Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Make your other brain do the work

On Monday's post comments here, there was a consensus that characters--and in many cases authors--needed to show some sort of change from where they are in the beginning of a story to where they are at the end. (Or, as is the exception, no change, when the point is that no change was made.)

In thinking about a character's journey, we can all come up with "standard" types of change. Our protagonist can face her fear and hopefully conquer it. Or, someone can complete the journey he has needed to complete. But, often, the change within a real person is far more complex. Sometimes, in our own experiences, we can't even fully express why something was meaningful to us, we just know that it was.

That's where our other brain comes along. While I was taking my memoir writing class this weekend, the teacher, Samantha Dunn, claimed that the most powerful literary writing occurs when our subconscious is doing all of the work. Our conscious thoughts are often clear, simple. We understand them. But, our subconscious is the reservoir for all of our contradictions, those messy ideas we have that don't really make any sense. She had us complete this sentence about ourselves:

I'm the kind of person who (fill in the blank) , but (fill in the blank).

One of mine, for example, was "I'm the kind of person who makes an absolute mess in my home, but I project myself so well to others that they never suspect it." It says a lot about me, huh?

Making your subconscious do the writing increases that messiness factor in our characters' journey, the components that often make a reader much more interested in a person. It allows us, as readers, to become a voyeur.

So, how do we get our other brain to do the work? Michelle has a post on Daydreaming that is the important first step in accessing our subconscious for our writing. We have to allow ourselves to get lost in thought.

After that, the main tool we have is freewriting. Usually this involves a time limit. Tell yourself that for 20 minutes, your pen will not stop moving or your fingers will not stop tapping on the keyboard. Even when you can't think of anything, continue to write words down. Start it with a topic: a memory or a prompt.

Then, just go.

What you'll find is that when your conscious brain runs out of ideas, your body is still able to proceed with the exercise. And, in those times, you'll start writing some pretty strange things. Take a look at those things. Find the elements in what you wrote that spark some interest in you or elements that you feel guilty or embarrassed about writing. Those are the messages that have come from your subconscious. If you do this sort of exercise with a particular character in mind, you may find that you can tap into his or her subconscious, allowing you to depict a much more interesting evolution than you could have come up with before. You can also do this with an idea, coupled to what Scott wrote about yesterday, to find out if your planned story has enough interesting material for you to discuss for a couple hundred pages.


  1. I think that in first drafts and outlines, it's good to let ourselves be messy and to not necessarily know what we're doing. I like this kind of automatic writing a lot; it's akin to digging around at random and looking for buried treasure. Or, it's like throwing a bunch of images together and making subconsciously-directed collage, maybe.

    One of the biggest worries I have about writers getting loads of constant advice telling them that stories "must" do this or that type of thing is that accidental meanings can be scrubbed out while writers attempt to control every single element of the story. Which means that a lot of depth and subtlety can be lost. I think some of the strongest stories are those which contain elements not fully understood by the writer, existing below the surface of the mind of author and reader both but nonetheless still there and still real. Sometimes when I'm writing, I find passages that, while I have no idea what they really mean, are still important. It's an internal struggle to let myself leave those passages in the work. But, as usual, I digress.

  2. This post is very important. As I recently said elsewhere, I think the best writing happens when the subconscious takes over. If writers think too much, deconstruct too much, their works wind up too contrived sounding. Not always, but too often. At some point a writer must trust herself, have enough confidence that her subconscious has absorbed everything necessary for writing a particular story, and then she must let the story write itself--I mean first drafts here. Later drafts require more deliberate, conscious mind work.

    I don't discuss my actual processes much because I long ago forgot what my actual processes were! They just happen now. I write from experience. As a newer writer, I'd often articulate how I wrote; now I have trouble remembering the way I write when I write and once I've written. I just must WRITE.

    In my first drafts I never limit myself; I put in whatever moves me. To me, first drafts are the author's drafts. No one else must (or maybe should) see those.

    I believe a significant amount of great art comes from happy accidents. But happy accidents won't happen writing-wise unless someone actually puts a pen to a page. Some writers claim they have lots of trouble remaining in that penning stage. I think they should use their first drafts like diaries and just let it all out. Then they should fix their diary entries in later drafts, keep locks on their diaries and secretly consider those fixed entries memoirs once they're gonna be made public!

  3. Ooops--with "this post" I meant your post, Davin.

  4. Excellent idea! I'll definitely have to try that exercise when I get a spare minute or two.

    This sort of reminds me of a discussion I was having with my friends about themes and morals in stories. I find that they come out better and end up stronger and more believable if I don't consciously assign them.

    Great, awesome post.

  5. It's a weird world, isn't it? I just read a post about the subconscious "dreamwriter" at

    She says things both similar to you and Scott.....that there are things below the surface that happen in the writing and to be careful not to revise them out right away. They may be more important than you know....

    Thanks again for starting an interesting discussion.


  6. Davin, you expressed these thoughts so well. This is a post I'll refer to again and again. I learned to tap my subconscious while I was in my creative writing program in college. They taught us to do this a lot with poetry. Poetry is where I really learned how to get to those "vague" passages that Scott is referring to. To me, those are the places where writing truly comes alive. Those are the connections to a character who is so real they could almost step off the page.

    I did a 20 minute prompt at my writer's retreat this past weekend, and I wrote so quickly and so much, and it was actually good. Strange, because I normally write very slow. I'm currently in rewrites for my novel, and it's difficult because it's not a first draft, but it kind of is. I'm never quite sure how much I should let my subconscious take over. But in reality, I'm tapping my subconscious all the time. I spend most of my writing time just daydreaming and mulling over stuff. It's nice to know I'm not wasting that time.

  7. "I think some of the strongest stories are those which contain elements not fully understood by the writer, existing below the surface of the mind of author and reader both but nonetheless still there and still real."

    That's an interesting point. I've occasionally stumbled upon a meaning in my story that I hadn't meant to include. How many symbols and secrets have I missed?

  8. I really agree with this. Like other who have commented, I often find meaning in things only after I have written them. That's always cool when it happens. Like a bonus :D

  9. Scott, I don't think that's a digression when you make your last point. It's important. Once we stumble on these inconsistencies, we have to decide if we want to keep them. I liked in your book how you mentioned that you had kept some references about sleeping and eating because you were so starved and tired in your last stages of writing it. That kind of stuff is fascinating and brings a new dimension to the book. That's why reading bios of writers can make the writing so much more interesting.

    F.P. Thanks for you comments! It does take a level of trust. That's really important to stress. One of te exercise Samantha also had us do was to write something that we knew no one else would see. We were told to tear up the piece of paper afterwards and throw it away. That's very freeing and helps us to see ourselves differently.

    Jenna, yes, that's my point exactly. It's like our brains aren't ready at the beginning of a story to assign the message at the end--if there is to be one at all. We just have to know that something will come out if the story is worthwhile.

    Shelley, thanks for your comments. I always think points are made stronger when you hear the same message from different people!

    Michelle, funny you should bring up the poetry. Samantha also mentioned that early on. She said something like, "Poets try to express what can't actually be expressed." I can't say I full understand it, but you seem to be saying something along the same lines. And, yes, I did a lot of freewriting exercises in my earlier classes too. I think this, though, was the first time I could really discuss the benefits of doing it.

    Justus, That's something that I love about talking to readers. So often, they let me see my own story more clearly. They'll pick out symbols or connections that I hadn't seen. It's exciting.

    Tess, that's a good point too. It's the writing process that often helps us to figure things out. It's a way we learn about things. I think I may have been hinting at that, but you say it much more clearly.


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