I was reading an essay on the poet, Mark Strand, in which he says, “I am always thinking in the back of my mind, there’s something always going on back there. I am always working, even if it’s sort of unconsciously, even though I’m carrying on conversations with people and doing other things, somewhere in the back of my mind I’m writing, mulling over. And another part of my mind is reviewing what I’ve done.”

This reminded me of the topic of the sub-conscious mind which inevitably comes up any time I teach a class on writing.

A student or client or fellow writer will say, “I don’t know where this came from, but…” or they will say, “I couldn’t figure out how to say this one thing, but then…”

Sometimes, the topic will present itself as a question: “I’m struggling with this part of my writing, how can I ever get past this part?” (An example of this: “I’m struggling with making this character more real. Nothing I do seems to bring her alive. How can I ever make this story good, if the main character is so dull.”)

I am a big believer that our minds are constantly at work to sort out the creative questions we have presented ourselves.

Sure, I believe some people are more adept at working out these creative quandaries than others of us. And I know that every individual’s mind works out these questions in their own unique and creative way, but I am convinced that there is something big going on “behind the scenes” of our writing and creative life, and I think when we are aware of it, we can harness that “behind the scenes” power and get the best use out of it. Just as Mark Strand says in the quote above, we can be doing other things, but our mind is still working on solving the puzzle of our short story, essay, novel, screenplay, or painting.

The sub-conscious mind is working behind the scenes to inspire and inform your creative endeavors.
The sub-conscious mind is working behind the scenes to inspire and inform your creative endeavors.

With that in mind (literally and sub-consciously) let me tell you the six things I believe to be true, and how they impact my writing life.

  1.  The mind is always working on my creative tasks. That means, even when I take a break, or go for a drive, or sleep, my sub-conscious mind is playing with the particulars of the story or essay I am working on, turning the words over and over, expanding and contracting the ideas, and generally putting the story to the test. This is why I often say, “I don’t usually know what a story is really about until at least 2/3 of the way into it. Sometimes not until the first or second draft is done.” I know I have a story to write, and I know some of the particulars, but it often takes me a long time to sort out all the details. My sub-conscious mind continues to work on the meaning of the work, and find ways to execute that meaning, even when I am not specifically sitting at my desk, writing that specific story.
  2. I am constantly trying to feed my mind so that it has something to work with. Junk in, junk out. Quality in, quality out. It’s really that simple. That doesn’t mean I only and always read/watch/consume a high quality media diet, but it DOES mean that I try to be conscious of every media consumption decision I make, and strive to keep my mind more occupied with quality input than with garbage. Like anyone else, I have guilty pleasures and “brainless” entertainments that I enjoy. But I am also actively pursuing new, quality information, all the time. I am looking for articles, blogs, podcasts, magazines, books, television, and movies that will stimulate and enhance my own knowledge of the world, of people, of places, and of the wide range of human experience. I look for things that will increase my knowledge or understanding. I seek out beauty. These are the things I want to have available to my sub-conscious mind. These are the things I hope will trigger connections and deepen the work I am doing.
  3. The mind will develop things outside of my own experience. If my fiction writing were confined to only the experiences and knowledge of the world I have personally endured, I wouldn’t have many stories to tell. But the creative mind is able to help us develop, expose, and even explain things outside of our own experience. Because our sub-conscious mind is constantly tumbling together different bits and pieces of reality, we are able to create something that is both made up, and true. Even in non-fiction, we are putting the puzzle together in a way that is not exactly the thing that happened (how could it be? these are only words, not “real” things!!) but is, in its own way, something substantial and real. This is the mystery of art and creativity. I was thinking about this, just last week, in relation to two characters in a current work in progress. These two characters exhibit characteristics, experiences, dialogue, settings, and details of at least a dozen people I either know, or have knowledge of. This sort of mixing is not something I do consciously, but it is how my characters take shape.
  4. The mind will also take suggestions. This is where we start to learn to manipulate the process. Early on, I wrote whatever came to me. I wrote whatever the sub-conscious mind threw my way. I was enamored with the idea of the fickle Muse. But over the years, I’ve learned that I can exert some control over the direction and emphasis of the sub-conscious mind., sort of like the non-rowing passenger in a canoe can influence the direction of progress by dipping a hand in the water on one side of the boat or the other. I can prime the pump, so to speak, in two ways. First, as mentioned above, I can control the input flow in such a way that I can steer the craft a little more in one direction or the other. Second, I can simply write down or speak to my sub-conscious. “I really need to figure out how to solve the problem of this scene,” or, “I know there is a connection between these two ideas, but I am not yet able to articulate it.” I say these things out loud. I write them down. I journal about the struggle, and the open questions, and then I give it over to the subconscious to help me solve it.
  5. Planned and incremental distraction is a necessary component. It might be easier to think of it this way: the sub-conscious mind only has time and freedom to work when we step away from the conscious acts of planning, writing, and revising our work. When we are active in our work, we are open to the sub-conscious insertion of a new word, phrase, situation, or detail that will help it all make more sense, but if we aren’t sometimes stopping to rest the willful actions, we aren’t giving the brain time to ruminate and stew. Go for a walk. Listen to a favorite concerto. Take a drive. Have a cup of coffee. Take a break. Call a friend or play fetch with the dog. Meditate. Pray. Nap. Let your conscious mind wander from the work, on a regular basis. Personally, I try to take a break every 50 minutes or so, when I’m actively working on a project. I go think of something else for 5 or 10 minutes, then come back to the work. But, don’t take this as a recommendation to get lazy, because the advice to stop and let go occasionally is quickly followed by…
  6. The mind will get backed up, and stop responding, if I don’t sit down and do the work I need to make room for more. One of the biggest keys to keeping that flow going is to keep at the writing. If I don’t give the sub-conscious mind a chance to inform and influence my actual writing, then it will back up and eventually stop doing the work. What would be the point, really, of turning all of these ideas and thoughts over like a rock in a polisher if they aren’t ever to be used? For me, anyway, it is when I sit down and put pen to paper that the words begin to reveal what’s really been going on, behind the scenes.

I hope those thoughts and ideas give you something to ponder in relation to your own writing life.

Until next time, happy writing.

Oh, physician, heal thyself!! I had been at work on this piece for over an hour, and I couldn’t figure out why I was hitting a bit of a wall in my enthusiasm for it. “Take a break,” I told myself. Sometimes, I write these posts as reminders to myself, as much as I write them for you…

Creativity and the Sub-conscious Mind