel hunger, you don’t feel thirst, you don’t know what time it is, and you’re in that zone and something’s triggered it off. And that might take weeks, it might take years, and when it happens (clicks fingers), it flows, and the best poems actually need very little revision.

Finally, this writer speaks of the pleasures of flow – and how it motivates them to embark on the difficult task of writing:

There are times when I get into flow, that wonderful feeling, and I think that must be the motivator. Sometimes it feels like a hard slog, it’s like going out for a run or something. I want to drool in front of the television; I’m too tired, blah, blah, blah. But once you get into it, it’s intrinsically satisfying.

So every time you sit down to write, there is a possibility that it’s going to give up its magic to you. Now it doesn’t always, but you always know there’s a possibility there that it will.

Writers on Writing: Susan Sontag

sontagSusan Sontag would have been something of a dream subject for our study. Luckily, her diaries record her fascinating and intimate reflections upon the origins of literary creativity and the writing life. Here, Jennifer Hodgson explores just a few of her insights.

Susan Sontag was one of the leading intellectuals of the twentieth century, but is perhaps better known for her celebrated essays than for her fiction writing, which includes the novels The Benefactor (1963), Death Kit (1967), the best-selling The Volcano Lover (1992) and In America (2000).

Her diaries, however, reveal that Sontag’s abiding literary ambitions eclipsed her myriad achievements in criticism. ‘[B]eing a novelist’ was her ambition ‘even when she was writing her best essays’ notes her son, David Rieff, in his preface to the second volume, published by Penguin under the name As Consciousness is Harnessed to Flesh (2012).

In Sontag’s “The Art of Fiction” interview with The Paris Review in 1995 she comments that ‘fiction is freedom’ as opposed to the ‘constrained form’ of the essay:

Freedom to tell stories and freedom to be discursive, too. But essayistic discursiveness, in the context of fiction, has an entirely different meaning. It is always voiced.

Perhaps Sontag’s abiding attraction to prose narrative was something to do with the opportunity it offered her to temporarily cast off her well-honed critical voice and adopt the voices of others. ‘Imagination,’ she writes in the diaries, is to do with ‘having many voices in one’s head. The freedom for that.’

As Consciousness is Harnessed to Flesh is a fascinating document of the swirl and eddy of Sontag’s thought, containing within it the ad hoc aphorisms, aides-memoires and reading notes that were later to coalesce into era-defining essays such as “Notes on Camp” (1964), “On Style” (1965) and “The Pornographic Imagination” (1967). And, as we might expect, her insights about the act of literary creation are vital too.

For Sontag, as for many of the writers who took part in our study, the experience of writing is an elusive one which troubles ordinary conceptions about individual autonomy and agency. Of the writing process she comments:

I’m the vehicle, the medium, the instrument of some force beyond myself.

I experience the writing as given to me – sometimes almost as dictated. I let it come, try not to interfere with it. I respect it, because it’s me and yet more that me. It’s personal and transpersonal, both.

She also reflects upon the quality of this unusual experience. Echoing some of the writers we’ve spoken to, she locates the origins of her creative writing with what she calls a “tone” which, during the writing process, begins to frame other aspects of her experience:

I’m not looking for a plot – I’m looking for a “tone”, a “color”, and the rest will follow… I know I “have” a story when the form (tone) comes, and everything seems relevant to it.

However, whilst almost all of the writers we interviewed reported overwhelmingly positive responses to this aspect of the creative process, Sontag is more ambivalent. The quote below reveals that she was by no means an altogether willing servant of her muse. She insists that that origins of her creative energies lie not with inspiration – as traditional conceptions of creativity would have it – but with what she calls “visitation”. The distinction is an interesting one. Both connote a kind of influence that seems to be received from an external source. But inspiration, of course, tends to describe a divine force that is willingly assimilated, whereas the term Sontag chooses, “visitation”, means something rather different – more officious, less benign. In the quote, she figures herself as a kind of dutiful worker busied at the production line of creativity:

Four days a year perhaps I have “visits” – things come. Visitations rather than inspirations. I live the rest of the year on that – executing the orders & sketches I’ve taken down… I turn myself into a commodity. The typewriter is my assembly-line. But what else could I do?

