We all crave it–– that mystical mindset, where the words pour out of our souls and splash onto the page in just the right order.
It’s a grand feeling that can become addicting once achieved.
I imagine Neil Gaiman feels it every time he sits down to write, if his muse doesn’t just scoot him out of the chair and write for him.
So, how do the rest of us get there? The flow state, that is.
There are countless methods and rituals out there rumored to open the doors to the flow state.
Maybe you line your desk with all-knowing gnomes who whisper words to you. You might spin three times and sit down in your chair from the right side, never the left side.
We’re trying to create the perfect conditions for when that flow state arrives. As if there is a hidden formula that, performed in the exact right order, will open the doors to our best work.
When we do find a formula that works once, we recreate those conditions every time to get back there. Once we’ve tasted that sweet nectar, there’s no going back.
As for me? I recite the Invocation poem from Steven Pressfield’s The War of Art and then lay my head down on the desk in despair.
Beyond mantras and rituals—which, don’t get me wrong, I fully believe are needed—there is one technique that I find useful when the charms have worn off and the mind settles on writing.
It’s called Notepad, a free app included with Microsoft Windows.
You may have heard of it before. It is the vanilla ice cream of writing platforms and probably doesn’t make most writers’ lists. If you are one of them, I urge you to reconsider.
There is no better platform for getting down to the nitty-gritty of what you sat down in that chair to do: write, and write well. And stop thinking about writing while you’re writing.
I want to maximize the chances of getting into that flow state, and I want you to experience the same.
That is where Notepad comes in.
Notepad Gets to Writing’s Core
You put your phone away, turned off notifications, and found the very back corner of the empty coffee lounge where no one can see what you’re typing. It’s time to write.
Don’t know how to spell a certain word? Don’t worry, Notepad doesn’t either.
Not sure if it’s the past perfect or the future perfect continuous? (Yes, that’s a thing apparently). Not a problem! Notepad will look the other way and love you all the same.
Microsoft Notepad was introduced in 1985 and has looked the same since 1992. The only functionality change came in Windows XP, replacing the “Search” menu with “Format” and “View.”
In total, there are only five menu options: “File,” “Edit,” “Format,” “View,” and “Help.” The extent of the “Edit” menu is copying/pasting, and find and replace. “Format” contains word wrap and font.
Formatting and editing exist in a minimal state.
So, why is this a good thing?
Editing and writing (creating) are two separate parts of the brain. When you spell “rhythm” wrong, most word processors light up like poorly strung Christmas lights to make you stop, go back, and fix it.
Some of you might have the focus to ignore that, and I applaud you. But I’m sure for me and other writers out there, that’s an error that needs to be fixed now.
If you are in the flow state, those little red squiggles signal the end. Your flow state hits the dam before it could really gain any momentum.
Your brain stops write mode and enters edit mode.
Notepad does not stop until you stop. Besides not having spell check or grammar check, it also does not fiddle too much with formatting. Italicizing or bolding a word is still possible, though it takes going to the “font…” in the “Format” menu to do so. But again, that’s edit mode, and you’re trying to avoid that.
Instead, keep things simple. Stay in write mode. Get to that flow state.
All Notepad wants is your attention. With a little time and focus, sometimes a magic door opens, and the words begin to flow as if the muse is whispering each word to you.
Other operating systems offer similar programs. If you’re on Mac, TextEdit is comparable, though it more closely resembles WordPad. For Linux users, GEdit is Notepad’s equivalent.
In addition, there are many third party sites that offer great products to cut down to writing’s core that you may also consider.
In the free realm, FocusWriter, by gottcode.org, goes as far as to cut out the interface while you write. Write or Die is another free program that offers a countdown timer along with rewards, stimulus, and consequences (like deleting words when you stop typing).
Scrivener also offers a feature that cuts out the interface allowing you write distraction-free.
Out of all these, though, Notepad is my current program of choice. It keeps the distractions down to the bare minimum: you, a keyboard, and a blank space to put your words. It’s also the best for novice writers who are just learning how to approach and stay in the flow state.
To quote the illustrious Bruce Lee, “It’s not the daily increase but daily decrease. Hack away at the unessential.” Notepad leaves only the essential, where the flow state thrives.
The Flow State
If the flow state were an actual state, preferably just off the coast of California where the drinks flow freely and the beaches seems to never end, I’d have moved there yesterday.
Unfortunately, like Atlantis or Captain Nemo’s Nautilus, you cannot find the flow state if you are looking for it. It comes to you. Just when you realize it’s happening, it waves goodbye, only to return when you least expect it.
But what is it, anyways?
Surfers feel it when they cruise through one hundred tons of water. Musicians feel it when the notes flow through them and their song vibrates the air.
It’s the feeling of being present purely in the now. Past and future fade like forgotten dreams. All that exists is this moment, then the next moment.
As a writer, it comes when you’re so deep in the material that you don’t realize time has disappeared and effort in thought has vanished.
The words are spilling out faster than your fingers can type, and Notepad is there to capture it all. Maybe it’s good, maybe it’s bad, but you won’t know until much later.
That is why Notepad is perfect for the flow state. Its elegance is in its simplicity. There are no bells and whistles to distract you. There is just an infinite space for you to run. The road to the flow state parallels the road to simplicity. The greats have been saying it for centuries:
“Nature is pleased with simplicity. And nature is no dummy.”
― Isaac Newton
“Nothing is more simple than greatness; indeed, to be simple is to be great.”
― Ralph Waldo Emerson
Simple. The only thing simpler would be an actual paper notepad, but if you’re like me and prefer a keyboard, Notepad is the crème de la crème of simplicity.
Post Flow State
You’ve finished writing for the day. The flow state is over. What now?
You’ll want to save your work before it vanishes into the virtual abyss.
The file will save as a “.txt”, the most basic version of a text file you can create. The size is also the smallest available, making for fast load speeds and minimal hard drive space.
You may also be ready for editing.
Notepad files are versatile. “.txt” files are compatible with all word processors. There’s no need to download compatibility packs or codecs to see what you’ve written. Your masterpiece is intact.
When you’re rested and ready to return to the craft of writing, Notepad will still be there. It is as simple as putting yourself in the seat and letting your fingers rattle across the keyboard (I know, the hardest part is sitting down and staying there).
So, after you super glue yourself to the chair, pray to the nebulous writing gods, and pet your lucky Buddha frog, open Notepad and see where it takes you. The flow state awaits, and it’s been lurking in plain sight all along.
Photo credit: Jay Mantri