Brain Pickings

The Psychology of Flow: What Game Design Reveals about the Deliberate Tensions of Great Writing

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“The books that give us the most pleasure, the deepest pleasure, combine uncertainty and satisfaction, tension and release.”

A full creative life requires equally that we cultivate a capacity for boredom, as legendary psychoanalyst Adam Phillips asserted, and learn to welcome rather than avoid difficulty, as Nietzsche believed. Great stories, like great life-stories, are woven of the same interplay between fertile ennui and surmountable frustration — so argues writer Peter Turchi in one especially rewarding section of the altogether stimulating A Muse and a Maze: Writing as Puzzle, Mystery, and Magic (public library | IndieBound).

In a sentiment that illuminates the psychological machinery behind Nabokov’s famous assertion that “a good reader, a major reader, an active and creative reader is a rereader,” Turchi recounts poet C. Dale Young’s experience of reading and rereading Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness:

The first time he read it, he said, the book seemed perfectly clear. Why did people make such a fuss? Moved to reread it, he found Conrad’s tale increasingly elusive, more complicated. Richer. However it happens, the appeal of the books we return to is often, at least in part, a fascination with what we can’t quite reach.

This notion of the elusive, Turchi goes on to argue, is essential to the alchemy of storytelling. Turning to pioneering psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s seminal work on flow — that state of intense focus and crisp sense of clarity where you forget yourself, lose track of time, and feel like you’re part of something larger — Turchi explores the role of challenge in the “flow channel” of narrative.

He cites game designer and Carnegie Mellon professor Jesse Schell’s book The Art of Game Design, which identifies the four elements necessary to put a game player (and, by extension, a reader) into a fruitful “flow state”:

  1. clear goals
  2. no distractions
  3. direct feedback
  4. continuous challenge

The last one, Turchi argues, is of especially delicate balance. He quotes Schell:

If we start to think we can’t achieve [the goal], we feel frustrated, and our minds start seeking an activity more likely to be rewarding. On the other hand, if the challenge is too easy, we feel bored, and again, our minds start seeking more rewarding activities.

Turchi considers this tricky balance against the great trickster that is time:

Simply establishing a constant state of challenge turns out not to be effective for long. Instead, the ideal situation, flow-channel-wise, is to keep the game player or reader moving within a tolerable range of new challenge and acquired skill — or, as Csikszentmihalyi puts it, between anxiety and boredom.

A child might be challenged by playing tic-tac-toe, for instance; but once someone learns how to win or force a draw every time, the game holds less interest. Books of sudoku and crossword puzzles are often labeled easy, medium, or hard because few people will pay for a book of puzzles they can’t do, and not many more will spend time with puzzles that are too simple. With a game like chess, new players might have trouble remembering how the different pieces move; after that, the level of difficulty changes with the opponents they play.

A similar mechanism is at work in the game of narrative:

This cycle of satisfaction and frustration is familiar to every writer. We write sentences or drafts that disappoint us, and we feel frustrated. But then a sentence or paragraph or image delights us, and that success encourages us to continue. If we never felt pleasure from anything we wrote, we’d stop; but if we were completely satisfied, if we didn’t feel the urge to move beyond what we have accomplished or to take on a new challenge, we’d lose interest.

This is essentially what Zadie Smith captured in the last of her ten rules of writing: “Resign yourself to the lifelong sadness that comes from never ­being satisfied.” Except the sadness is simultaneously a stimulant for the satisfaction, for both reader and writer. Turchi captures this elegantly:

Most serious poetry and fiction is unlike a game in that it doesn’t intend to become increasingly difficult, but it is like a game in that we want the reader to be engaged and to experience some combination of intrigue, delight, challenge, surprise, provocation, and satisfaction. The ideal reading experience might be comparable to that flow state. The books that give us the most pleasure, the deepest pleasure, combine uncertainty and satisfaction, tension and release.

Returning to Schell’s theories of game design, Turchi relates the basic paradigm to writing:

It isn’t enough for the story to be somewhere in between too hard and too easy; ideally, the story will provide the reader an ongoing series of challenges and satisfactions.