Although, like many of the writers in our study, Sontag conceives of creativity as having an external origin, this doesn’t make her role as a writer easy. There’s no sense here of writerly endeavour as a kind of effortless channelling. She comments memorably upon the difficulties associated with the business of encasing thoughts in words and writing them down:

Writing is a little door. Some fantasies, like big pieces of furniture, won’t come through.

Elsewhere she notes of a bad day at the writing desk:

Two good days of work on the story, much material, vivid associations, crowds of details. But the writing doesn’t pour. It’s too laborious, too constructed.

As is so often the case with the private writing that we address to ourselves, at times Sontag’s diaries are self-admonishing. They contain several examples of the rules that writers are apt to impose on themselves in the attempt to discipline a pursuit that is difficult and ephemeral in equal measure:

I will get up every morning no later than eight.
(I can break this rule once a week.)
I will have lunch only with Roger [Straus].
(”No, I don’t go out for lunch.” Can break this rule once every two weeks.)
I will write in the Notebook every day.
(Model: Lichtenberg’s Waste Books.)
I will tell people not to call in the morning or not answer the phone.
I will try to confine my reading to the evening.
(I read too much – as an escape from writing.)

Quotations from Susan Sontag, As Consciousness is Harnessed to Flesh: Diaries 1964-1980, ed. David Rieff (London: Penguin, 2012)

What does your inner voice sound like?

Jennifer Hodgson writes:

Try it for yourself: stop what you’re doing and try to listen in to the mind’s ear. What can you hear? Indeed, are you hearing at all? Can you say, definitively, that your inner voice sounds in the sense that we usually understand it? If not, how are you perceiving what it is that you’re experiencing? Now try to describe this inner voice. Are you able to put into words what it feels like to “tune in” to the voice you hear in your head – if, indeed, you are hearing it at all?

If you’re having trouble, you’re in excellent company. The poet and critic Denise Riley describes the process of “tuning in” to the inner voice like this:

If I swing my attention onto my inner speech, I’m aware of it sounding in a very thin version of my own tone of voice. I catch myself in its silent sound, a paradox audible only to me. We don’t, though, seem to have much of a vocabulary, an odd lack, for this everyday sensation. On what, then, does my conviction of the tonality of my inward voice depend? Do I have a sort of inner ear designed to pick up this voice which owns nothing by way of articulation? For I can detect my usual accents and the timbre of my voice as soon as I try to overhear myself by trapping the faint sonority of my inner words. But they are audible, if that’s the adjective, only in a depleted form which keeps some faint colouration but is far less resonant in the ear than when I’m speaking aloud… It’s as if an inner ear is alert to my inner voice, although what happens isn’t exactly an instance of hearing my own voice speaking. So when I think I can overhear my own inner speech, what do I mean? […] Is it more of an ear-voice, which detects it at the same time as it issues it? But I do have the feeling of hearing something, in the same way that I can run a tune audibly through my head, yet without humming it even silently. Or I want to say that I “hear” it; there’s not an exact verb for this peculiar kind of hearing something which isn’t actually sounded, and which evades any measurement of articulation. Yet a kind of hearing it surely is.

From Denise Riley, “A Voice Without A Mouth,” Qui Parle, Vol 14, No. 2 (Spring/Summer 2004), pp. 57-104.

The inner voice is a very common aspect of most of our lives. Although a small minority of people claim never to experience it, the vast majority of us are very familiar with the clamour of voices that make up the mind’s chatter. At any one time, that voice may be distinctly your own: rehearsing a dreaded talk with your boss, or chastising yourself for forgetting an important appointment. But you might just as easily recognise it as the voice of a parent, a celebrity, an old friend or a much-loved schoolteacher. Such self-talk is an example of what philosophers and psychologists call “mental imagery”, an experience which resembles a perceptual experience but lacks any source of sensory input. As Riley comments in the quote above, despite our familiarity with what we might call “hearing in the head”, there are far more ways of talking about visual experiences of this kind than there are auditory ones – hence why we use the term “imagery” to denote the broad gamut of “quasi-sensory” experiences that occur in our minds.

We talk of “picturing in our mind’s eye” for example, or of “visualising”, or of “having an image in our head”. But beyond the auditory experiences with which we are specifically concerned here, it is very likely that similar experiences in other sensory modes (or, indeed, combinations thereof) are just as common: motor imagery, haptic imagery and olfactory imagery, for example.

