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Thoughts From the Hopwood Room: David Mitchell, Bird Migration, and the Writing Process


The Hopwood room roundtable is a weekly event in which established writers discourse with the University of Michigan’s student body, faculty, and anyone in the area who is interested in writing and reading.


migration

Last week David Mitchell was in town as the University of Michigan Zell distinguished writer in residence. As the writer in residence, Mitchell sat in for a roundtable discussion in the Hopwood room, a room he described endearingly as a Harry Potterish, cult leader’s den. For an hour, he fielded questions from writers, teachers, and academics, and one kid interested in infanticide in literature. Mitchell, all charm and savoir faire, handled the tot-offing inquiry by addressing how to write about evil, finishing with a humble, “If you’ll let me get away with that as an answer.” He used that line more than once; and when he did, the questioners always smiled and nodded and said yes, likely thinking to themselves, “That answers my question and all the questions I wish I’d asked.”

When asked about his writing process, Mitchell paused a moment, as he did before answering every question that hour, his ponderous eyes staring hard at the twelve inches of space that hung in front of his face. Then he answered. He went into a bit about the brain biology of migratory birds. How certain species of birds during migration season will put the mating and fishing on the back burner to focus more intently on getting from point A to point B. There may have been a joke made about holding the record among the moms and dads of his son’s school for the number of times being late for afterschool pickup. Mitchell spoke about the mental state he enters, a state he can’t avoid, when he writes. Hungarian psychology, philosophy, and religious traditions scholar and writer Mihaly Csikszentmihaly calls this flow.

“You know that what you need to do is possible to do, even though difficult, and sense of time disappears. You forget yourself. You feel part of something larger.”

–Csikszentmihalyi on experiencing flow

Since I punched out the first words to this post I’ve gone for phở with a friend, checked my email about ten times and written as many replies, read a Gawker article titled “Taco Bell Pushes ‘Will They Really Eat This Shit?’ Campaign Even Further”, and washed the glasses we used on election night to toast four more years of sane politics. Clearly Csikszentmihalyi’s flow state did not come to me today, at least not in any sustained sense. I did not, as writer Ron Carlson preaches, stay in the room.

But this is just a blog post, right? Writing fiction on a David Mitchell level does not allow room for phở with friends and taco bell trash talk. Staying in the room, even when your kids are waiting around for a ride after school, is requisite. Hemingway claimed his best writing came in the morning. “There is no one to disturb you and it is cool or cold and you come to your work and warm as you write.” Rumor has it he’d get started at 6 AM and write non-stop until noon — daiquiri hour. And Stephen King’s output in the 70’s and 80’s, famously fueled by cases of beer and grams of coke, is the result of a type of flow state, a type of staying in the room.

I’m still working on my migratory-bird-brain, stay-in-the-room flow state. Usually a glass or three of bourbon at night gives me enough material to tinker with and rewrite over coffee the next morning.

How do you, and you don’t have to be a writer as this applies to all acts of art, play and work and get from A to B (to C to D to…)?


Links & Resources

A Csikszentmihalyi TED talk on flow and happiness.


Join the Discussion

  • I’ve always loved Alan Shapiro’s description of this zen-like state we enter when we’re fully immersed in the work. He calls it: “self-forgetful, perfectly useless concentration.”

    This is from his moving and funny essay “Why Write?” The piece was originally published in the Cincinnati Review and later collected in Best American Essays 2006. But with the author’s permission it’s also been posted on Dustin Brookshire’s blog, I was Born Doing Reference Work in Hell. Here is is:

    http://dustinbrookshire.wordpress.com/2009/07/23/why-do-i-write-alan-shapiro/

  • Celeste

    Oh, I wish I’d been there for this talk. I just finished reading Cloud Atlas–after wanting to for years!–and loved it. Anyway, your point about “flow” reminded me of this quote from Annie Dillard, which hangs above my desk:

    “Every morning you climb several flights of stairs, enter your study, open the French doors, and slide your desk and chair out into the middle of the air. The desk and chair float thirty feet from the ground, between the crowns of maple trees. The furniture is in place; you go back for your thermos of coffee. Then, wincing, you step out again through the French doors and sit down on the chair and look over the desktop. You can see clear to the river from here in winter. You pour yourself a cup of coffee.

    Birds fly under your chair. In spring, when the leaves open in the maples’ crowns, your view stops in the treetops just beyond the desk; yellow warblers hiss and whisper on the high twigs, and catch flies. Get to work. Your work is to keep cranking the flywheel that turns the gears that spin the belt in the engine of belief that keeps you and your desk in midair.”

    Thanks for reminding me of that. Your post just inspired me to sign off Facebook and get in the room–and try to stay there.

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