Category: Books on Writing

Dip Up the Fire!

“The writer of originality, unless dead, is always shocking, scandalous; novelty disturbs and repels.”
— Simone de Beauvoir

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Why did you become a writer?

My own reasons for writing have evolved over the years. I knew I wanted to write stories from the time I was nine years old. A writer, it is said, is a reader moved to emulation. That was me. I wanted to write the kinds of stories I liked to read, and to entertain others the way those stories entertained me.

There’s nothing wrong with writing purely to entertain. But somewhere along the way to adulthood, I discovered that stories do so much more than merely entertain. As Harlan Ellison observed in Slippage:

“Entertain, yes! That goes without saying. But a good writer does that automatically, it’s built into the machine. Telling a thumpingly good, mesmerizing story is what one does without question. But beyond that, any writer worth his/her hire knows that all writing, one way or another, is subversive. It is guerrilla warfare against the status quo.”

Ellison expanded on the idea of writing as guerilla warfare in his story collection Shatterday,

“I don’t know how you perceive my mission as a writer, but for me it is not a responsibility to reaffirm your concretized myths and provincial prejudices. It is not my job to lull you with a false sense of the rightness of the universe. This wonderful and terrible occupation of recreating the world in a different way, each time fresh and strange, is an act of revolutionary guerrilla warfare. I stir the soup. I inconvenience you. I make your nose run and your eyeballs water. I spend my life and of miles of visceral material in a glorious and painful series of midnight raids against complacency. It is my lot to wake up with anger every morning, to lie down at night even angrier.”

When you write, do you inconvenience anyone? Is your writing an act of guerrilla warfare? I’m not saying you should intentionally preach sermons through your fiction. A story should be a story, not propaganda. If you pollute your fiction with heavy-handed preaching, you obliterate its artistic and moral integrity. “The theme must be deeply submerged in the story,” novelist Elizabeth Bowen warned. “If a theme or idea is too near the surface, the novel becomes simply a tract illustrating an idea.”

The unconscious mind does not lie. If you draw upon the power of your unconscious mind to write your story, if you dig deep within yourself and write about characters and situations that engage your emotions and passions, your story will be honest — and it will possess layers of meaning that you may not even realize. Your story will come alive as literature, verging on myth.

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The writer’s unconscious mind always reveals more truth than the writer suspects. As Madeleine L’Engle reflected in Walking on Water, “It is a humbling and exciting thing to know that my work knows more than I do. … Sometimes it is years after a book is published that I discover what some of it meant.”

When you write from the unconscious mind, you write stories that entertain — and that resonate deep within the reader. You write honestly. You write about things that matter. You write about universal truths — deep truths you share with your readers. Again, Harlan Ellison:

“I talk about the things people have always talked about in stories: pain, hate, truth, courage, destiny, friendship, responsibility, growing old, growing up, falling in love, all of these things. What I try to write about are the darkest things in the soul, the mortal dreads. I try to go into those places in me that contain the cauldrous. I want to dip up the fire, and I want to put it on paper. The closer I get to the burning core of my being, the things which are most painful to me, the better is my work.”

Write to entertain. Tell a story, don’t preach. But summon your stories from the volcanic core of your being. Reach down into the cauldrous unconscious, dip up the fire, and put it on paper. You’ll find that the truth within you burns brighter than the sun.

“It’s not worth doing something unless you are doing something that someone, somewhere, would much rather you weren’t doing.”
— Terry Pratchett

Jim Denney has written more than 100 books for a variety of publishers including Simon & Schuster, St. Martin’s Press, McGraw-Hill, Thomas Nelson Publishers, Baker Books, Humanix, and many more. He is 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). For more writing insight and inspiration, read:

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

Writing in Overdrive: Write Faster, Write Freely, Write Brilliantly by Jim Denney

Write Fearlessly! Conquer Fear, Eliminate Self-Doubt, Write with Confidence by Jim Denney 

Copyright 2016 by Jim Denney.

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.

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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.