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Writing from the Unconscious: Trying to catch the wind

6 May, 2008

How can you tap into your unconscious when writing? And why would you do this?

In writing, ‘unconscious’ refers to the act of dredging something up from your mental depths –an idea, a plot twist, description, change in the character–that takes your story to a more powerful and subtle level. The unconscious is the wind of your ‘deep-level’ imagination. It can often blow something useful your way– if you can tap into it.

Occasionally, I examine the story structure of favourite authors. But doing so is sometimes like trying to catch the wind. Looking out my window on this cold autumn day (in the Southern Hemisphere we’re going into winter), I notice a strong wind blowing the dead leaves around the yard and jangling the branches of the big conifer. I can see the wind’s effects but not the wind itself. Similarly, when I work through the structure some great stories, I can identify parts as contributing to the plot, sense or tone of the story. But this does not help me pin down the magic of the whole. A magic that defies logic but seems right and satisfying.

Here are some different takes on writing and the unconscious, from Dorothea Brande, Stephen King and Diane Setterfield.

Dorothea Brande: Find your personal type-story

One of the first modern writers to explain the link between writing and the unconscious was Dorothea Brande, in her 1934 book, Becoming a Writer: The classic inspirational guide.

She thinks writers can mine their ‘rich unconscious’ to open deeply hidden ‘treasures of memory, emotions, incidents/scenes, characters and relationships.’ But it’s not simply a matter of tapping into the unconscious and letting its images and ideas flow into a story.

Once writers link to their unconscious, they must activate their conscious mind, putting it to work assessing whatever the unconscious throws up to it. The conscious mind’s job is to edit–’control, combine and discriminate’ –the materials from the unconscious. Particularly, it must think about potential readers, selecting the material that seem ‘universal’ and rejecting what may be so ‘personal or idiosyncratic’ that readers would not make the same connections.

Brande also believes that a writer’s unconscious ‘sees things in types’. The unconscious holds each writer’s ‘type-story’, that writer’s sense of what seems worth writing about. In linguistics, we talk about language having a surface structure and a deep structure. Brande seems to be talking about something similar for stories.

A writer’s type-story keeps all of his or her individual stories ‘fundamentally alike’ on a deeper level. Th individual stories differ only in the details, the surface features. A story’s surface structure comprises all the variations of character, setting, etc. Its deep structure is the outcome of a writer’s conscious, plus from the unconscious, his or her deep-seated and perhaps unarticulated views of the world, society and human nature.

Because this deep structure establishes what is worth writing about, Brande is against ‘how-to’ books about plots. She thinks that to work, a plot must be ‘congenial’ to a writer, that is, it must connect with the type-story in the writer’s unconscious.

Perhaps that is why you cannot always take someone’s suggestions for a story. If the suggestion doesn’t fit your unconscious story-type, it may not ‘speak’ to you as something worth writing about. The idea of type-story also explains why come books on writing don’t appeal. It may be a case of the author’s sense of type-story being quite dissimilar to your own.

Stephen King: Tap into your far-seeing place

Stephen King, in his book On Writing, talks about connecting to the unconscious. He describes a writer’s mind as having two parts, like the structure of a house. The ‘up top’ part, the conscious, contains the ‘surface things’ of life, i.e., the knowledge of everyday life, which we draw on to survive.

The other part is the unconscious. He calls this the ‘basement place’ or ‘far-seeing place’, that he’s built for himself over the years. It is the place where he takes himself to ‘receive telepathic messages’. The interesting point here is that this connection to the unconscious is something you need to build, like any skill. How? Some writers suggest writing every day. Others suggest freewriting, to let ideas and associations merge in illogical but creative ways.

In his famous novel, Misery, King shows us how this ‘far-seeing place’ works. Paul, a successful writer, is being held captive by one of his fans, Annie. Annie forces him to write a new novel. Despite being scared and injured, Paul finds that his unconscious helps him produce the required work. King describes Paul’s unconscious the ‘guys in the sweatshop’. When Paul can’t think of what to write next, he sends the problem down to the guys. They work on it and eventually send ideas back up to his conscious mind.

What a great image about how our minds work. Sometimes I finish what I think is a final draft. The next morning, my own ‘sweatshop’ workers have come up with something to include or change. I have a similar experience with crossword puzzles. An impossible clue frustrates, but later the correct answer snakes out from somewhere.

Diane Setterfield: Compost your ideas for creative results

In her novel, The Thirteenth Tale, Diane Setterfield describes how a writer’s unconscious can store and change experiences. Her novel concerns two women: Vida Winter, a famous and elderly novelist, and Margaret Lea, a young biographer. Margaret hesitates to write Vida’s biography because Vida has given so many different accounts of her life over her long career. Margaret wants the facts, the truth.

Vida explains that she’s kept much of her life secret in order to feed her unconscious:

Life is compost….All my life and all my experience, the events that have befallen me, the people I have known, all my memories, dreams, fantasies, everything I have ever read, all of that has been chucked onto the compost heap where over time it has rotted down to a dark, rich, organic mulch. The process of cellular breakdown makes it unrecognizable . . . . . Every so often, I take an idea, plant it in the compost, and wait. It feeds on that black stuff that used to be a life, takes its energy for its own. It germinates. Takes root. Produces shoots. And so on and so forth, until one fine day I have a story, or a novel. . . .The writer’s life needs time to rot away before it can be used to nourish a work of fiction. It must be allowed to decay.

I enjoy reading how writers explain their use and understanding of the unconscious. As a reader, I sometimes feel that I come close to the edge of the author’s unconscious. Such works are powerful, in a moving and sometimes disturbing way. They are impossible to skim because their meaning does not lie on the surface. And it does not always work to dissect such a story, to search for the heart of its mystery. You may as well try to catch the wind.

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