Wednesday, October 9, 2013

The Zone

I attended a signing by William Kent Krueger, Ellen Hart, and Libby Fischer Hellman last week at the fabulous new indie bookstore in Madison, WI.

It's always fun to attend events featuring other mystery authors. One of the things I enjoy is hearing questions from people in the audience.  It's helpful to learn what mystery readers want to know.

One man noted that athletes sometimes described being "in the zone," when everything disappears except the play. He wondered if authors every experienced something similar.

Responses ranged from "hardly ever" to "all the time, and it's wonderful." I won't attribute comments to specific authors because I'm paraphrasing from memory, but it was clear that people had very different experiences.

I spent years in the living history world as both an interpreter at an historic site and a reenactor at a variety of parks and battlefields. Reenactors sometimes speak of "the bubble," a moment when everything seems so real that they forget the present. Such bubbles are rare, and only last for seconds, but they are powerful. They are one of the reasons some reenactors go to extensive lengths to recreate a period environment as closely as possible.

Cavalry reenactors at Harpers Ferry National Historical Park.
I've had a few such moments over the years. When I worked as an historical interpreter, I spent my days in period clothing, going about the everyday tasks and chores of a 19th-century farm woman. While I loved sharing stories with visitors, I must admit that my favorite times were cold or rainy days when few guests ventured onto the site.

That's me, working at Old World Wisconsin, 1982.
These days I venture into the bubble most often in my imagination. Like most writers, I have days when I never lose awareness that I'm sitting in front of a computer, trying to figure out what to say next. Deadlines are always looming, so I don't have the luxury of waiting for inspiration to carry me away.

More often, though, I do enter what has been called a flow state. Wikipedia defines it this way:

Flow is the mental state of operation in which a person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity. In essence, flow is characterized by complete absorption in what one does.

For me, Flow means disappearing into the scene I'm imagining. Although I often write in coffeeshops, I don't hear what's going on around me, or see who is coming or going at the next table. When I go on writing retreats, and hole up somewhere quiet, it's even better. Hours can pass before I emerge.

When I get going, even my cat knows to settle down.
My first four Chloe Ellefson Historic Sites mysteries were set in places I knew very well, which made it easier to disappear into my imagination. I'm celebrating the release of Heritage of Darkness this month. It's set in Decorah, Iowa---a place I love---and I hope that readers will be able to disappear into the pages in much the same way.

I'm also working hard on the fifth book. I chose to set this book in places I don't know as well, and at the beginning I wondered if I'd be able to find a good rhythm. Happily, once I got going, the writing began to flow.

As I thought about the gentleman's question, I realized that for me, pushing myself to write even when the words aren't flowing well actually leads me back to that place where they do flow. It's a paradox of sorts, but my advice is this:  don't stop because you're not in The Zone.  Keep working, keep going, and The Zone will find you.


Beth Groundwater said...

What an inspirational message, Kathleen -- "the Zone will find you"!

Also, I want to alert Inkspot readers to another post by Kathleen today on my blog:

Kathleen Ernst said...

Thanks, Beth! And please do hop over to Beth's blog, everyone. I'm giving away a copy of one of my Chloe mysteries. Winner's choice!