This notion that we far more commonly speak of what we see with our mind’s eye than of what we hear with our mind’s ear provided the jumping off point for last week’s meeting of the Hearing the Voice project’s Voice Club. Sam Wilkinson provided a philosophical take on the ways in which perceptual imagery of this kind can constitute and enhance our thinking, whilst Patricia Waugh turned to literary representations of mental imagery in the work of Proust, Woolf and Henry Green. (You can read more about Voice Club here.)

Pinning down precisely the nature and function of auditory mental imagery has long been the subject of debates amongst philosophers, psychologists and cognitive neuroscientists. And this challenge of knowing what we mean when we talk about our inner voices also arose during our interviews with writers at the Edinburgh International Book Festival last year. We asked them the same questions we posed to you at the top of this blog post. And it seems that describing exactly what their inner voices sounded like (if indeed they sounded at all) and how it felt to experience them taxed even veteran writer’s well-honed powers of description.

Here’s a sample of their responses:

This writer doubts whether the “thought voice” is verbal at all. Perhaps, they ponder, the content of the mind only becomes encased in words when we attend to it:

1. I think it’s just a thought voice.  A voice of thought; it’s not a voice of words.  I suppose, when you pay attention to it, I suppose it’s a bit like mediation in a way, you focus on something.  You focus and then the words come.  So it’s almost like the old days when you used to develop photographs in a dark room and the image would emerge, it’s like that.

This one insists that in general they don’t have an inner voice, but then modifies their first comment to explain that their inner voice is not a discordant one. They also describe “hearing” the voices of their loved ones:

2. I don’t have an inner voice. My inner voice is not at all different from my outer voice. I don’t spend a lot of time thinking x and saying y. I will occasionally hear the voice of one of my late parents, or a teacher I was very close to.

For this writer, the inner voice “doesn’t sound like anything”. Its quality seems to lie somewhere between “hearing” and “seeing”:

3. This is very odd; in a weird kind of way it doesn’t sound at all… I’m saying I’m hearing a voice but I can’t actually tell you what it sounds like.  And if you pushed me on that I’d probably say it doesn’t sound like anything, it doesn’t actually sound like I’m hearing but I am hearing it.  It’s like it’s a silent voice, but it’s not like I’m seeing text, so there’s something going on.  But it’s not, I’m hearing it rather than seeing it, but I’m not actually hearing a definite loud voice.  That’s about the only way I can describe it…

This writer invokes the observer effect to describe why the inner voice is so elusive:

4. Does it speak in complete sentences?  I have no idea… I never even think about it. And even now I couldn’t tell you, even though I’ve been asked the question because I think thinking about it changes it.  So, I can’t say.

And finally, this writer describes the kind of inner voice that is probably familiar to many of us:

5. I don’t know… It is a really hard question to answer.  I mean I have a really rich inner life all the time… I think the days that I just don’t ever talk to myself are kind of wasted days… I am talking to myself all the time, and sometimes all that mundane stuff, just I have to check my email or I wonder are the kids up, or what time does Tesco close, you know.

To find out more about the Writers’ Inner Voices Study, please click here.

Writers’ Inner Voices in the media

Jennifer Hodgson writes:

One of the most rewarding aspects of working on the Writers’ Inner Voices study has been how our work on inner voice and literary creativity seems to have captured people’s imaginations. Both readers and writers alike have responded with great interest to our exploration of this rather mysterious aspect of the writing process. So we’re delighted to draw readers’ attention to two recent appearances of our research in the media, where they can find out more about our findings.

Open Book on BBC Radio 4

We were delighted to be invited to appear on the latest edition of BBC Radio 4’s Open Book, in which host Mariella Frostrup interviews our researcher Jennifer Hodgson about the study’s findings. Taking a closer look at the ways in which writers experience the characters that they create, they discussed how critical hearing the voices of characters is to the writing process – many writers have told us they can’t write without it.

