The Human Condition:

Working With the Subconscious – September 30, 2012

The strange thing about the writing craft is that the book you planned to write is almost never the book you end up writing. It usually has the same premise and sometimes the same general shape as the original outline. Bits of action and dialogue from the original conception might show up. But the book itself will be different. Sometimes it’s a surprise and—hopefully, prayerfully—better than you expected. Sometimes it’s a disappointment, with not as much story there as you originally thought.

I can’t think of any other endeavor where plan and outcome are so tenuously linked. Imagine an architect who sketches and drafts the plans for a cathedral, only to find it turning into a shopping mall after the bulldozers start scraping the ground and the contractors start pouring concrete. And the writer doesn’t even have the excuse of incompetent and obtuse collaborators and contractors who spoiled the original conception. It’s all happening within the confines of the writer’s head,1 so what went wrong?

Starting a book, or a painting, or a symphony, is like starting a journey. You plan the route, you buy the tickets, you make reservations … and then the weather closes in, or the car breaks down, the airplane gets diverted, or the Department of Transportation shunts you off on a detour—and you end up taking another trip entirely.2 But in any creative endeavor, who or what is this active Agent X, who throws a monkey wrench into the plans?

For me, and I expect for a lot of writers and other artists, it’s the subconscious.

None of us—not even non-artists, who are simply trying to go to work, put in their eight hours, do the grocery shopping, and go home—lives entirely on the surface of our brains. This is the active part of our mind, the conscious part, which receives moment-by-moment stimuli from sight and sound, taste and touch, reacts to what’s going on around us, answers questions, makes plans and lists, arranges dental appointments, reads books and watches movies, and then chats about them afterward. But lurking under all this conscious activity is another part of our mind that absorbs, interprets, reacts silently, “noodles” about what’s going on, and tosses out its own opinion sometime later.

Although I haven’t studied the neurosciences in any detail, I believe much of this subconscious activity has to do with the way our brains process both received stimuli and conscious thoughts into memories. Dreams are apparently a spinoff of this process, if not a direct component of it. So too are those notions that occur to you, just pop into your head, and all too often serve to answer a question or provide a coda to a thought that confronted you a few hours or days ago. “Oh, I should have said …” “But the right answer really is …” “What I actually feel about that is …”

I have discovered in the workings of my own mind a kind of timing mechanism for these mental regurgitations. If I listen to a piece of music—either by choice of what I put through my earphones, or at random from an environment filled with movie music and snatches on the radio—I might hum the tune for a few minutes, and then it will quickly disappear. But sometimes it will reappear between two and four days later.3 This does not happen with every piece of music I hear, nor only with pieces that I greatly appreciated at the time. Just suddenly I’ll find myself hearing in my head, or humming, or imagining a theme (usually with full orchestration) and wonder where I’ve heard that before. And when I stop to think, I’ll usually be able to identify the earlier occurrence. To me, this lag time represents the music or theme sinking from the surface level, going down and being deposited somewhere in the neurons, where it’s spun around, reprocessed, deconstructed and reconstructed, or whatever the subconscious does, and then it floats back up to the surface. The activity is like dropping a dye marker at the end of the dock and having it eventually show up somewhere else along the shore.

What happens to music also happens to the themes, intentions, and characters which, in their complex interactions, make up the story of an intended book. However, the music I’ve heard with my ears already has the characteristics of a set melody, fixed relationship among the chords, and firm intention of an external composer. The music is more enduring, more like a hard bit of bone or shell, and survives the subconscious process almost intact. On the other hand, my own thoughts, imaginings, and story structures, being more malleable and less frozen in time, will morph and change, become something new, and aggregate other thoughts and memories during the trip down to the basement and back up to the living room.

I have always relied on this subconscious process in my writing. I do not know how—cannot even conceive how—to sit down and think out a complete story with my conscious mind. There may be some writers who can do it, and God speed to them. I imagine they must be following some sort of formula for assembling known and identified parts: take a plot structure of Forbidden Love and mix in some Mistaken Identity, as in Romeo and Juliet; add the characters of the Shy Boy and the Headstrong Girl, like those old Andy Rooney movies; set the action in London, where the author has snapshots from a recent trip and a good collection of guide books; start cranking out dialogue and description appropriate to the action. … It may work for some writers.

My method of writing—no, my method for even coming up with an outline—is a lot slower and more painful. First, I get a sudden feeling for a type of story, or a major plot twist, or a certain aspect of character. I sit down and, in a “book notes” document in a folder on the computer, try to describe the thought as completely as possible, adding anything that occurs at the point of writing it down. Then I have to go off and see if the seed germinates, if anything sprouts. Some days—or weeks, months, even years—later something will occur to me, and I’ll open the document and add it. Then I’ll repeat the additions as they occur. The book is still a swirling cloud of thoughts and impressions at this point.

Second, when my head and the notes document have enough pieces and parts adhering to this book idea, I will sit down and try to define the beginning and end points of action, applying logic and thought to bridging them, defining interactions, bits of dialogue, characters’ thoughts and reactions. This goes on, along with attempts at a few sample scenes, until the structure of the book is sixty to ninety percent in place.4 Usually the outlining process goes front to back, but sometimes there will be retrograde outlining, along the pattern of “if that is going to happen, then this, that, and the other must happen first.”