He illustrates the interplay between challenge and satisfaction with a befitting metaphor:

If, on a hike, all we care about is convenient travel — the physical equivalent of reading a kitchen appliance manual — we’re happy to have big stepping stones, close together, and a quietly flowing stream. But if we’re looking for an interesting experience, if the stream is quiet, the stepping stones can be smaller or farther apart. If the stream is wide and the water is rushing by, we want the security of flat, broad stones. Eventually, some of us will seek out greater adventures — a deep, rushing stream and small, uneven stones that are a long, uncertain stride apart — but if that experience goes on too long, we’re likely to grow exhausted (or fall and be swept to our death; happily, such a dire fate is unlikely when we tackle Absalom! Absalom or Ulysses).

To keep her readers in that vitalizing flow state, Turchi argues, a great writer ought to deliberately move them “between stages of frustration and satisfaction, of tension and release.”

Complement A Muse and a Maze with this evolving archive of advice on the craft from famous writers, including Kurt Vonnegut, Joan Didion, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Susan Sontag, Ray Bradbury, George Orwell, and more.

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The Knot in the Rosary: Rilke on How Private Struggle Fuels Great Art and Why Feedback Poisons It

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“All art is the result of one’s having been in danger, of having gone through an experience all the way to the end, to where no one can go any further.”

Shortly before he began writing what would become the legendary Letters to a Young Poet, 26-year-old Rainer Maria Rilke (December 4, 1875–December 29, 1926) moved to Paris to write a monograph on the sculptor Rodin, but soon sank into profound spiritual anguish. Once he discovered modernism, Rilke found himself elevated by the art, invigorated by the vitality with which modernist artists approached their work. Chief among these pivotal encounters was the painter Paul Cézanne, whom Rilke would come to cite as his greatest creative influence. He was especially enchanted by the artist’s relationship with his art: “Only a saint could be as united with his God as Cézanne was with his work,” Rilke wrote.

In 1907, months after Cézanne’s death, Rilke saw and was deeply moved by a retrospective on the artist’s work. Every day, he would return to the gallery and contemplate these paintings that he found so bewitching, so beseeching of his own creative response. In a series of letters to his wife, the sculptor Clara Westhoff, Rilke began recording and examining his reverence for the painter. His missives to Clara — a woman he saw not only as an equal but also as someone at least as deeply invested in the project of art — were later published as the wholly addictive 1985 tome Letters on Cézanne (public library | IndieBound).

1902 portrait of Rainer Maria Rilke by Helmuth Westhoff, Rilke's brother-in-law

In one particularly radiant letter from June of 1907, Rilke echoes Nietzsche’s belief in the spiritual benefits of hardship and Van Gogh’s eloquently channeled belief in the creative power of suffering. Decades before Anaïs Nin’s unforgettable proclamation that “great art was born of great terrors, great loneliness, great inhibitions, instabilities, and it always balances them,” Rilke writes:

Surely all art is the result of one’s having been in danger, of having gone through an experience all the way to the end, to where no one can go any further. The further one goes, the more private, the more personal, the more singular an experience becomes, and the thing one is making is, finally, the necessary, irrepressible, and, as nearly as possible, definitive utterance of the singularity… Therein lies the enormous aid the work of art brings to the life of the one who must make it — that it is his epitome, the knot in the rosary at which his life recites a prayer, the ever-returning proof to himself of his unity and genuineness, which presents itself only to him while appearing anonymous to the outside, nameless, existing merely as necessity, as reality, as existence—.

So we are most definitely called upon to test and try ourselves against the utmost, but probably we are also bound to keep silence regarding this utmost, to beware of sharing it, of parting with it in communication so long as we have not entered the work of art: for the utmost represent nothing other than the singularity in us which no one would or even should understand, and which must enter into the works as such, as our personal madness, so to speak, in order to find its justification in the work and show the law in it, like an inborn design that is invisible until it emerges in the transparency of the artistic.

