Unconscious Writing: Putting the Subconscious to Work
There are two schools of thought about how writers write:
- Some writers write complete, detailed scene plans before they put down a single word of first draft; they believe that they are consciously in charge of every idea and every plot twist in their stories.
- Others believe that a large part of their work rises up from the subconscious.
I’m a subconscious writer. I believe in letting my subconscious take an active part in my storytelling. This was not always so.
When I first started writing I thought I had total control of my stories. A story I wrote called Be a Man changed all of that. It was a simple story, I thought, about a kid who has an unpleasant experience in swimming class and becomes disillusioned about his teacher. I gave it to one of my former English professors, Bob Bergstrom, to read.
When Bob gave me his critique he launched into an in-depth analysis of the character and what was really happening in the story. I was shocked. I admitted that everything he said was true, but I hadn’t realized it was there. That was a lot of stuff to pack into a 2,300-word story.
I forget how long the idea for Be a Man gestated–tumbled around in my mind–before I put it down on paper. But I do remember that it was about two from idea to writing of Two Coffees. I was at Godfather’s Pizza with a friend. She indicated a table not to far from us and told me about the dude who she’d see when she was in with some of her friends the other night. He’d ordered four glasses of beer, set one in front of himself and the others around the table. Then he proceeded to carry on a conversation with the invisible buddies who, apparently, possessed the other three beers.
As you can see from the story a lot changed from conception to execution. This 900-word story is on my Website because it’s my favorite, particularly because my subconscious was deeply involved in the writing. I discovered this on re-reading the story a few years after I wrote it. I submitted the story three times, and it has been published twice–excluding its online publications.
I believe that even writers who believe in strictly outlining and scene-planning everything are influenced by their unconscious minds whether they know it–or like it–or not. But I don’t think they take full advantage of the powers of their subconscious.
The subconscious needs time to work. It cannot be forced, but it can be nudged. Here are some ways to nudge it:
- If you’re working on a story problem, sleep on it. Turn it over in your mind, and your subconscious will work on while you’re sleeping.
- Take a break, sometimes a long break. Your subconscious will continue working even while you are awake, engaged in other activities.
- Be patient.
How do you know your subconscious is working? Because suddenly, out of nowhere, an idea will pop into your mind, and often it will be better than what you had been thinking of.
The patience part is the most annoying to me because things may not come together as quickly as I’d like, but when the ideas do come they are inevitably much cooler than if I had wracked my conscious mind for solutions. For example, I’m working on a young adult dystopian novel with the working title of Beyond the Wall. The story has changed dramatically in the last couple of months, so dramatically that the title will definitely have to be changed because the wall probably will not exist in a physical sense.
This also is why I have several projects going at the same time; if I need to prime my subconscious to work on one story, I switch to another while my subconscious takes its own sweet time, and I check back regularly to see if some new ideas are coming. I don’t have any trouble switching back and forth between projects. It’s not a bad ability for a writer to try to develop.
I have always wanted to write a novel or short story fast, in white heat, like some writers (in his book On Writing, Stephen King says that he writes the first draft of every novel, no matter how long, in three months). That would be seriously cool. I’ve tried it on many occasions, but all I succeeded in doing was creating extra work for the garbage collector (or these days, to be politically correct, the recycling dudes).
If that works for you, great. But if you find yourself constantly getting stuck on story problems, instead of whacking at your conscious mind with a sledge-hammer, try gently consigning the challenges to your subconscious for a few days.