My favorite part of writing a story is the moment after I finish transcribing all of my interviews and have sorted my research. I sit before an empty document on my computer and wait. Within a few seconds (or minutes) the story starts to tell itself and I just write what channels through. A three-way conversation between me and the viewer and the interviewees forms in my head and I become merely a conduit.
The best way I can describe that feeling of flow personally, is by comparing it to a painter. Sometimes the project needs more light there, more dark there, a shadow, a happy tree or two or an expressive bit of natural sound that leads into a poignant sound bite. When it comes together you can step away and see a full picture with instant understanding. The rest of the world disappears when you are in flow. I’ve been known not to respond to colleagues standing next to me and talking because I don’t hear them. As author Cheryl Strayed so eloquently puts it, I’m “Writing like a MFer”.
“Strength rather than fragility, resilience and faith and nerve, and leaning in hard into work rather than worry and anxiety”. That is the essence of “Mother F’Atude”, Strayed said in an article on the topic. Whatever your work or craft, the sense of flow you get from it feeds your soul and produces something of value in the world. It doesn’t matter if you’re building a cabinet or a multi-part investigative story.
I’ve written before about not wrapping your entire personality into work identity. It’s not healthy and when that job eventually goes away, as they all do, you stand to lose more than a paycheck. You must not only be what you do but you must bring all you are to your work. It is only when you bring all of your experience, focus and creativity to a project that it achieves its highest value. No one likes a half-asser. Even in a deadline driven business, there is time to do it right.
Having met Strayed recently, I was instantly warmed by her open personality and humility. Her description of “MF-Atude”, is the underpinning of what’s called the “autotelic” personality. The traits of this personality are curiosity, persistence, low self-centeredness and a desire to perform for intrinsic reasons only. It means you will do what you love to do no matter the external reward. No one is fully autotelic. We have bills to pay and our skills have value in a market-place. We also have tasks that must be performed regardless of our enjoyment or sense of flow. Autotelism is on a spectrum and to live fully engaged lives, doing what we are meant to do requires all of us to reach further along that spectrum.
How do you reach? You build on the qualities of autotelism that already exist within you. To be more curious you must be humble enough to ask the dumb questions, to polish your mind with the minds of others and read voraciously. To be more persistent we must think hard about our wants and desires, assemble a mastermind group of advisors, mentors and thought leaders, and build that discipline bridge that takes us from goals to accomplishment. Low self-centeredness means reaching out to help others when you can and injecting your projects with benevolence. What are you doing that feeds the mind, soul or literally, feeds someone else?
Strayed describes her first novel as a second heart, beating her in chest that she had to get out. My projects aren’t nearly as romantic or beautiful sounding….mine are more like a rash. They begin as an itch that creeps up on me that I can only remedy by hashing it out on my computer or finding that perfect interview. Only when I can get the story, article or interview completed can I rest, ever briefly until the itch starts again. That may not sound pleasant but the beautiful part is there is always another story to tell. When you do what you love and indulge your autotelism, the projects find you and demand your attention.
If you’d like to see more of my conversation with Cheryl Strayed, you can find my interview from the Sacramento Speakers Series with her here: