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GRETCHEN HAERTSCH ON: CREATIVITY AND THE UNCONSCIOUS

November 30, 2009

As writers, we walk a fine line between exerting too much control and too little over our written words. The left side of our brains – the side involved in logic – is where our speech and language skills reside. Yet it is the right side of our brains – the site of intuition and emotion – that provides the true genius to our work. The question then must be: how do we best negotiate between the two?

Of course, we can work out some of our writing problems through cognitive approaches. These might involve brainstorming, outlining, and making all sorts of detailed charts of plot action and character introduction. Drafting and revision are usually deliberate and highly conscious activities. Yet other writing solutions come to us through the unconscious. These solutions might be manifested through metaphorical thinking, recalled dreams, disparate images that float into our consciousness unbidden, and sudden connections between ideas.

If you examine a finished piece of writing, you can’t help but notice the myriad unconscious choices the author has made. The subject itself might be a surprise, even to the author. It may result from a childhood experience that is all but buried. The writer’s point of view, use of metaphor, and choice of words may be unconscious choices. These unconscious decisions coupled with the deliberate (and very conscious) execution of our craft make up our writing voice. Learning to listen to our unique writing voice creates power in our words.

Many fiction writers begin with a visual image. Gabriel Garcia Marquez, author of One Hundred Years of Solitude and Love in the Time of Cholera, claims his starting point is often “a completely visual image.” We should learn to watch for such images. They can form the inspiration for our work because they tap into dreams and memories. They are outward manifestations of the unconscious.

In the same way, metaphorical thinking can also signal the working of the unconscious. Metaphors foster creative thinking and can add richness to our work. Writing very close to our dream state is another worthwhile practice. Many writers do their finest work either late at night or very early in the morning. Others actually wake themselves throughout the night to catch fleeting images or keep a dream journal so they can quickly record them. Sigmund Freud believed that literature illustrated the workings of the unconscious, after all. And Samuel Taylor Coleridge composed “Kubla Khan” via an opium-induced sleep.

But no fair looking for the easy fix of drugs or alcohol. We need to work hard at solving our writing problems before we let the unconscious take over. We can’t just wait for inspiration to hit us over the head. We have to put forth plenty of conscious effort. Then, sometimes we’re rewarded, as often as not during a downtime in the composing process when the unconscious breaks through to consciousness. Then we might just propel ourselves into the “writing vortex” Louisa May Alcott wrote about, a place where we lose track of time and sometimes even our surroundings. That’s a pretty amazing place to be.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. Kashif Ansari permalink
    August 11, 2011 1:42 PM

    yes, i agree completely to the comments in the last paragraph. it is a timeless sense of flow one enters into where the best and most satisfying writing takes place. and one ought to get lost in that process of mindless unconsciousness where the heart speaks its feelings with full force. that is the sphere of the extraordinary and all genius. it arises from the vapors that inhabit the ethereal realm in the sky somewhere. the ideas on a global – nay universal – level simply lend themselves to all no matter what their culture or civilization. there the writing writes itself (literally) and the hand and mind become merely instruments in the possession of a demonic poesy.

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