The programme is available to stream or download here, and you can listen to our segment here

Mslexia magazine

In the spring issue of Mslexia magazine Jennifer Hodgson explores the interplay of inner voice and the literary imagination in the context of our fascination with writers’ lives, habits and creative rituals. In the article, she examines the complex and various ways in which writers experience the voices of their characters, the impact this has on the writing process and the creative strategies writers develop to tune back in when their inner voice goes silent. There are quotes and anecdotes from the writers themselves, together with insights into exactly what it was like to interview 25 representatives of the great and the good of literary culture about the most intimate and unusual aspects of their writing life last year during the Edinburgh International Festival.

Mslexia is available now in newsagents.

BBC Academy podcast: ‘Inner Voices: How writers create characters’

Jennifer Hodgson writes:

High res typewriterThe Writers’ Inner Voices study focuses specifically on writing and storytelling for the page, but similar questions might also be asked about other forms of writing, such as writing for television or radio.  How do scriptwriters for TV and radio hear the voices of their characters? Do the characters arrive in the scriptwriter’s mind fully formed, so that the writer merely serves a conduit for voices that appear to have ‘lives of their own’? Or do they have to work at hearing the voices of the characters they create?  And how are the experiences of TV and radio script writers different from those of novelists?

In a recent BBC Academy podcast, one of the lead researchers on the Writers’ Inner Voices project, Dr Jennifer Hodgson, joins Sarah Phelps and Al Smith in order to discuss precisely these issues.  They consider ‘what it is like to hear characters, whether there is a difference between creating characters for television, radio and written fiction and the practicalities of script writing.’

You can download and listen to the podcast here.

Sarah Phelps has written scripts for EastEnders, TV adaptations of Oliver Twist and Great Expectations, and also wrote the World War I drama The Crimson Field and adapted JK Rowling’s The Casual Vacancy for BBC One.

Al Smith is a television and radio scriptwriter.  He has written for East Enders and Holby City and also co-created the teen drama The Cut for BBC Two.  He also wrote Life in the Freezer and The Postman of Good Hope for BBC Radio 4.

Dr Jennifer Hodgson is one of the lead researchers on Hearing the Voice’s Writers’ Inner Voices project.  She holds a PhD in English Studies from Durham University.

The podcast is presented by BBC Academy producer Helen Hutchinson.

Further links:

Inner Voices: How writers create characters‘.  BBC Writers Room Blog, 28 November 2014.

The Guardian’s Inner Voices series.

And we’re off: Writers’ Inner Voices at the Edinburgh Book Festival

Jennifer Hodgson writes:
Hello from a very sunny Edinburgh, where we’ve decamped to the Edinburgh International Book Festival to begin work on the second part of our Writers’ Inner Voices study, part of the Conversations With Ourselves strand of events. For the next two-and-a-bit weeks, we’ll be interviewing some of the writers on this year’s bill and reporting from the festival on the findings of our research into inner voice and literary creativity.
The Conversations With Ourselves series of events got off to a fabulous start today with “The Voices in Our Head”, a panel exploring the creation of characters in fiction through the prism of inner voice, with writers Nathan Filer, Edward Carey and Matthew Quick, chaired by our very own Charles Fernyhough. You can view a précis of today’s discussions here.

P.S. There’s no warmer welcome than a shout-out on the Guardian’s books blog. Follow the link to read the Guardian’s profile of the project.

Introduction to Writers’ Inner Voices

The idea that writers “hear” the voices of their characters is a common one. Some writers even go as far as to claim that the characters that people their narratives seem to somehow write themselves: that they, the writer, are a mere conduit for voices that appear to have lives all of their own.

The aim of the Writers’ Inner Voices project is to try to understand writers’ and storytellers’ inner speech and the role that the inner voice or voices play in the process of literary creation.

Many writers – from William Blake, to Charles Dickens, to Joseph Conrad, to Philip K. Dick – have written or talked about experiencing auditory verbal hallucinations, or hearing voices that others cannot hear. The Writers’ Inner Voices project also aims to explore what relationship there might be, if any, between writers’ experiences and the experience of hearing voices.

During the 2014 Edinburgh International Book Festival, as part of the Conversations with Ourselves strand of events, we interviewed authors and storytellers about their creative process and finding out more about the ways that writers and storytellers imagine, hear, listen to and converse with the voices of their characters. You can read more about the project on the blog, where we documented our interviews with authors and storytellers during the festival.

This project is being conducted by members of the Hearing the Voice project at Durham University in collaboration with the Edinburgh International Book Festival.