Monday 29 October 2012

The Subconscious Storyteller

This is the ideal: blank page, close eyes, start writing.

Sometimes that actually works. Stuff just comes out of somewhere and you know what needs to happen next. Sometimes.

Most times it’s a struggle.

But if we have a part of us that can create the stories we want to tell and can come up with brilliant ideas out of nowhere, why doesn’t the subconscious just produce the goods when we need it to?

The picture most people have of the subconscious as a separate entity that knows all the good stuff is a little misleading. It’s very much a part of you, even if you don’t have access to it all the time.  And what comes out of it is dependent on what you put in.

You need two basic things to be able to pull ideas out of your deep dark places:
1. Fuel in the tank
2. Access

1. Fuel in the tank
As a young person you absorb everything. It’s new, it’s interesting, you engage with it. As you get older, for whatever reason, the brain stops automatically getting fired up about things the way it used to. Toys in cereal don’t hold the same allure (do they still put toys in cereals?)

On one level we are always taking stuff in, processing it and coming up with ideas, feelings, and doubt. Some of it gets lost in the shuffle, some pops up at the weirdest times. And some of it is actually of artistic merit and can be used in writing or any other art form.

But if you want strong, useful, consistently-present ideas to draw from, that general mush won’t be all that helpful. Occasionally it will, mostly it won’t. The key thing is you can’t rely on it and you can’t control it.

If you tell yourself to remember to buy avocado, you’ll come back from the market with everything but. If you write it down you’re more likely to remember, even if you write it down and then leave the piece of paper at home. When you’re actively engaged in taking stuff in, it makes more of an impression. When you’re passively absorbing stuff, it glides over the surface.

Watching television and movies, listening to the radio, these things add to your internal library. But reading a book, watching a movie over and over, these things imprint much harder. Not that you can’t actively engage with music or TV shows, you just don’t have to so mostly you don’t.

Because there are times in life when things do fully engage you, whether you happen to be in the right mood, or marketing and hype have you all excited, or you get caught up in something very good, it can fool you into thinking it’s a natural process you don’t have to concern yourself about. And to some degree it is. But while I don’t want to say you need to study art to be able to integrate it into your subconscious, I do think enthusiasm, focus and motivation (rather than lying on the sofa watching Castle half asleep) make a big difference.

Or you can also just lead a very interesting and exciting life and draw from that (so I’ve heard).

2. Access
Once you have all this stuff rolling around inside you, it helps to be able to draw from the well when you need to. Again, because sometimes this happens without even trying—ideas pop into your head just when you need them—it can make you think the whole process is automatic and you just need to let it happen. We’ve all experienced those moments. But if you keep writing, that manna from heaven becomes less frequent, especially after you use up all the good ideas you’ve been ruminating on since you were a kid.

Allowing yourself time to think is important. Not just a couple of minutes on how to makea scene better and then using the first thing to come to mind, but spending half an hour thinking of different ways for things to play out and if nothing seems quite right, not settling for the nearly right, but changing things up, sometimes drastically.

One of the best ways to get the motor running is to write something that’s just very hard to figure out.

Creating awkward situations, impossible problems, questions with no answers all force the brain to rummage around in the ideas box. That doesn’t mean you’ll find anything of use in there, but once you start filling the box regularly you’ll be surprised how often you do.

Even if you don’t find the answer to the question you’re looking for, often you’ll find the answer to an even more interesting question. And the beauty of being in charge is that you can change the question to suit your solution.

If I work out a way for the bank robbers to escape if only the getaway car was red, and earlier I said it was green, I can go back and make it red.

Putting yourself in a corner, taking away the easy ways out, making the problem harder than it needs to be, that’s what makes the brain go into overdrive. Obviously there’s also the chance you’ll have a nervous breakdown, but what great writer hasn’t had one of those?
 If you found this post useful please give it a retweet. Cheers.


Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

An exciting life - what on earth is that? Guess I'll be drawing from other things!

mooderino said...

@Alex-You and me both, brother.

Nancy Thompson said...

I totally draw from music, which I actually do "see" in my weirdo brain. Movies and books register, as well, of course. Whenever I get that spark, I grab my iPhone and jot it down. Then I let it simmer and soak before outlining. And that outline is where I shift into overdrive. It's what I use as a road map so I don't forget anything. I'm too old and my hard drive too full to do it any other way. :)

Michael Offutt, Phantom Reader said...

I have to admit that sometimes I have no will to write. It's difficult pulling the words out of my mind, and I would rather just sit in front of the television and watch shows.

I kind of miss the days when I got excited about small things. But, usually these "spells" pass quickly and I can get back into the activities I enjoy without too much trouble. Writing is one of those (done more in the winter months).

Lydia Kang said...

Yes to the writerly nervous breakdowns. I'm convinced that's part of the process!

mooderino said...

@Nancy-if only there was a way to defrag the mental hard drive.

@Michael-it's fun getting excited about silly things when you're a kid. So jaded now...

@Lydia-always darkest before the dawn (I hope).

Elise Fallson said...

The hamster wheel inside my brain seems to spin faster when I'm under pressure and I'm usually more productive during these moments. Whether or not the hamster is able to keep up is something else entirely.

Jeff Hargett said...

Great post. We writers must exercise the "muscle" that matters most.

mooderino said...

@Elise-my brain hamster's a little out of shape although he does have a nike headband.


Golden Eagle said...

I laughed a bit when you ended with "nervous breakdown", but you're right--you have to keep trying to come up with new things.

mooderino said...

@Golden-I think it helps to remember the last time you struggled and then came up with something good, and how that felt.

Ellie Garratt said...

Oh to be a child again.

I find tight deadlines do help to produce my best writing, though time to subconsciously think about them also helps.

Hart Johnson said...

I definitely have to go to great means to get out of my own way--turn off my day... relax my brain. It is no coincidence that I started writing in the bathtub with a glass of wine... RELAX....

mooderino said...

@Ellie-if I could just figure out how to combine deadlines with lots of daydreaming...

@Hart-never quite the same when someone rushes in desperate to use the loo.

Michael Di Gesu said...

Hi, Mood,

Had to laugh about drawing from life ... what life? I was fortunate as you teen to thirty to model and travel the world. SO I mostly draw from my life's experiences. BUT imagination is really the stuff the make a story a STORY to me.

At creators, artists, puzzle solvers, etc, our imaginations are a key. Without it where would Tolkein, Rowling, Brooks, and even to a small degree, Meyers be? It was their imaginations that caught our attention.

I love a post that makes you think.... thanks Mood.

mooderino said...

@Michael-real life is a good way to fire up the imagination, I find. Without Tolkein's love of Norse mythology I don't think he would have had the fuel to power his flights of fancy.

Jay Noel said...

I've had a few nervous breakdowns before. Hope I don't have another one since I've decided to take a bunch of stuff on this month.

I like to draw from other people's lives. I don't think my own life is interesting enough!

mooderino said...

@Jay-Yes, nicking from other people's lives is an excellent resource!

Lucy McCarraher said...

Enjoyed this post - cogent and thoughtful. Posted a link on . Please come and like us there

mooderino said...

@Lucy - Thanks. If i was a member of FB I'd like the hell out of your page.

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