Got Writer's Block? Get Flowstate

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So you've finally decided to write that Great American Novel. Or maybe you need to jot down some notes for your next paper. Close your current word processor, wipe it from your hard drive, and download Flowstate, the most intuitive writing application on the planet.

As writers, we're often skeptical of programs that promise wild improvements in productivity. We know too well our capacities for self-criticism and procrastination. So when I sat down with Flowstate, I was fully prepared to dismiss it as yet another interesting but fleeting stab at switching up the formula.

From the moment I opened the program, I knew this was something different. The interface is the picture of harmony, with fluid transitions and a minimal color palette that instill immediate tranquility. But where Flowstate sets itself apart from anything that's existed before is its most irritating feature.

If you stop typing for more than five seconds, you lose everything you've written. As you inch closer to that 5-second mark, the text begins to pulse brighter and brighter. If you eclipse that mark, the words fade away into the abyss, never to be seen again.

If this thought fills you with writerly anxiety, well, that's the point. This is no bug; this is the foundation of the program. In pushing you to keep writing, it thwarts your inner-critic's ability to interrupt the creative process with premature tweaks and edits.

Though seemingly sadistic, this feature is actually designed to spur creativity. Overman, the company behind Flowstate, dubs itself an "Obstruction" Company. In a world of endless options, it seeks to put itself squarely in your path, with the goal of pushing you to find new expressions of your own creativity. With Flowstate, the user chooses a timer ranging from 5 minutes to 3 hours before opening a new space, and once that limit has been reached, the document is saved.

This is more than just an app or a Word replacement. For the veteran novelist and amateur scribbler alike, Flowstate is an unparalleled writing experience. It makes sense that Flowstate was conceived by a writer, Caleb Slain, who developed the app with Overman co-founder Blaine Cronn. Slain sat down to explain the origins of Flowstate, flow writing tips, who he hopes gets their hands on the app, and more.

Jesse Damiani: What is Flowstate, exactly?

Caleb Slain: Flowstate is a new way to write. The core of it is that it's the first app to sharply separate the writing process from the editing process -- they're two different things and they live in two different worlds. But what really sets it apart is how our writing process works.

Probably the best way to describe Flowstate is that it's a drug. It's a new way to write, but it's a drug. We're actually looking into getting billboards outside of a few colleges that read, "Cheaper than Adderall" with our flow symbol. It takes 15 to 20 minutes to kick in, so if you're only doing the shorter sessions then you're not going to feel the real effect of the drug. And it's really something that must be felt to be understood. One 30-minute session will teach you more than this whole interview.

JD: How'd Flowstate come to be? What's the story?

CS: I've been writing since I was very young. Short stories, scripts, wrote and directed my first feature play as a teen, and then a bunch of films. I'm pretty comfortable with the writing process -- when I was in high school I would finish school and go straight to a coffee shop, write all night, then leave the coffee shop at dawn to go back to school, and this was like a normal thing. 

You develop a certain idea of how to write because you feel like you're doing it pretty well. I won a scholarship to a program in Seattle with a few great instructors, and one of them was Stewart Stern. Stewart Stern was a very old screenwriter who just passed away. When I was working with him he was 90. He's the guy who wrote Rebel Without a Cause and all these other great films in the '60s and '70s. And it was studying under him where I was first introduced to the concept of timed writing. In his class we would do these sessions where everyone had to write for 5, 10, 15 minutes by hand, and the only rule was that your hand must not stop moving. "Blah, blah, blah," didn't matter. With timed writing, it doesn't matter what you write, you just keep writing, and eventually something's gonna show up. And what really changed my life in the experience of this class -- and there was a lot in that class, like getting hypnotized and going back into your childhood and all this other shit -- but in the timed writing instance the thing was I had memories I didn't consciously realize were playing into what I was writing, like character attributes connected to my distant experiences. And it was the first time I started connecting these wires, figuring out where these things were coming from, getting at the heart of what's true and what's not.

Like many writers, I'm a perfectionist, so I would write, as many people do, you know, write, and then tweak, and look at it a little bit, tweak it, and go on, and come back and tweak it. I'm not going to make a declaration of what is a good or bad way to write -- at the end of the day it's whatever works -- but I think with any form of expression, to surf the whole wave, to move from the beginning to the end is a full complete brush stroke. You'll never find a beautiful circle that was drawn in 2 percent increments, it's a stroke.

So I called my best friend Blaine, who's a software developer. That was four years ago. And I told him, I've been experiencing this stuff in the classroom, it's something other people need to use, it's completely changing my life and everything I think about writing and how it needs to work, and I want to find a way to introduce this to people. I'm learning this from Stewart but how do other people learn about this if they don't have the opportunity to be in this class? Why it worked in the class is social pressure; you have all these people around you and you're not going to stop because you'll look like an asshole, right? It was like, how can we create a system where this still works on your own, alone? 

And so began our experiment.