Third, once I have that outline in place and written down, I begin the actual writing—what I call “production writing.” This is when I sit down and visualize the story, hear the dialogue, watch the action unfold, and type, type, polish, correct, nudge in this or that direction, and type, type—all trying to keep up with what’s happening in my mind.5 It’s this act of production writing that either proves the soundness of the tentative outline or raises questions, hits a snag, pulls out the rug, and reveals a chasm that needs bridgework.

Where does this movie that I’m watching while I write, this visualization of action and realization of dialogue, come from? I have to believe it’s from my own subconscious, cued by what I’ve put in the outline but drawing mostly on the months or years that my brain has been what I call “noodling”—soaking, steeping, sampling, digesting, processing, considering without words—the story. Sometimes, I will write one thing in the outline, and the story upon realization will take its own time and direction to get there, or instead go somewhere new and more exciting.6 When I hit a snag or a question, it seldom works for me to try to bull through it like a snowplow charging a drift. I have to stop and give my subconscious time to work on the issues and propose its own solution.7

I’ve often said facetiously that I don’t know what I think about a subject—or even really know about it—until I sit down to write. I will have some vague and half-formed ideas. I also have a kind of internal dipstick with which to sample the well and know if I have enough vague ideas down there to make the effort of writing worthwhile. But until my subconscious has done its work, my conscious brain cannot even start to do its own work.8

Is a story that comes out of this long, involved, and largely hidden mental process superior to one that a writer assembles from a formulaic plot with previously defined characters? I think so—although I try not to judge what might work perfectly well for others. For me, the story that comes bubbling up out of the depths of the subconscious, after suitable pump priming, usually has the ring of emotional truth and logic. It feels right. More importantly, it feels alive. The other kind of stories feel like a species of wind-up toy, what you see is what you get, without any particular emotional depth.

As a clue to the soundness of the subconscious process, I’ve long known that if all my production writing does is simply articulate the idea presented in the outline fragment—if it doesn’t take off and go somewhere measurably different and better than what I thought the story would be when I first sat down—then I’m not doing it right. I’m just winding up the toy. The toy might, through interaction with the subconscious during the outlining process, be a more intricate toy than one can achieve by just following the old formulas. But it will still be inert, untouched by the spark, dead words.

When the subconscious takes over and begins driving the story, it’s like being touched by God or channeling the universe. And that is the wonder, the glory, the deepest satisfaction of being a writer.

1. We’ll exclude here the issue of marketing pressure exerted on the author’s original intent, where an agent or an acquisitions editor says, almost casually, “Yeah, that’s a good first draft, but couldn’t you make the main character a vampire or a zombie? They’re selling really well these days.”

2. Come to think of it, a lot of books and movies follow this plot structure.

3. Having become aware of this process, I’ve started to keep track of the lag time. It seems to be shorter when I’m feeling healthy and longer if I’ve been depressed or under the weather.

4. There may still be gaps. Think of that old cartoon about a physicist writing a long, long equation on a blackboard with a little cloud puff in the middle that says, “And then a miracle occurs.”

5. Usually, the first draft proceeds word by word and line by line, but the actual, detailed flow is more of a back and forth on the paragraph level: write a sentence, add another, go back and test the logic, perhaps make the second sentence a subordinate clause, write a third sentence, write a fourth sentence, test the logic, proceed or restructure, until the ground-level language and logic are solid enough to walk on. Think of the needle flying back and forth to embroider a complex pattern.
       And, as I’ve noted elsewhere, to even begin the process I need what I call a “downbeat”: a starting sense image, a word, a bit of action, or a story precedent. Without that starting point, the little word generator in my head does not begin putt-putting to produce written copy.

6. And then I may have to move quickly and re-adapt the outline to follow this new, more exciting direction. The whole process is one big, confusing—but innately satisfying—interaction between the real words as they are written down and the potential story still to be realized.

7. Sometimes I can force the issue by consciously thinking about the question or problem just before bedtime, repeat as a statement of faith that I will probably come up with the answer by morning, and go to sleep. Usually, the answer, or a nudge in the right direction, will present itself in the middle of the night. That’s why I always keep a pad and pencil on the night table.

8. This is not what others call “writer’s block”—although perhaps writers who get “blocked” do not understand how their own minds work. This is a simple process of letting a complex but hidden intellectual and emotional process reach its fulfillment. I can hurry the process along by opening the notes document at regular intervals, actively engaging my mind with what’s there, and trying to think up a few questions to submit formally to the deeper levels. But until I have that swirling cloud of ideas, no writing will take place. If I do sit down and try to force the issue by writing anyway, I will either be frozen at the keyboard, or I will generate a stream of bad, broken, illogical stuff that only has to be ripped up and mentally expunged. That’s retrograde motion—and not the good sort—although one time in a hundred it might yield a useful insight. But I don’t get superstitious about writer’s block—oh, no, sir, not at all.