This is a guest post by author Michael Sussman
Writing From Your Subconscious Mind
I believe that the key to writing compelling fiction is allowing your subconscious mind to lead the way.
This is not to denigrate the conscious mind. It’s a critical component of the writing process, especially once you’ve completed a first draft and begun reworking and polishing your manuscript.
But I have found that when it comes to generating that first draft, it pays to let your conscious mind take a backseat and grant the subterranean realms of your mind full sway. Rather than write what you know, as beginning writers are so often advised, by tapping into your subconscious mind you can write what you need to know.
My favorite quote on this issue is from Pulitzer Prize-winning author, Robert Olen Butler: “Please get out of the habit of saying that you’ve got an idea for a short story. Art does not come from ideas. Art does not come from the mind. Art comes from the place where you dream. Art comes from your unconscious; it comes from the white-hot center of you.”
So how do you access the subconscious realms of your psyche? For some, this comes naturally. Others, like me, must coax the muse out of hiding. This is best done, in my experience, by entering the twilight state between waking and dreaming, also called the hypnogogic state, which can act as a bridge to the unconscious.
Try writing first thing in the morning, before you are fully awake. Or late at night, when your defenses are down and sleep beckons. Walking, jogging, communing with Nature, taking a hot bath, dimming the lights, daydreaming, visualization of scenes as if watching a movie, self-hypnosis, and meditation can all help. So can writing down your dreams or practicing lucid dreaming.
Try your hand at so-called free writing: Write as quickly as you can, stream-of-consciousness style, without pausing to think or going back to edit. Pay no attention to grammar, spelling, or any of the usual things your conscious mind worries about when you write. You can even dispense with punctuation altogether, writing a complete chapter as a single sentence.
I typically begin a writing project with an image, or even a title, and let my mind play around with it. Many writers prefer to work from an outline that includes the ending, but I find that structure too constricting. I like to let my imagination take flight, trusting that a good story will emerge. I often start a new chapter with little or no idea where the story is heading next. This approach keeps me on the edge of my seat, as if I were the reader!
Some folks fear this apparent loss of control over the writing process, and worry that they will get lost and never complete the draft. In my experience, if you take the leap of faith and trust your creative imagination, it will deliver the goods. In the words of E.L. Doctorow, author of Ragtime and Billy Bathgate: “Writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”
Another common apprehension is that writing from the subconscious will unleash one’s inner demons. It’s true that distressing bits may emerge. But such material will add emotional depth and richness to your story, and you can always disguise or discard portions of the text during the editing process.
So, when working on a first draft, try to let your writing flow, unimpeded by conscious judgment or analysis. You’ll write a deeper, more genuine story if you allow your subconscious mind to guide the way.