From the winery, the zone and flow

Thursday night on the bus ride home, I got a phone call–bottling the 2011 reds at Cloudlift Cellars was running later than planned, could I come down to the winery and help?

Bottling is like working a factory line, and when it’s going well, it feels fast and intense. You don’t want to get behind and slow down the line.

When I arrived, we had one guy on the filler and corker, one wiping bottles down, one putting the capsules on the bottle tops, one running the labeler, and my middle kid loading the bottles into case boxes.

My job, it turned out, was to dump glass–something I’d never done before, something that always scared me (even though I wasn’t doing it).

The boxes of empty bottles are stacked on pallets and the bottoms of the boxes aren’t taped shut. The trick is to slide your hands under the box, keeping the flaps closed, walk over to the table by the filling machine, set the box down, slip your fingers between the bottom flaps, and gently raise the box. The bottles THUNK out of the bottom of the box, and you stop lifting the box until it’s time to slide all 12 bottles into position by the guy working the filler. Then you carefully lift the box the rest of the way off without tipping over any of the bottles underneath it, walk swiftly to the end of the line, label and number the box, and put it on the pallet to be filled with full bottles of wine. I feel like I need to show you a diagram. I didn’t even have time to take a bad phone picture, but here are some photos from another year’s bottling.

The glass job went well. I’m not afraid of it anymore. And I remembered how working the bottling line can make me feel like I’m in the zone. You could say it’s a flow activity.

As I’ve mentioned recently, I read Flow, by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. I was hoping to learn some tips on getting into the zone when I’m writing–reaching that place where all distractions drop away, time isn’t relevant, and you can go places you wouldn’t get to otherwise. Being an inveterate worrier (distracted easily by anxiety), I’ve rarely, if ever, felt in the zone.

What I learned from the book–my very high-level takeaway:

People experience flow when they’re challenged and they have the skills to succeed in those challenges or they have a pathway to obtain the necessary skills. And they keep nudging up the bar just enough, choosing new challenges that are harder but not too hard. And according to the book, people who are in flow are happier. I won’t argue that–but while I want to be happy, I also want to write a really great poem, my best poem, and then another one.

While Csikszentmihaly did talk about mental challenges, many of his examples were physical (swimming, dancing, mountain climbing). Maybe a physical challenge helps you focus more clearly. Hypothesis: Your brain is mostly wired to protect your body, so when you’re moving that body in a big, sustained way (like working the bottling line), your brain pays attention. Or we hope it does.

How does this help me to get into the zone when I’m writing? I think that finding the right challenges ties back to deliberate practice. But how do I get enough focus to get into the zone?

How do you get into the zone? Where do you find flow?

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3 comments

  1. Colin Wilcox’s avatar

    I find flow when I write by starting. And in the starting I pull and tug at the words, cast and recast, and in that struggle the words pull me in and the hours slip by. Or at least they used to before the kids arrived.

  2. joannie’s avatar

    It sounds like after the starting, the key ingredient is time–having enough time to struggle until you’re pulled in. That happens for me, too, when I’m revising. I find less success when I’m free-writing, perhaps because I’m on the bus and because I have a short attention span–instead of writing for 15 minutes, I write for about 5, and maybe that just isn’t enough time.

    Recently, I was reading some poems that seemed to have a lot of space around them. Although they looked like any other poem on the page, reading them felt vast and close to spiritual. I sensed it as space–space as the necessary ingredient. But reading your comment, I think time is what I was looking for. And if time’s hard to find, it’s easier for me to imagine writing time than writing space.

  3. T.Clear’s avatar

    This flow question is a big one for me, as the anxiety-thing plays a big role, unfortunately, in my life also.

    But as Colin says, just start. That helps, usually!

    I love the details of winery work in this post.

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