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Let Your (Sub)conscious Be Your Guide

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“I didn’t know what I was writing about until I’d finished the book.”

Have you ever heard an author say that?  Have you ever said it yourself? 

It’s happened to me more times than I can count. As authors, we can be blind to the themes in our own work.  I have a theory — often, what we’re writing about is influenced by what our subconscious is secretly grappling with.  If we can recognize those issues and themes, we can use them to deepen and strengthen our writing.

First, let’s look at why we may not recognize these emotions and themes. In my experience, writers are often not self-aware.  Oh, we’re great at identifying feelings like panic and self-doubt, but we’re not always completely cognizant of how events impact us physically and emotionally.  Here’s another theory — as writers, we’ve trained ourselves (or have been born with the temperament) to turn our attention outside, not in. We worry about what other people think, what other people are doing or saying or feeling, and not about what we think or feel. This creates a disconnect between what our emotions actually are, and what we think we’re feeling. We insist we’re happy and relaxed, for example, even when friends or family point out that our hands are clenched or we’re scowling.

So what do we do with all those churning thoughts and emotions we don’t acknowledge?  We push them into the bottom of our busy brain’s caldron, where they bubble and combine and eventually threaten to spill over. Now, this disconnect isn’t limited to writers — emotions are tricky territory for many people.  BUT — writers, unlike their normal counterparts, have a way to work through what’s bothering us, often without being aware that we’re bothered. And it’s these unacknowledged emotions or issues that help to shape our story and give it cohesiveness. It’s the wound under the bandage of words that the reader senses but never sees, and if it’s done right, it leaves a mark.

Here’s an example from personal history.  When I was writing my first book, I was in the middle of several major life changes.  I had just become a parent, and I was moving — a good and positive move to a neighborhood with features like sidewalks and trash pickup and grocery stores you didn’t have to drive a half-hour to get to — and when I told people I was thrilled, I truly meant it.  But to get to this new home, I was leaving behind a little spot in the country that I loved. And in the exhaustion of new parenting and the rush of packing and listing the house and finding a new place, the sadness and regret of saying goodbye got pushed to the back of my brain.

In odd moments I kept noodling away at the book I was working on, which I’d billed in my head as a type of phantom love story along the lines of The Ghost and Mrs. Muir. But funnily enough, the biggest and most wrenching love story in it turned out to be between one of the characters and a house, an impractical country heap he adores and has to leave.

Coincidence? I think not. Consciously done? Definitely not.

Since then, I’ve gotten better at recognizing these hidden emotions in my writing before I’ve actually finished the story, and I’ve learned how to use them to strengthen and deepen my work.   Here are two steps that have helped me:

Create distance.  It’s hard to see what you are writing about when you are right in the middle of it.  With enough time and space away, it is easier to pick out the hidden issues and themes of what you’ve been writing. Then, once you’ve recognized them, you can work to deepen them and enhance your story.

Here’s another example.  Shortly after I started my second novel, a friend passed away unexpectedly.  She was someone who had been very important to me, but we were at different stages of our lives — she’d raised her children and was on to grandchildren, and I was just starting out as a parent. When I moved, our friendship naturally faded and we drifted apart. I hadn’t seen her for several years before her death, although we’d corresponded and had made plans to meet several times — plans she’d delayed, I later realized, because she’d been so ill.

A few months after she died, I had to stop writing because of life demands.  When I was finally able to pick the book back up, I wasn’t sure I’d recognize the story any more.  What I did recognize, however, was my lost friend. In those months after her death that I’d been able to write, my subconscious had stitched her throughout the pages.  I found her in the physical description of the main character, in that character’s favorite expressions, in the wine she drank and the dogs she raised.  It was a tiny delight.  And having recognized her, I was able to go back and build a more realistic character, and use the emotions I finally recognized I felt at losing her to create a more poignant and dramatic sense of grief in several key scenes.

My time away from my novel was about three months, which is a serious chunk of time.  It may be impossible for you to leave a manuscript for that long, but if you can find a way to come back to it with fresh eyes, a shorter span of time off would certainly do.

Compare your life to standard milestones and become aware of how they impact you.  What are big events for people your age? What type of emotions do those events arouse?  Are you dealing with them on a surface level? Even if you don’t think they pertain to you, take a harder look.

A few months ago I came up for air from the business of daily life and realized how much closer I am to being an empty-nester than new mother. All around me friends are sending their slightly older children off to college, and in a few short years that will be me.  One night I took that knowledge and a glass of wine to the first 20,000 words of my latest WIP and suddenly understood that the whole book is actually all about parenthood, about how desperately I’d like my children to remain young, about what I would give to keep them that way.

But of course the actual words on the page are nothing like that. My characters aren’t sitting around realizing they are getting older and that their children are soon to leave.  My readers may never glimpse this deeper story — but if I do it right, if I use the knowledge I now have to build a secret second structure below the first — they’ll feel it in every word.

And what if I never find those readers? What if these last two books turn out to have been written just for me? Then the process of self-discovery will still have been worth it.  My lost friend will still be there, safely threaded throughout the story for me to find, now that I know where to look for her.  And my children will always be young and I will always be their parent, and I will recognize how deeply that role matters to me and what I would do to keep it.

Sometimes, the most important reader is yourself.

Your turn — have you discovered unexpected themes in your writing?  Were you able to use them to deepen your story? If so, how?

About Liz Michalski [2]

Liz Michalski's (she/her) first novel, Evenfall, was published by Berkley Books (Penguin). Liz has been a reporter, an editor, and a freelance writer. In her previous life, she wrangled with ill-tempered horses and oversized show dogs. These days she's downsized to one husband, two children and a medium-sized mutt.