The Unconscious Writer

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Excerpted from Muse of Fire: 90 Days of Inspiration for Writers by Jim Denney.

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John Steinbeck (pictured above), in a 1962 letter to an aspiring writer, said, “Write freely and as rapidly as possible and throw the whole thing on paper. Never correct or rewrite until the whole thing is down.” He added that halting one’s forward progress to edit and polish during the first draft phase is usually just “an excuse for not going on. It also interferes with flow and rhythm which can only come from a kind of unconscious association with the material.”

When you are first drafting (or “fast drafting,” as my friend Michelle Weidenbenner says), always move forward, never look back. By writing freely, quickly, and without inhibitions, you tap into the engine of imagination — the unconscious mind.

Ursula Le Guin describes her writing process as “a pure trance state. … All I seek when writing is to allow my unconscious mind to control the course of the story, using rational thought only to reality check when revising.”

In Becoming a Writer, Dorothea Brande talks about a creative faculty we all possess, though few of us are fully aware of it: “The higher imagination, you may call it; your own endowment of genius, great or small; the creative aspect of your mind, which is lodged almost entirely in the unconscious.”

Brande says we should call this the UN-conscious mind, not the SUB-conscious mind, because “sub-” suggests that which is lower and inferior. Far from being inferior to the conscious mind, she says, the unconscious “has a reach as far above our average intellect as it has depths below. … The unconscious must be trusted to bring you aid from a higher level than that on which you ordinarily function.” In fact, she says, “the root of genius is in the unconscious, not the conscious, mind.”

One of Dorothea Brande’s most famous disciples, Ray Bradbury, often said that conscious thought disrupts the creative process, and true creativity springs from the Muse, the unconscious mind. In a 1975 speech, he said, “I have had a sign by my typewriter for the better part of twenty years now which says, ‘Don’t think.’ I hate all those signs that say ‘Think.’ … Emotion, emotion wins the day. Intellect can help correct. But emotion, first, surprises creativity out in the open where it can be pinned down.”

Novelist Marcia Golub calls unconscious creativity the “daydreaming-on-paper state” — and she says it’s the true “high” of writing. “I daydream very intensely,” she says, admitting she didn’t realize how intensely she daydreams until she noticed her husband watching her and asking, “Who are you talking to?” She wasn’t aware that she was acting out her daydreams, because she was in a state of unconscious creativity. She was “in the zone.”

Golub recalls, “Soon after my husband and I started living together, he learned to make noise before coming into my writing space. He learned to do this because if he didn’t, I would get startled and scream. That would startle him and he would scream. It was Night of the Living Dead meets Edvard Munch till we worked things out.”

What is the unconscious mind? Where in the brain is it located? Is it in the right brain or the murky region of the limbic system? Is the unconscious, creative mind the result of the synergistic functioning of many regions of the brain working together? Or does the function of the unconscious mind extend beyond the boundaries of the brain? Is it a creative activity of the immortal human spirit — a human reflection of the creativity of God?

I don’t know. No one knows. The term “unconscious mind” is a convenient label for a phenomenon we cannot explain. We don’t need to know where it is located or how it works. We only need to know that the unconscious is the key to unlocking our creative powers.

________________________

Condensed from “Reading No. 22: The Unconscious Writer”
in Muse of Fire: 90 Days of Inspiration for Writers by Jim Denney.

Muse of Fire consists of 90 readings, plus three bonus readings and an epilogue — three solid months and 90,000 words of pure, distilled motivation and inspiration for just $3.99. Each reading is from three to five pages long — just the right length to help you feel empowered to begin your next writing session with energy and enthusiasm.

2 thoughts on “The Unconscious Writer

  1. Thanks for the mention, Jim! I’m in the throes of a fast draft right now for NaNo. It’s fun to let go and fly through the story without any inhibitions. Your book will help me tap into my FREE mind where all negative thoughts and doubts disappear. I hope I dream of the next part in my novel, too. My dreams tend to be far more creative. Keep writing! Thanks again.

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