Tag: Unconscious

Bob Dylan: Songwriter in Overdrive

by Jim Denney

I was as shocked as anyone when I heard that Bob Dylan had been awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature on October 13, 2016:

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The Swedish Academy’s announcement of Bob Dylan’s Nobel Prize for Literature.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m a Bob Dylan fan. Have been since I first heard his music. For more than fifty years, he’s had more influence on American music and culture than anyone else I can think of. Songs like “Blowin’ in the Wind,” “The Times They Are a-Changin’,” “Subterranean Homesick Blues,” and “When the Ship Comes In” — that’s the soundtrack of my adolescence, when I first began thinking seriously about the Bomb and Vietnam.

But the Nobel Prize for Literature? Come on!

The Swedish Academy claimed to have given Dylan the award “for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition.” There are already enough awards for music, and Dylan has won them all. But again I ask — Literature?

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Bob Dylan at the Civil Rights March on Washington in 1963. Photo by Rowland Scherman, the National Archives (public domain).

There’s an unambiguous definition of “literature” — “a body of written works.” Literature is work that is written to be read. Music is work that is written to be listened to. One of the most essential truths of literature is that words have meaning, words are important. And the word literature shouldn’t be misused.

Music ain’t literature. The Nobel Prize has jumped the shark.

Yet there are parallels between the creative process that produces literature and the creative process that produces music. We can learn some useful principles for writing stories and novels by listening to this Nobel-winning folk-blues troubadour, Bob Dylan.

It turns out that Dylan wrote songs in very much the same way writers like John Steinbeck and Stephen King wrote novels, and the same way Ray Bradbury and Anton Chekhov wrote short stories. He silenced his inner critic, wrote from the unconscious mind, and wrote quickly, without thinking or critiquing what he wrote. When Dylan wrote songs, he was writing in overdrive. As a songwriter, he compared himself to story writer Edgar Allan Poe and poet John Keats.

He once told an interviewer, “It’s nice to be able to put yourself in an environment where you can completely accept all the unconscious stuff that comes to you from your inner workings of your mind. And block yourself off to where you can control it all, take it down. . . . Edgar Allan Poe must have done that. People who are dedicated writers.”

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How did Dylan tap into those unconscious inner workings? He says our unconscious mind contains both thoughts and memories, some good, some evil, and both the good and the evil bubble up from the unconscious as grist for the creative process. As we create, we sort through out all this unconscious raw material, and we sift out the evil thoughts (which he calls “baggage”) and we distill the good memories and ideas into the creative process. “You must get rid of all that baggage,” he said. “It’s important to get rid of all them thoughts.” [Source: Jonathan Cott, editor, Bob Dylan: The Essential Interviews (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2017), 393.]

Once the unconscious creative mind has given up its random contents, the conscious and rational critic-editor within us conducts “some kind of surveillance” of the good thoughts that remain. The rational mind sorts through the chaos and disorder that the unconscious mind has produced, imposing an orderly structure on ideas, words, images, and symbols thrown off by the creative explosion of the unconscious mind. In Dylan’s songwriting, it all happens very quickly, just as a story is written quickly when the author is writing in overdrive.

Dylan told an interviewer, “The best songs to me — my best songs — are songs which were written very quickly. Yeah, very, very quickly. Just about as much time as it takes to write it down is about as long as it takes to write it. . . . You can still stay in the unconscious frame of mind to pull it off, which is the state of mind you have to be in anyway.” [Source: Benjamin Hedin, Studio A: The Bob Dylan Reader (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2004), 213, 215.]

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John Keats, portrait by Joseph Severn (detail), National Portrait Gallery. Public domain.

He recalled that he wrote the song “Every Grain of Sand” while in a transcendent state — not a drug-induced state, but a state of being in touch with his unconscious mind, the state I call “writing in overdrive.” Dylan added, “Yeah. In that area where Keats is. Yeah. That’s a good poem set to music.”

Dylan’s reference to the English Romantic poet John Keats (1795-1821) is significant. Keats created from the unconscious. He summoned powerful word-pictures from his unconscious mind while in a state of overdrive. In a letter to his friend Benjamin Bailey, November 22, 1817, he wrote, “O for a life of Sensations rather than of Thoughts!” And in a letter to his younger brothers George and Thomas Keats, December 22, 1817, he describe a quality “which Shakespeare possessed so enormously — I mean negative capability, that is, when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.”

This “negative capability” Keats wrote of, the ability to immerse oneself in sensations and uncertainties and mysteries, was the same creative process Bob Dylan practiced. It’s a process Ray Bradbury reminded himself of when he hung a sign next to his typewriter that read, “Don’t think!” The unconscious mind doesn’t think. The writer-in-overdrive doesn’t think. Our creative unconscious mind dreams, feels, imagines, free-associates, and throws off a brilliant shower of sparks composed of ideas and sensory impressions.

