Anyone who knows me knows I am a hard-core plotter. Under tight deadlines, it was important that I know where I was going – I didn’t have the time to do long exploratory manuscripts or puzzle things out in drafts. Of course, this is also my particular writing style. I like to plan, I lay things out, and I write in linear chronological order. That’s how I work.
I also help my coaching clients get from nebulous story ideas to plot points, no matter what their particular writing style is. I’m used to pulling order from chaos.
On a certain level, it seems organized, very structured. It’s like sudoku: you know what the story is supposed to add up to, then you look at the pieces and see where they fit. That said, the people I work with are usually baffled by the fact that I can somehow “look at” the amorphous mess of ideas that they have and come up with a three-act structure in an hour.
But writing is like any other art. It involves a balance between logic and intuition. Structure and unpredictability.
Magic, if you will.
When the templates and prep and planning don’t work, I believe it ultimately comes down to the subconscious. On a gut level, you know what your story should be. It’s just a matter of unlocking that, getting it from your gut to your brain.
Unfortunately, your subconscious speaks its own language.
When I have been beating my head against a wall, stuck on my own story, all the figuring and planning in the world are useless. I know there’s a story there. I can feel it. And I often wonder why my subconscious won’t just pony up and give me the answers I’m seeking.
But the thing is, my subconscious usually is giving me answers. I am just not always attuned to hearing them.
Think of it this way: if my subconscious was another person, I’d be yelling at them in English: “What do I do with this character? Is this the way the story should go? What’s the theme?”
And my subconscious is shouting back: “Clock! Beagle! Vague feeling of anxiety! The color blue! Lake Erie!”
What the heck do you do with that?
First – a quick detour.
Let’s take a look at tarot.
Most people have at least a passing familiarity with the cards, crammed full of symbolism, able to tell the future (or at least hint at things going on.) There are a ton of different styles of decks, lots of different artwork to choose from, etc.
Beyond the fortune-telling aspect, Tarot can be a valuable tool. Because it helps you connect with your subconscious – and learn to start understanding its language.
If you take a deck and put out a number of cards, and then had to tell someone a story about what the cards meant, whether you had any background knowledge of the official meanings or not, you could do it. Since you’re a writer, it would probably be relatively easy. (Especially since you wouldn’t have the stress of, say, your writing work-in-progress.)
It would have a beginning, middle, and end – or a question, progression, and possible outcome. You would come up with explanations for what you saw and why it mattered.
And just like that… your conscious brain would start connecting with your subconscious one.
The more you did it, the easier it would become. You’d start becoming attuned to free-form story, your imagination, and just loosening up your creative muscles.
It doesn’t have to just be tarot.
Theoretically, you could do the same with modern art, Rorschach ink blots… heck, with stock photography. Writing prompts and journal journeying (although I think it’s good to shift focus from writing, which can be too linear and left brained, even when it’s freeform.)
Meditation is a good way to give your subconscious space to connect. Personally, I liked guided meditation… I’m easily distracted/bored, so the “activity” portion gives me something to do while I go under, as it were.
Writing down your dreams in a dream journal also helps. You don’t need to interpret. Just keeping track will help you remember them more. You can’t get more subconscious than your dream state. Personally, I’ve noticed that as crazy as my dreams can get, it’s usually the emotion behind whatever is happening “on stage” that is the real insight.
A common example: those dreams about showing up to school naked, for a final in a class you’ve never shown up for. Those aren’t actual reminders that you’re about to tank your major in Ancient Anthropology. It is usually a commentary on some other stress you’re feeling in your life.
The more you tune in, the more fluent you get.
The reward for becoming bi-lingual in “subconscious.”
For me, the more connected I am, the more efficient I am with both recognizing story elements (for myself and others), and the more I trust my words when I get them down on the page. That’s not to say they don’t still need revision – we always need that, don’t we? – but it does mean that I can get to revision stage much more quickly. When you’re trying to increase your writing production, or if you simply want to feel more comfortable in your writing skin, that’s important.
The other plus isn’t just story related. If you’ve had problems making decisions in any areas of your life, and just wish you had some voice saying, “DO THIS ALREADY!” then voila! Your subconscious will help you get in touch with that “gut instinct” so you’re clearer on what you really want and what you should do.
It isn’t easy. But it’s worth it.
It’s like warming up when you work out. It may seem superfluous, or even annoying, but if it helps your writing, isn’t it worth it?
Now, a question for you. How much do you rely on your muse/instinct/gut when you write? What do you do to develop your relationship with your subconscious and creativity?