Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Molly O'Brien-Foelsch on achieving flow against the odds

Molly O'Brien-Foelsch, Director of University Marketing & Web Content
You know the feeling – the floaty one, in which the words want to land on the page faster than your fingers can move. You forget your surroundings. When you come back to earth, you find you have a decent first draft that you can somewhat effortlessly refine until you have a piece that impresses your readers and even yourself. It doesn’t happen often enough for me, or I’m guessing for any writer, that experience we call flow.

I used to be pretty good at finding flow. In college, I’d settle on the floor by my dorm-room bed with a half-gallon of grape Gatorade by my side and the Talking Heads’ greatest hits cassette playing on my boom box. Since my roommate was a lab-bound engineering major, I always had a few uninterrupted hours to sink into a rare, delicious writing trance.

It’s harder to achieve flow now that I work regular hours in a professional office, manage a small staff, and have tons of emails to address, along with IM’s, meetings and office drop-ins — few of which have anything to do with the writing projects that pepper my extensive to-do list.

And then there is the pressure of the public nature of my work. It’s easy to get writer’s block when I know my writing will be posted online or printed in a magazine or brochure with a circulation of 50,000. The readers themselves don’t make it easy, either. I’m writing for an audience of very smart, very critical faculty, administrators, alumni, parents, students and, gulp, teenagers. Sure, the stakes make my writing better, but they also tend to make me second-guess myself at nearly every turn. Yet when I look back over my professional portfolio, I see that I have, despite these obstacles, managed to achieve flow. The examples are many: the speech the president praised, the web story that garnered some great web traffic, the profile that a faculty member barely edited – these are the outcomes that benefit Bucknell and satisfy the writer in my heart.

So how do I get there? Here are a few strategies I use:

1) Define a goal.
Sometimes I receive a request for a writing project with no guidelines other than “This person needs to speak for 10 minutes” or “We need a blurb about Bucknell.” No pressure! If I find myself filling space with fluff or clichés, I take that as a signal that I have work to do before I write. I consider the needs of the speaker and the audience: What do they need to know about? What do they want to know about? Are there behaviors or actions I want to inspire? I consider, too, the context: Are there ties with historic or current events? Are there recurring themes that I can expand upon or present in a new light?

This kind of pre-writing work happens, for instance, with the faculty stories my team and I produce. We can’t produce a compelling story or effectively convey a main point by smooshing every topic from a 45-minute interview into 400 words. Instead, we think more abstractly about how some or all of those topics relate to each other. Did the interviewee’s body language and tempo reveal a particular passion? What aspects of their work relate to what prospective students and parents want to know during their college search? Are there any hot topics in the media that align with this person’s scholarship or teaching? Is there an emotional component to the work? A humorous one?

To keep my writing sharp, I have to do much more than write: I must stay abreast of issues in higher education and admissions; keep up with University news and faculty and student achievements; attend events and lectures and luncheons; get to know students; and learn about Bucknell’s history and strategic plans for the future. Flow doesn’t come from nothing — achieving it requires not only “mind work” but also the background work, legwork and mindfulness of continual research.

2) Mind map.

Once I have a clear objective or theme, I often sketch out a mind map to build an outline and argument. I’ve used software, but right now I like paper and pen. I put my central idea in the middle, write supporting ideas at the end of the spider’s arms, and fill in the details from there. Sometimes the entire structure of a piece materializes right there on the map. Then all that’s left to do is flesh out the piece.

3) Develop rituals.
I have a routine that works much like having a bedtime ritual did for me as a kid. It gets me in the right frame of mind to concentrate. Since I’ve become leery of ingesting too much purple food coloring, I’ve replaced grape Gatorade with Irish breakfast tea, and I now prefer silence to the Talking Heads. When I’ve got a big writing project to attack, I clean off my desk, organize, then shut off my email and IM, brew a big cup of tea and close my office door.

I have also experimented with writing at different times of the day. Alas, I get revved up at about 3:45 in the afternoon, much too close to quitting time. Weirdly, my best editing and rewriting time is before 7 a.m. I hate mornings, but when there’s a messy draft in need of help, that’s when I have to do it.

4) Do yoga.
Yoga really helps me concentrate, even if a day or two has elapsed since my last session. Writing flow and a good savasana feel nearly identical to me, and even a few ujjayi breaths and a couple of downward-facing dogs help get the juices flowing.

5) Relocate.
Sometimes a change in scenery or atmosphere is the key to the click. I sit in the comfy chair in the corner of my office, go to 7th St. Café or Cherry Alley, or take a walk around campus and chat with a few people to see if that frees up the words. A hot shower steams the words loose from my brain when I’m really struggling with a project.

6) When all else fails, deconstruct and reconstruct.
I save this approach for really high-stakes or complex projects that aren’t cooperating because a) it’s a lot of work and b) my coworkers tend to think I’ve lost it if they see me doing this: I print the thing out and then slice it to bits – with a real scissors. I spread the pieces out on my office floor and rearrange them, categorize them with different colors of highlighters and Sharpies (A, B, C, etc.) and toss out some of the slips. I refer to the remaining slips to revise the digital draft, add new text to fill in the gaps the process has revealed, and line edit from there. This opposite-of-flow approach is a dramatic way to kill my darlings and develop a draft that doesn’t make me cringe, but when all else fails, it works.

Molly O'Brien-Foelsch M'98 is Director of University Marketing & Web Content within Bucknell's Division of Communications. She has worked at Bucknell for more than 11 years and has experience in writing admissions recruitment materials across media, presidential remarks, video storyboards, faculty stories, grant proposals, and other written pieces that communicate the value of a Bucknell education across audiences. She holds a master's degree in English from Bucknell and her bachelor's degree in English from Cedar Crest College. She lives in Milton, Pa., with her husband, Brian, their rescued German shepherd mix, Greta, and two cats. See her portfolio here (you may have to copy and paste, sorry!):