We didn't get straight to what Flowstate has become at that time; it took us a while. Even the concept of deleting? Going way back to how it started, we had to come up with that. It took iteration after iteration. At first it was like, oh, every time you press a period it freezes that sentence so you can't change it, but that didn't motivate or build momentum. Then it was a bar at the top of the screen that would shrink and turn red whenever you stopped typing (ultimately deleting the text), but the bar was distracting. And on and on and on -- it was this push-pull to find the right thing that was super zen, very simple set of rules, that still feels like you have a lot of freedom in the space, but activates your survival instincts and snowballs you to greater heights.

That was four years ago when the idea started, three and a half years ago when we first started testing builds, and three years ago when we had our first real solid version of this. I mean we built this for me, as a a tool to help me, and after three years it's completely changed the way I write. Even when I don't use Flowstate I use the techniques developed for and with it. And I've used it for everything -- movies, commercials, pitches, journaling, therapy, backstories for characters, working with actors, everything -- there's nothing I've done in the last three years that at some point hasn't run through Flowstate. Which I think is really interesting -- it's held up. And that's why I'm really confident about it. Because after all this time I know that it's not just cute. It's not just this thing that's a neat little bite on your web feed and then, "bye." If you're a serious writer, a serious creator, you'll find it's a really powerful tool in your arsenal.

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JD: Was there a learning curve for you in using Flowstate for timed writing?

CS: Being in the class was my "discovery" curve. Once you've learned what it does, there isn't much of a learning curve, it's more of a comfort curve, a courage curve to get to the point where you feel confident to go out into the darkness, into the fog. Because you don't know what's going to happen. And every time you go to start a session, every time you go to press that button, it never stops being a little bit scary, because you're just making a promise, a commitment...and no one likes commitments, it's 2016 in America, for Chrissake. That doesn't ever become easier, but it becomes exciting. Part of even the way we created this space, the entire environment of Flowstate is that it's a full-screen app only. It's one of the few apps that launches in fullscreen on OS X. It demands it be used in fullscreen because we weren't creating an app or a program for opening documents, it is a space. It's a little world you go into. They've found that serious pornography addicts are actually aroused by the very act of opening their browser, because their browser has come to be a space associated with sexual fulfillment. There's something about spaces that's very interesting to me, thinking spatially in the digital world, so we've put a lot of thought into this. How do we create a space that feels good every time you open it? We wanted it to be sexy and beautiful enough that it just seduces you into using it. And it has to, because like I said, it never ceases to be a little intimidating; you never know what's going to happen. It's the issue of the blank page, only in this case, it's the blank page mixed with "I'm going to fill it if I press this button," and that's a scary thought. Part of our app description is, "Man's deepest fear is that he's more powerful than he can imagine." I think that's true. Nelson Mandela said something similar. We're not really afraid of what we can't do, we're afraid of what we have the capacity to do, so anything that could pull that out of us is terrifying.


JD: What's the relationship between automatic writing and timed writing?

CS: Automatic writing is essentially stream-of-consciousness writing, where timed writing is a specific discipline that was, as Stewart explained, developed by novelists in the '30s and '40s and based on "startlines," which are evocative phrases that often end in a preposition, such as, "Shannon's husband wasn't there for her that Sunday, and instead she went off to..." or "My first experience with sexuality as a child was..."

These two things (timed and automatic writing) are compatible -- automatic writing is the point where you're just flow writing. You're not thinking about it, you're not censoring it, you're not editing it, you're just moving. You don't even have the room to stop and think about what happened two minutes ago. Timed writing is the structure in which to hit the mode of automatic writing. Flowstate is exactly that: an architecture that allows you to reach this point of stream-of-consciousness or automatic writing or "flow state" as it's called in Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi's studies. And even that was something we discovered pretty far along in this--what we're doing psychologically has been studied for years, it's valid, but nobody's tried to put these things together.

JD: Can you share a bit more about Csikszentmihalyi's studies?

CS: He's the first person who pioneered the idea of "flow" in psychology, which influenced positive psychology. The whole field of positive psychology owes a lot to his flow studies, which didn't pick up steam until he published Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience in 1990. He started these studies back in the '60s and '70s, looking at artists, and the state of mind they get to, that state of "being in the zone." It's an experience that's been talked about for eons. Painters, musicians, athletes and authors, this state of being where you stop realizing you even exist -- your identity is suspended in the presence of what's happening. So the work that he's done, he's published 6 or 7 books on flow. 

JD: For somebody who's unfamiliar with flow, what tips or techniques would you recommend to "get in the zone?"

CS: 1. Most important requisite is intent/direction. That's why we have people title their sessions upfront on OS X. Even if you're just free flowing, declaring it "Random Thoughts" is still a form of intention.

2. Plug your computer in.

3. Ditch the phone. At a certain point it doesn't matter if your phone's ringing or not, you're just going to ignore it because no call is worth even the risk of losing two pages of work. Just don't have it next to you, or notifications will keep popping the lid off your rice. A good idea might be to flip it to airplane mode or just throw it on the other side of the room. Don't have it sitting on the desk next to you. You might be trapped in your writing session, but having a phone sitting right next to you and pinging with a bunch of text messages is not going to help your experience.

