Understanding creative flow, Part 2

In a previous article, I discussed the concept of creative flow and why it’s a good thing, and then I offered some thoughts on how to protect and extend it when it happens to you. But there are a lot more threads and wrinkles to this topic than will fit neatly into a single posting. Or even six. In this one, I want to introduce you to the most powerful writing tool ever devised by man…

If you look at the world of power tools, you will find that they all have one thing in common: with great power comes great likelihood of ripping your limbs off. While this maxim only extends to computers in a metaphorical sense, powerful software tools allow you to do significant damage to something else you hold dear – like, say, your work in progress. I don’t say this to scare you away, but rather, like the fine print on a chain-saw box that advises you to always wear eye protection and chain-mail, I say this so that you will pay heed to the advice on how to protect your work from the inevitable clumsiness of your learning curve. The results, however, will be well worth your time.

In another previous article, I mentioned the benefits of text editors over word processors  for the bulk of your writing cycle, and in particular, I mentioned the grand-daddy of them all: vim. Vim started out as a command-shell application in the bad old days before graphical desktop tools had become popular. As such, it is an entirely keyboard-based editor. Let me say that again. Vim uses nothing but the keyboard. Yes, you can actually use a mouse to position the cursor and to highlight things, but that would be akin to pulling your car with a goat. It completely misses the point of the tool. By training yourself to put the mouse aside and do everything from the keyboard, you will reap big rewards in terms of entering and maintaining flow. It also allows you to use the entire screen of your computer for text, because in most variants of the vim tool, there are no menus either.

But I’m not going to waste my bytes with training tools. (You can find excellent self-teaching material here and here for starters.) Instead, I want to tell you why I like vim so much.

Reason 1: If you look here, you’ll find that vim has a very active and friendly user community. In the early days of learning vim, you’ll rely on these folks regularly.

Reason 2: One of the strengths of vim is that it was built originally for programmers, and one thing programmers crave is the ability to tweak and customize their tools, which means that vim has a very powerful scripting engine that lets you write new features of your own, or plug in features that other users have created. Want a command to count words, or to convert the Selected Text Into Title Casing? Those are simple plugins you can add, and there are a lot more to go with them. And if you don’t find one you’re looking for, post on one of vims user forums and ask. There’s probably somebody else out there who can build it for you – especially if it’s a cool idea that they want to try too.

Reason 3: Muscle Memory. I’ve talked before about the hassle of menus. Anybody who opened up Word 2007 will know how painful it is to have the entire menu system in your tool of choice jerked out from under you in a single stroke. But even before that fiasco, software vendors have always monkeyed around with the menu system, and every time they do, working writers have to relearn their tools again.

In vim, this is not true. There are no menus. It’s all done with hot-keys, but you’ll be amazed at how quickly this becomes a benefit rather than a limitation.

Quick story: My first introduction to vim was in the form of its predecessor, vi, when I was working on Unix computers in the late 80s. After five years of vi, I was a virtuoso. My fingers danced around the keyboard as though they owned the place, and I paid zero attention to how they were accomplishing things. Cut and paste, block deletes, saving, switching from one file to another: all of these activities happened by magic because my fingers just knew what to do. Then I left the Unix world and switched to Windows. I fought my way through the molasses-slow interfaces of Word and other GUI editors for several years until I finally wised up and went back to Unix. Well, Linux actually, but no matter. The first time I sat down at a Linux console and opened a vim session I was flummoxed. I could not remember what keystrokes I needed to delete blocks of code, or move things from one place to another in the file. So I did a Neo. I just let go. And without trying to think about it consciously, I simply trusted in my fingers to do their job.

And they did.

I actually had to slow down once or twice and watch what my ingrained muscle memory was doing with my fingers so that I could re-learn the command set consciously. It was like being possessed, but in a good and entirely fascinating way.To this day, that remains one of the most powerfully amazing things my body has ever done. But the point of this reminiscence is to underscore how completely sub-conscious the act of navigation becomes when you let go of the mouse. You may believe that you use the mouse without thinking, but there is a key difference – mouse users still experience the transition from mouse to keyboard and back as a cognitive interruption – you’re brain switches modes. And that mode switch is death to creative flow.

Reason 4: Saved time. You might not realize it, but every time you switch your attention from the cursor to the mouse, your brain has to stop and do a number of things. First, you have to locate the mouse with your hand, which takes your eyes off your current work. Then after you grab the mouse, you have to then locate the cursor on screen. (I don’t know about you, but my cursor is never conveniently located right where my line of text entry is happening, so I often have to wiggle the mouse to re-locate the pesky little guy.) Next you flip around the screen doing whatever clicking and dragging needs to be done until your mission has been accomplished, at which point you let go of the mouse and move the hand back to the keyboard. But wait, there is that quick little moment where you have to readjust your hands to make sure you’re on the home row and your wrists are supported and all of that. And then finally, you’re ready to type again. Except, oh, wait. When you did that little mousey-clicky-sidebar journey, you also changed the typing focus of your word processor, or you accidentally moved the insertion point in your editor. So you jump the hand back to the mouse, click back where you want your insertion point to be, re-acquire the keyboard, re-settle your wrists, and then, finally, you can resume your writing.

Talk about a pain in the tuchus. Not only do those interruptions break your beautiful, Zen-like flow, but they suck up piles of time in the long run, too.

In the final analysis, you’re mileage will almost certainly be different from mine. Many people just cannot see past the visual appeal of the menus and their dogged fixation with the mouse. I get that. But if you want to take control of your writing tools, I urge you to give vim a try. Try it in earnest for one full week. If you haven’t started getting into the groove by then, well, at least you gave it a shot. But I’m betting that after even one week, when you go back to mouse-editors, you’re suddenly going to feel like you’re trapped in molasses.

So here’s to molasses-free writing.

About the author

Jefferson Smith is a Canadian fantasy author, as well as the founder, chief editor and resident proctologist of ImmerseOrDie. With a PhD in Computer Science and Creativity Systems compounded by a life spent exploring most art forms for fun and profit, he is underqualified in just about everything. That's why he writes.