That’s what Bob Dylan is saying to you and me as writers: Stop thinking. Write unconsciously. Turn off your mind, listen to your unconscious, and write a song, a story, a novel, a play. And who knows? Maybe the next time your phone rings, it will be the Swedish Academy inviting you to Sweden to accept your Nobel Prize for Literature.

Hey, it happened to Dylan. It could happen to you.


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Discover the uninhibited creative power to write faster and more brilliantly than ever before. Read Writing in Overdrive: Write Faster, Write Freely, Write Brilliantly by Jim Denney, Kindle edition $3.99. [Trade paperback edition $7.75]

MuseOfFire-Medium350x550And for a 90-day supply of inspirational and motivational writing insight, read Muse of Fire: 90 Days of Inspiration for Writers by Jim Denney, Kindle edition $2.99. [Trade paperback edition $14.95]

Discover how to conquer the eight most common writing fears. Read cover-1writefearlesslyjdWrite Fearlessly! Conquer Fear, Eliminate Self-Doubt, Write with Confidence by Jim Denney, Kindle edition $3.99. [Trade paperback edition $7.99.]

These books are designed to motivate you, get you writing with confidence and enthusiasm, and propel you toward your goals and dreams.

Writing: The Marriage of Conscious and Unconscious

“You don’t want to think when you’re writing. You want to stop thinking and just go on inspiration.” —Garth Stein

Gregory Benford is an astrophysicist and a science fiction writer. He is best known for his Galactic Center Saga, beginning with In the Ocean of Night (1977). Benford says that, though he is a rational scientist, he relies heavily on unconscious intuition when writing fiction. When he began writing In the Ocean of Night in the summer of 1975, he followed an unconscious, unplanned process that, he said, unfolded as “a series of revelations.”

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Gregory Benford

Benford had written his way to the midpoint of the novel when a stunning plot twist came to him out of the blue — a shocking surprise that was exactly what he needed at that point in the story. It was brilliant — and completely unforeseen. As Benford pondered the plot twist, he realized he had unknowingly planted clues throughout the first half of the book. The plot twist would be absolutely fitting and would play fair with the reader by being set up beforehand — yet the reader would not see it coming any more than Benford had.

How had he managed to plant those clues when he wasn’t even conscious of where the clues were leading him? Answer: Benford’s unconscious mind knew all along. But he had to write half the novel in order for his conscious mind to catch up to what his unconscious mind already knew.

“It was that kind of assembly work,” he later said, “in which you slowly understand what is going on. . . . This seems to be the way that I have to write books. It takes a long time to put together the ideas and figure out what it means.”

As we learn to rely on the power of the unconscious mind, we discover a completely new way of imagining, creating, and writing. Our stories, scenes, dialogue, and emotions spill forth with compelling energy from the depths of the uninhibited, unconscious mind.

 This doesn’t mean the conscious mind — the intellect — is unimportant. The conscious mind is the critical and analytical part of us, not the creative part. Creativity springs from the Muse. To write truthful and compelling fiction, we must understand the role of the unconscious mind — and allow the unconscious to drive the process.

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Don’t try to analyze what the unconscious mind is doing. “The unconscious more than anything hates being dragged into public,” observed science-fantasy writer C. L. Moore, adding that the unconscious “can’t work under the inspection of the conscious mind.”

Great writers understand that art (as filmmaker Jean Cocteau observed) “is a marriage of the conscious and the unconscious.” Garth Stein, author of The Art of Racing in the Rain, explains how the conscious and unconscious work together. “The trick with writing,” he said, “is that there’s an art to it and there’s a craft to it. The craft of writing is all the stuff that you can learn through school, [going] to workshops and [reading] books. Learn characterization, plot and dialogue and pacing and word choice and point of view. Then there’s also the art of it which is sort of the unknown, the inspiration, the stuff that is noncerebral.”

As you write, don’t think. Fantasize. Daydream. Play with ideas. Let your unconscious mind take control of your story. Let it give life to your characters. Let it plan the hidden twists and turns of your plot.

“The best thing to do is to loosen my grip on my pen and let it go wandering about.” —Machado de Assis


For more insight on how to write faster, write freely, and write brilliantly, read my other books for writers:

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Discover the uninhibited creative power to write faster and more brilliantly than ever before. Read Writing in Overdrive: Write Faster, Write Freely, Write Brilliantly by Jim Denney, Kindle edition $3.99. [Trade paperback edition $7.75]

MuseOfFire-Medium350x550And for a 90-day supply of inspirational and motivational writing insight, read Muse of Fire: 90 Days of Inspiration for Writers by Jim Denney, Kindle edition $2.99. [Trade paperback edition $14.95]

Discover how to conquer the eight most common writing fears. Read cover-1writefearlesslyjdWrite Fearlessly! Conquer Fear, Eliminate Self-Doubt, Write with Confidence by Jim Denney, Kindle edition $3.99. [Trade paperback edition $7.99.]

These books are designed to motivate you, get you writing with confidence and enthusiasm, and propel you toward your goals and dreams.

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. . . . 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. . . . 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. . . .

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).

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.