Writing Flow

Make Your Writing Flow: The Ancient Technique Hypomnemata

February 14, 2021
5 mins read
Writing and reading are integral tools for personal growth, with each acting as a symbiotic counterpart to the other. By diversifying study topics and ensuring each piece of content offers a fresh perspective, we shape our essence and nurture our senses. Writing, beyond mere text creation, is a profound act of self-construction and cultivation.

“No technique, no professional skill can be acquired without exercise; nor can the art of living be learned without a training of the self by oneself,” says Michel Foucault, while depicting the thoughts of the philosophers and thinkers of ancient times on the topic of writing. Alongside reading and meditation, writing has long been considered one of the most significant components of self-training. Writing for oneself and others – being in a writing flow – was the art of that time through which one learned the aesthetics of one’s existence- the government of oneself.

I read other people’s words every day. And I write for people to read every day. Undeniably, to be a writer is not only a lifelong project to be chosen wisely and carefully. It has tremendous potential to become one’s way of searching and finding the self.

The quest to find meaning and philosophical sense behind this particular human act of producing a body of text has led me to encounter the world of the Hypomnemata. A world that was introduced to me by 20th-century French philosopher Michel Foucault and that gave me a glimpse of the idea of how ancient thinkers nurtured their selves, souls, and bodies through the written word. More importantly, Hupomnemata helped me become a better, more productive writer who can easily tap into a flow-state of writing.

Then what is Hypomnemata?

In “Self-Writing,” Foucault notes that Hypomnemata is an individual notebook wherein the thinkers of Greco-Roman culture during the first two centuries used to collect many different quotes, book extracts, observed cases, reflections, and reasonings. In a word, it was “a material record of things read, heard, or thought,” serving as a life book and guide for conduct. It also played the role of a draft for upcoming works and treaties. Yet, such writings were not merely a memory aid; instead, they were planted in one’s soul through constant exercise. The purposes of this way of taking note were: “withdrawing into oneself, getting in touch with oneself, living with oneself, relying on oneself, benefiting from and enjoying oneself.”

How these philosophers approached the writing process and transformed a simple act of taking notes into a sophisticated self-training process of the soul is impressive. Let’s see their three suggestions about writing and its self-training effects.

I. Writing and reading go hand in hand, like waking and sleeping

Writing is an act of highly focused and complex thinking that connects dots in unusual and novel ways, ending in releasing those connections on paper to be read, commented on, and judged by the world. Therefore, this constant and generous endeavor of text production can give rise to mental, even physical, exhaustion for the producer.

Sometimes, the writer has to stop the line of producing and get into a mode of focused reading instead. The writer has to indulge and surrender into the world of imagination of other writers. It is time to be a receiver instead of a giver.

Continuous reading, on the other hand, can have a scattering effect. To jump from one material to another without stopping, taking notes, and writing your thoughts and reflections down looks like a bee collecting nectar without returning to the hive to supply. This tiring activity can end with nothing, or worse, forgetting one’s core, the soul’s center.

Intensive reading that does not consider any writing activity can also generate serious negative tendencies in mind, leading one to pass ideas, flow toward the future, and lose one’s capability to stay in the moment, on the current project, and on what must be done. It can undermine your productivity and efficiency, giving rise to uncertainty, anxiety, or “agitations of the soul,” as ancient thinkers uttered.

At that point, Hypomnemata comes to your support.

As it serves to collect thoughts and experiences, that is, to provide you with the material of the past, it can stabilize you, ground your soul, and keep you in the present by balancing you through the past.

Consequently, you can easily fight against distraction, procrastination, internal agitation, frequent opinion change, and wish shifts through the simple writing activity. Hypomnemata was the way of writing through which one carries out these exercises frequently: “reading, rereading, meditating, conversing with oneself and with others.”

I have a radical ‘code’ in my journal, aka my 21st-century Hypomnemata:

The book you read but not write about is not yours and subject to oblivion anyway. If you do not write about what you have read, do NOT waste your time reading it.

As I said, it is quite radical, but fortunately, I apply it only to books.

II. Diversification of what you read, write, and reflect on is key to making your writing flow

Having a Hypomnemata implies an art of writing on different contradicting thoughts. Ancient thinkers suggested reading and writing on very diverse topics. It was the main principle of Hypomnemata. While doing so, one should choose a topic in a day to digest deeply to mix it with one’s old knowledge.

Yet, it is noteworthy that these principles were written in a day and age wherein disciplines were not as developed and divided as today. Knowledge was seen as a whole entity of different disciplines, and writing and reading were perceived as a practice of mind, as the same kind of work. Today, the economy of knowledge is quite different. The classification of knowledge is deeply institutionalized; the notion of career has also been another dimension.

I used to make use of the principal when I was in school. But now I prefer to have only 3–4 particular topics/interests to read and write in a certain period. Thereby, I can simultaneously deepen my knowledge of these topics and pass one to another when I feel tired.

III. Produce a new text by merging your diverse Hypomnemata notes into one body of the text

Ancients compared the process of unifying heterogeneous fragments into an individual hand to the body’s digestion process, or a bees’ honey-making process or adding a number forming a new sum.

In a word, a new article shouldn’t be a repetition of the previous knowledge but a combined, processed harmony of the read and the noted:

In a chorus, there are tenor, bass, and baritone voices, men’s and women’s tones: “The voices of the individual singers are hidden; what we hear is the voices of all together … I would have my mind of such a quality as this; it should be equipped with many arts, many precepts, and patterns of conduct taken from many epochs of history; but all should blend harmoniously into one.” (“Self Writing,” Foucault quotes Seneca)

If the principle is not applied, the writing process serves memory, not reasoning power. Yet essentially, the act of writing was long seen as a transformation of one’s knowledge and experiences into her own body and soul:

The role of writing is to constitute, along with all that reading has constituted, a “body.” And this body should be understood not as a body of doctrine but, as the very body of the one who, by transcribing his readings, has appropriated them and made their truth his own: writing transforms the thing seen or heard “into tissue and blood.” It becomes a principle of rational action in the writer himself. (“Self-Writing,” Foucault)

The method in a nutshell for a writing flow:

  1. To make your writing flow, writing, and reading are two sides of the same coin of self-training. They have to go hand in hand;
  2. The topics you study should be diversified: I have 3–4 themes I continuously develop myself on.
  3. New articles should not merely repeat the preceding materials, preferably a combined harmony with a novel contribution.

What we read and write slowly constructs us, our core, our self. How we read and write step by step determines our reason, soul, and body. Writing is not only the process of text production but also a method to nurture our different senses. It is self-training. It is an activity of the creation of the self.

I write; therefore, I become.

Khayyam Namazov

I am a committed researcher with expertise in social movements and power and knowledge technologies. My passion lies in helping people enhance their knowledge and skills on diverse subjects, as well as encouraging their personal growth and development.

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Khayyam Namazov

I am a committed researcher with expertise in social movements and power and knowledge technologies. My passion lies in helping people enhance their knowledge and skills on diverse subjects, as well as encouraging their personal growth and development.

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