4. Headphones. Doesn't really matter what it is -- binaural beats, classical, things that are just atmospheric, anything that fills your ears so you're not hearing the sound of your environment and being snapped out of the flow hypnosis. I love the ambient artist Loscil -- his album Sea Island is my go-to flow soundtrack. And I think that's it. It's a drug that takes about 15 minutes to kick in, so if you really want to feel the effects of what it's going to do to your mind, you have to go further than a 5 or 10-minute flow.

Like I said, I've learned a lot from Flowstate, like a child almost, blink twice and you realize they're teaching you things. In using it, I don't necessarily need it in the same way that I think I did at the beginning -- I still use it on a regular basis, but Flowstate is also just a space for me. Literally, in the sense that it syncs between all devices (it's replaced Apple Notes in my life), but figuratively in that it's kind of like a church. We call it a sanctuary. That may seem like strong language, but Flowstate is very much an effort to construct a holy space, something your mind associates with breakthrough and discovery -- it's the browser for the porn addict, only here we want the very act of opening it to start your mind operating in an expressive way. And you don't need to do a flow, you can just go in there and make a new note or a new document and you're off.

JD: What are your hopes for the app? Where would you like to see it go? Are there particular (sub)communities you see benefiting from it?

CS: I'm most excited about kids using it. I think kids today have their work cut out for them. There are so many things going on around their little minds in terms of shiny, explosive experiences, and billions of dollars spent to find a way to get their attention and sell them something. I think it's an amazing idea that you could create something where the very experience of using it could help retrain young brains in a calm, anxiety-tranquilizing way of self-expression, to be comfortable just letting things roll out of you, and to be comfortable with what's inside without having to completely occupy oneself with what's outside. I see this in my younger siblings, in my friend's kids, and I don't think it's a bad thing that we have very creative, explosive, tech-oriented children. I don't think this is like, "Oh, you know, the phones are ruining our kids." Nothing like that, I think it's all actually pretty good on a lot of levels. But I also think there are some negative side effects, and I think that the chance for someone to learn what they have within them at a young age, and begin to be comfortable with that in a classroom setting or at home, it's really a marvel. My little brother was 10 when I showed it to him. He's really a character, he's very talky and easily distracted -- you can't get him to sit still and focus on something. And I tried giving him Flowstate almost as a kind of "prank." I show him how it works, and then get him to start typing. It's kind of bad, I know. He's talking and babbling for the first 30 seconds, but then he starts to shut up and write. I walked away. And ten minutes later I come back and he's still typing at the table. He'd completely forgotten that everyone exists! He was completely occupied just playing the game. And that's exactly it. I'm a gamer, I grew up playing games so seriously. I was one of the top free-for-all players in Halo 2, and sponsored for Halo 3. I did tournaments all over, I know that whole culture and I love gaming. I don't do it that much anymore, but the idea of gamifying productivity is so fascinating to us: to make something that creates the same intrinsic dopamine loops that gaming does, but actually have something to show for it at the end.

I'd also love to see this go out to college students in creative writing spectrums. Even people who you wouldn't really anticipate for this, like coders, songwriters, or anyone looking for a creative faucet. I've always imagined this in the realm of writers because I'm a writer, but some people have pointed out that in the wellness world, there's a huge emphasis on health of the mind as well as the body right now -- and that there are a lot more people who are doing morning pages, and doing not only dream journaling but waking up and doing 15 minutes of thoughts -- they're not writers at all, they just do it in the morning. So that's another space where Flowstate could be really helpful.

I've been making films, finished pieces and stories my entire life, but I'm really excited to offer something that might help people make better work. I hope after 5 years we can say, "There's better writing out in the world because of this." It helps make people better writers, less distracted writers. Because that's what it is, right? You let in all these things around you, the feeds that you're getting, the notifications you're getting, the calls you're getting, you're just a subject of your environment, a result of your culture. And that's great -- you shouldn't not be involved in what's happening. But the more you're swamped in everything that's happening, all the headlines, all this, all that -- they become you. When you sit down to write, that's what you're spitting up because that's what's around you. So I think in light of the land of the Internet, to help people find a sort of space to dig down to that deepest void, the corners of the abyss of one's self, light a candle in new rooms in the house of you, I think is really exciting. I don't think anyone's considering that: how to help writers find new caverns in themselves, and not look outside for inspiration and resources.

The sentiment of our company, Overman, is that we're an "obstruction" company. Everything we're developing is built around this idea, that people can be more creative with obstructions. We live in a world where everyone is creating new options for you. And you can do just about anything you want; experience any movie, song, book or message any human being you want, within seconds. It's a pretty post-modem sort of company where the business model is simply, "Get in people's way to make them more creative." Flowstate is our first offering.