Collaborating with the Unconscious Mind

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by Jim Denney

In Creating Short Fiction, science fiction writer-editor Damon Knight describes how to get your analytical Conscious Mind to work in sync with your creative Unconscious Mind (which I call “the Muse,” and which Knight calls “Fred”):


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Your mind comes in two parts, the conscious part and the other one. Never mind where they are located in the brain. One may be in the right hemisphere and the other in the left (but I don’t think so), or one may be in the frontal lobes and the other in the hindbrain. (I don’t think that’s right, either, although what it feels like to me is that the conscious, accessible part of my mind is in front and the other part in the back.)

“Unconscious” is a lousy term, by the way. . . . I prefer to call it “Fred.” . . .

When you think about a creative problem, or even when you think something as simple as “I wish I had an idea for a story,” you are sending a message to Fred. The return message may be in the form of a sudden realization, or an image, or some tantalizing ghost of an idea. It may come weeks or months later. . . .

Fred will respond to your ideas pretty much the way you respond to the ideas you get from him: either a kind of dull, empty feeling, which means “No,” or else an excitement, an electric tingle, that means “Yes, yes!” . . .

To be productive, Fred needs a lot of stimulating input—odd facts or fancies to knock together, insights, specimens, interesting data of all kinds. . . . Critics talk about “the well of inspiration,” and they say that the well sometimes runs dry. What this means, in my opinion, is either that the author is feeling the lack of stimulating input, or that she has not given Fred time enough to think about the problem. Trying to force this process is a mistake. . . .

Beware of flashes of inspiration you get in dreams or in the half-waking state. Your censor is asleep then, and these ideas may seem absolutely brilliant until you try to put them into practice. Nevertheless, dreaming is good for some reason that I haven’t figured out yet, and sleep is good because it makes the conscious mind shut up and gives Fred a chance to think. Drop an unsolved or half-solved problem in before bedtime; in the morning, chances are, you will see it in a different light.1


Ursula K. Le Guin has a similar view of the Conscious-Unconscious collaborative process. “All I seek when writing,” she said, “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 an ability we all have, though few of us realize 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.” Our goal as writers is to harmonize both regions of our being—the Conscious and the Unconscious—in a productive and creative collaboration.

We tend to think of Damon Knight’s “Fred,” the Unconscious Mind, as a nebulous, irrational part of us, hidden and submerged somewhere underneath our real personality. But the Unconscious is, in many ways, actually more powerful than the Conscious Mind, especially when it comes to the creative process, the writing process. The Unconscious is wild, uninhibited, and exuberant, so it is the Unconscious that breathes life, energy, and emotion into our work.

Once we learn to marry the raw creative power of the Unconscious to the critical, analytical reasoning of the Conscious, our best work will come blazing forth, white-hot with energy, ready to dazzle editors, reviewers, and readers alike. That is the kind of uninhibited creativity that drives great fiction — and great fiction-writing careers.

  1. Damon Knight, Creating Short Fiction, Third Edition (New York: St. Martin’s, 1997), 23-26.

For more insight into how to tap into the uninhibited creative power of the Unconscious Mind, read Writing in Overdrive: Write Faster, Write Freely, Write Brilliantly by Jim Denney [Kindle Edition available at Amazon.com for $3.99] [Print edition available at Amazon.com for $7.75]

Jim Denney has written more than 100 books for a variety of publishers. He’s the author of the four-book Timebenders science fantasy series for young readers, and is a member of Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA).

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