I was doing an event with Michael Ridpath last night at Joseph’s Bookshop on the Finchley Road, and one of the members of the audience asked us if we thought writers had better access to their subconscious than others.
It’s a good question. Firstly because it makes you think about what makes a writer, are you born or made? And also because it recognises how much writing work is done subconsciously, instinctually.
So do writers have, as a breed, a better access to their subconscious? I was going to say writers use their subconsciousness more than most people so maybe, but according to a growing body of research, we run most of our lives relying on the subconscious, and our conscious minds are constantly playing catch-up and claiming ‘I meant to do that’, or ‘that’s why I did that’. See G.Klein, Gladwell, or start going wikiwild here. Maybe what I mean is writers use our subconscious more, well, consciously.
Micheal said, and I do the same, when he has a problem in the plot, he writes it down on a Friday, looks at it for a bit, then goes away and avoids thinking about it until Monday morning, and often he finds solutions that seem to have grown over the weekend. I think this works by letting the question sit in your mind, but not hammering at it. It’s a case of giving yourself space to let the questions unwind a bit, let your subconscious sift through its store of odds and ends. I find baths, walks, running, museums all work. Funnily enough, reading doesn’t. Talking to (or at) Ned about the problem in half sentences can also help a lot, as long as he doesn’t say anything but, ‘umm’, or ‘uhuh’, going out with friends – not so much.
Here’s my other way of messing around with the inside of my head: I often trick my mind into spilling things out by just writing, not writing the book, but writing down my own stream of consciousness about whatever problem I am dealing with. For example:
‘So why did Rogers decide to send the package via Green rather than take it himself, I mean he was worried wasn’t he, so what would stop him, Green has let him down in the past…? This is daft, he wouldn’t just suddenly decide to hand it over for no reason. Could it work if he takes it? No, not really, oh God I totally forgot to ring Sally yesterday, Jesus why I am so bad at picking up the phone, the laundry is backing up, suppose he does want to take it and gets interrupted… what if Coben turns up when he is setting off? He can’t just leave then, can he? He’d be desperate, it’s a sort of last throw of the dice, suppose giving it to Green to deliver is just like putting himself into the hands of Fate? I’m hungry, what’s in the fridge?’
Thing is, I actually write, in long hand, ‘I’m hungry what’s in the fridge?’ It’s a way of slightly slowing your own thoughts down, and that means you listen more, and what bubbles up is slightly better formed. I’ve had a lot of ‘…of course, that’s what happens!’ moments doing this.
So, writers mess about in their own heads. Insert articles and posts about how creativity can bleed into mental disorders here. But is that because we are born that way, or train ourselves to do it?
My guess is it’s a bit of both. I’ve always made up stories, wondered what would happen if this or that occurred. I think most of us do that, though. It’s part of being human. The difference is, by writing, I follow those speculations through, hold them up to the light and examine them. Sometimes you wander around in your dreams, sometime you follow your nightmares. It’s all research, it’s all material.
I have learnt, am learning, how to use my imagination and when to trust my instinct for a story, just as much as I am learning my craft as a writer. In fact developing your instinct is part of the craft. Writers learn to let their minds, consciously and unconsciously, pick up all sorts of scraps and images from the world around them. Sometimes we take notes. (Yes, I think journaling is an excellent idea). Sometimes though the odds and ends we experience, dream or observe sit somewhere in the back of the mind waiting for the right question in our writing to shiver them into life.