Writing at the Speed of the Unconscious

What is The Subconscious to every other man, in its creative aspect becomes, for writers, The Muse.
Ray Bradbury

The subconscious harbours all sorts of useful material for writers. Our brains store allĀ of the facts we have absorbed from living in the world even if we are not sure how to access them. The images and passions that fill our dreams are the stuff that makes our writing rich, if only we can connect with them.

Thinking Space

Getting the subconscious to work on a problem in the background often benefits from slow, calm, repetitive activities: taking a shower, walking, sleeping, driving. My mind is always happy daydreaming about my current writing project while my body is washing the dishes or folding laundry.

Tapping the subconscious while at the keyboard is more challenging. Once I start seeing words physically appearing on the screen, my internal editor and heavy-handed conscious mind want to get in on the action. So I have to trick them into getting out of the way.

There is an instruction in InterPlay that made me aware of how I do this. When InterPlayers start a hand-to-hand contact dance, we bring a hand to touch our partner’s hand. Then, we move our hands to change how they are touching. After a few such moves, the leader asks the participants to change positions faster than the speed of thought. And we do.

Our subconscious mind is fast, faster than our conscious mind. By forcing our bodies to move fast, we can force the conscious mind to yield to the unconscious mind. In InterPlay, we use moving faster than the conscious mind to remind ourselves that our experience is bigger than our conscious mind. We become aware of the limits of consciousness and the power of the subconscious workings of our bodyspirits.

I realized recently that this is why I find NaNoWriMo a useful challenge, though I set myself additional challenges beyond the formal challenge. NaNoWriMo pushes me to write faster than I usually do.

By writing fast, I bypass my internal critic and go straight for the good stuff. The images that come out of my subconscious are usually more interesting, more emotionally charged, more multilayered in meaning that what comes out of my conscious mind. For my fiction, I need those qualities.

When I write blog posts, I write slowly.

I ponder the content of each blog post in the spare minutes of my day, mulling over ideas and starting to craft sentences during routine parts of my day – in the shower, washing dishes, picking up the kids toys, etc. By the time I sit at the keyboard to compose, I know what I want to say and have a general outline in my head. The actual writing is careful and controlled as I focus on articulating the ideas clearly.

Writing fiction is entirely different.

My first drafts are fast. They have to be.

By writing fast, I tap into my subconscious and discover the metaphors, characters, and details that enrich my fiction. My first drafts are messy, like my subconscious, but there are rich veins for me to mine during editing.

That is what works for me. Check out these links if you want to see other approaches for tapping into the subconscious.

  • Holly Lisle uses a form of timed writing exercise inspired by Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg.
  • Jody Helfand shared 7 of her techniques on the Poetica Magazine blog.
  • Sara Douglass primes her subconscious by posing the question she needs to solve and then takes a bath.
  • Patrick Ross directs his subconscious while he sleeps.
  • Angela Booth recommends improv exercises.

Are there other techniques that work for you?

5 thoughts on “Writing at the Speed of the Unconscious

  1. I totally agree, Kate. Writing fast shuts off the internal (and infernal) critic, and the best ‘stuff’ results. It’s the raw clay that can later be sculpted into a polished piece.

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