We’ve all been there before, lost in that total sweet spot where the words all but fall onto the page and, without our knowing it, we’ve begun to effect the various facial expressions of our characters. Meanwhile, the other coffee shop patrons surrounding us are either assuming we must have multiple personalities, or that we’re chatting online with several people at once, some of whom may or may not owe us money.
Athletes, dancers, artists and actors experience their own version of this state—an almost trancelike form of consciousness known as “The Zone.” A place in which you’re not thinking about what you’re doing, what you’ve done, or what you’re going to do next. You’re just doing. Not only that, but the fantastic results being produced seem to be in charge of their own creation.
The thing about The Zone is that you often don’t know you’ve been there until the moment you reemerge or “wake up” and reconnect with reality. In other words, that moment when you look up and, not only have two hours flown by, but the word count in the lower left-hand corner of your computer screen has climbed to a number you’re sure can’t be accurate.
Yeah. The Zone is a great place to be. But how do we get there?
I’ve given this some thought and I’ve come up with a few ways to achieve that lovely and highly productive altered state of being when your writing writes itself. You'll be pleased to know it doesn't involve magic potions, moonlit rituals or the consumption of large quantities of tequila.1) Establish a routine.
I know. Boring, right? If The Zone itself is so ephemeral, often as fleeting as it is absorbing, why would something as constricting as developing a routine help to induce it? I’ve heard it takes twenty-one days to establish a habit, good or bad. For me, writing has become a habit. I write every day, usually at the same time and for the same amount of time. While I always have a loose idea of what I’d like to archive in word count, I’m only strict about the hours themselves. The thought is that, if I condition my mind and body to the act of sitting down regularly and performing the same task, then slipping into The Zone becomes a matter of time rather than chance. In essence, if I write every day, then reaching The Zone is bound to happen sooner or later. Not all the time mind you, and certainly not during every writing session, or even every week (or sometimes every month,) but, all in all, my chances do improve with the conditioning a schedule provides. Also, writing on a schedule helps to keep me connected to the story. The more days that pass that I am unable (or unwilling) to write, the harder I find it is for me to reconnect with my story and characters. And, consequently, that makes falling into The Zone harder to do, too. Also, think about dancers and athletes and artists. They aren’t always in The Zone, but they know that if they want to archive that space of ease where the subconscious takes over and things flow, they have to practice and continue to condition. Writing on a schedule is like lifting weights or doing pushups. It gets easier the more you do it.
Writing is hard. Some days are harder than others. And some days feel downright impossible. But, even when I’m in The Zone and thing are flowing more readily, I’m still working. There’s still elbow grease involved, I’m just less aware of the heavy-lifting aspect of what I’m doing. Until I'm done and then I look back in awe and wonder if I'd somehow been possessed because the writing is usually that good (or that bad ;D ) And even if I was in the Zone on Sunday, when I sit down to work on Monday, I find it’s a different story. Suddenly, I hate everything I’ve written and everything I will ever write. Furthermore, I’ve convinced myself I’m a sham, a charlatan who has bamboozled my readers and fooled myself, too. But, at the same time, there is a part of me that recognizes I’m being melodramatic. That I’m funneling my creative energy into berating myself. And I write anyway—even though I feel like I’m in the desert and The Zone is a million miles away—as mythical and unobtainable as Willy Wonka’s Golden Ticket. I muscle through, though. Because I remind myself that I’ve been in The Zone before and that means I’ll most likely find my way there again. If I keep going. The work will get easier, I reassure myself. But the only way out is through.
3) You MUST turn off the censor.
This one’s a big one, but probably the most important, too. And I know we hear it all the time. I also know this is easier said than done. But in order to archive The Zone, (or to write anything at all, for that matter,) you have got to be willing to allow yourself to write badly first. And, the truth is, you will most likely not write badly at all! You just have to be willing to write schlock. For work to feel like play, you have to ignore the serpent voice whispering in your ear, telling you how horrible every word you put down really is and how wretched a writer you are, how you’ll never attract an agent or get published and that you’re such a nobody that, when it comes time to bury your ass, they’ll be forced to chisel “What’s-his-face” on your tombstone. Buck up. Put on your Frozen soundtrack, sing along once to “Let it Go” and then get back to the work of playing. Stop worrying about the quality when you’re just drafting anyway. If it helps, put on a pair of those funny glasses with the big nose and moustache. There will be time for seriousness and critiquing later. And, if it helps, you can tell that old hissy snake just that. In the meantime, get something down. NO, don’t get cerebral and insist you have to online the entire novel again. Outlining doesn’t count. Taking notes doesn't count. Researching doesn’t count. Those are all good things and great tools if they are part of your individual process, but they cannot replace the actual act of WRITING, and they will not give you the same results that you can only get through the act of drafting. And by the way, once you do have something down, you’ll find it’s easier to get a little more and then, pretty soon, you won’t be able to hear the censor’s voice at all. Not over the amazing things your characters are telling you now that you’re knee deep in their story and, oh my God, has it really been three hours since you sat down to just “tinker?”
For me, this one is as vital as number 3 and, if my current work-in-progress is a budding plant, then encouragement is the sunshine and rain it needs to blossom. Also, when it comes to encouragement, I find that a little goes a long way. I trust my friends and critique group to be honest with me, and to let me know when something I’m doing isn’t working or when a scene or a line or even a word could be better. But I also trust and look to them to let me know what is working. I trust them to tell me the absolute truth, and when that honesty includes a compliment about my perseverance, my work ethic, the humor in my current project or a character they’re in love with, this provides me with the high-efficiency fuel I need to enter The Zone. The work becomes easier, because I know I have a support group eager to see what I’ll do and come up with next. I’m incredibly grateful for this invigorating enthusiasm. And I’m also eager to return the favor and to encourage others, because I know how much encouragement means to me—and how powerful of a motivator it can be.
So I’m encouraging you to seek The Zone and maybe leave a comment to tell us what helps YOU get in The Zone?