With an eye to this deeply private nature of the utmost and its expression in art, Rilke makes an especially fiery admonition against feedback throughout the creative process:

There are two liberties of communication, and these seem to me to be the utmost possible ones: the one that occurs face-to-face with the accomplished thing, and the one that takes place within actual daily life, in showing one another what one has become through one’s work and thereby supporting and helping and (in the humble sense of the word) admiring one another. But in either case one must show results, and it is not lack of trust or withdrawal or rejection if one doesn’t present to another the tools of one’s progress, which have so much about them that is confusing and tortuous, and whose only value lies in the personal use one makes of them. I often think to myself what madness it would have been for van Gogh, and how destructive, if he had been forced to share the singularity of his vision with someone, to have someone join him in looking at his motifs before he had made his pictures out of them, these existences that justify him with all their being, that vouch for him, invoke his reality. He did seem to feel sometimes that he needed to do this in letters (although there, too, he’s usually talking of finished work), but no sooner did Gauguin, the comrade he’d longed for, the kindred spirit, arrive than he had to cut off his ear in despair, after they had both determined to hate one another and at the first opportunity get rid of each other for good.

Rainer Maria Rilke with Clara Rilke Westhoff, 1903

In a letter written two days later, Rilke adds a remark that comes as an especially appropriate summation of the question of private suffering versus tangible results, in both art and life:

Basically it’s none of our business how somebody manages to grow, if only he does grow, if only we’re on the trail of the law of our own growth…

Letters on Cézanne is an altogether entrancing glimpse of Rilke’s mind at its sharpest and most creatively stimulated. Complement it with Rilke on living the questions, the relationship between body and soul, and his youthful love letters to Lou Andreas-Salomé, the Russian-born intellectual who had previously bewitched Nietzsche, then revisit Jeanette Winterson’s sublime meditation on art.

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The Watcher: A Children’s Book about How Jane Goodall Became Jane Goodall

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How a quiet little English girl became the world’s greatest advocate for animals.

Great children’s books celebrating science are few and far between, and in a general publishing landscape where only 31% of books for young readers feature female protagonists, great children’s books celebrating female pioneers of science are especially rare. How refreshing, then, to come upon The Watcher: Jane Goodall’s Life with the Chimps (public library | IndieBound) by writer and artist Jeanette Winter — the illustrated story of how the legendary primatologist, who once authored a little-known children’s book herself, became the icon that she is and forever changed not only her field but also the course of cultural attitudes toward animals.

From cultivating the powers of observation as a little girl, obsessively tracking the family’s hens as they lay eggs and quietly watching the robin outside her window for weeks on end, to reading voraciously the stories of Tarzan and Dr. Doolittle as she aspired to go to Africa and live with the apes, to the realization of her dream as she buys a one-way boat ticket to Kenya upon graduation and soon meets the pioneering paleoanthropologist and archaeologist Louis Leakey, the story captures in plain words and simple drawings Goodall’s remarkable determination, tenacity and clarity of conviction.

We see young Jane set up camp in Gombe, at last feeling a deep sense of homecoming — “This is where I belong,” she would later write in her memoir. “This is what I came into this world to do.” We follow her to the top of the forested hills as she looks for the chimps, and between the trees as she anticipates the timid creatures. Befallen with malaria and still alone, she lurches on the brink of losing hope.

And then, one fateful day, she makes contact with the chimps — all the patience pays off when one trusting male, whom she names David Greybeard, takes a banana from her hand and, by displaying his own trust, encourages the other chimps to admit her into their lives. There she is, at last observing them as they play, hold hands, kiss, and fight, confirming empirically her deep intuition that we share a great deal more than previously thought with our misunderstood evolutionary relatives.

We see her sitting in her tent at night, recording the day’s observations as she listens to Mozart and Bach on an old turntable.

But after she leaves Gombe, poachers and intruders begin cutting down the trees, shooting grownup chimps, and kidnapping their babies to sell to circuses, labs, and as pets.

We see Goodall at a lectern — devastated by the prospect of her beloved chimps becoming extinct, she becomes a spokesperson and educator. Even as she travels the world advocating for conservation, Goodall returns to Gombe every chance she gets and, reunited with David Greybeard, sits atop the familiar beloved hills once again, listening for her friends.

For a grownup complement to The Watcher, see Goodall on science and spirituality and her answers to the famous Proust Questionnaire.

For more wonderful illustrated biographies, see those of Julia Child, Pablo Neruda, Sigmund Freud, Albert Einstein, and Maria Merian, another grand dame of science.

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