Monday, 3 February 2014

Trust Your Subconscious by Beverley Birch

Try a web search on ‘subconscious mind’. You’ll find a surfeit: definitions, exploring it, connecting subconscious and conscious to expand creativity. And so on. 

And a lot on making conscious effort to tap into that vast personal repository of memory, perceptions, knowledge, emotions.




A familiar one is mind mapping - freeing thoughts to take off in any direction, develop extensions and connections not originally conceived. Many writers use it to throw up ideas on anything from plot and character traits to book and chapter titles - words, ideas, images, links, subsequently harnessed, pointing directions or usefully organised into a firm structure. 

It struck me, though, that for us – fiction writers – awareness of our subconscious is a part of life - a constant travelling companion. And it further struck me that in my parallel life as editor and mentor to other writers, new and established, I’ve registered a tide gathering momentum – one that we need to stem. 


The issue for us (writers) is not so much learning to tap into our subconscious, but keeping confidence in it; having the courage not to treat it as an unwanted intruder and try to shut it out, but give it nurturing space. 


In the unforgiving publishing climate of now, market pressures mitigate against the time, resources, and editorial backing to explore and play with your writing, to try different things or break new ground. It requires considerable determination to face it, and dare to take it on. 

For writers new and experienced, the stress is all on planning and plotting carefully, being clear in pitch and focus, readership, market, on how to ‘sell’ your idea so an editor will see how to ‘sell’ it to their publisher. 

All important, and true. 

Yet also untrue, if these pressures dominate at the wrong point of the imaginative journey from which a story springs. Control can extinguish the spark that propelled you forward with something fresh, something that is YOU. 


Originality and a story worth telling don’t come from thinking harder, planning harder, learning the components and ingredients that make a good book. They come from the uniqueness of each of us, experiences, perceptions, anxieties, emerging from and played upon by everything we see, hear, smell, read, watch, perceive.


All this buries itself in our subconscious, rising to the surface in dreams, reactions, emotions, and even stray thoughts, ideas, images that can float to mind when we are doing something mundane, having a bath, peeling potatoes, staring out of the window on a train. Yet how often do we think – Go Away! That’s not what I need to think about now! Come on, focus! 

We disregard these wisps, because they don’t fit, they’re not part of the current game-plan.

I was once asked to write a picture book text for a particular artist. I duly put aside the current work-in-progress novel, had a think, then another think, reread my ideas notebooks, did mind map after mind map … I pounded away at the problem, increasingly frustrated. 

Blank. A month later - still blank. No story, or even the shadow of one. I owned up, suggested the commissioning editor approach someone else. 

The whole thing disappeared from my mind. I sank back into writing my novel. Went to bed one night – had what I recall as an entirely dreamless sleep, was just drifting into full consciousness next morning, to find opening words, rhythms, then a full story-line of a picture book galloping through my head. I grabbed a notebook and wrote it down, just as I ‘heard’ it. 


The weirdest thing was that it had a setting I’d never been to, childhood fears I don’t remember having, found a resolution in something I’d never done. I’ve not the slightest idea where it came from or how it shaped itself so completely in my head. But it came from me, and it came because I’d stopped looking for it. 


I tidied it, but it changed only in precision of words, not theme or story; I showed the editor – who contracted it immediately for publication. 

A different example from my editor life. An author had delivered a book. Classy writer, impressive backlist, but increasingly anxious about keeping up with changing ‘market’, sliding into that slough of waning confidence. Ideas in the book had enormous potential. It had a crop of interesting characters. But it felt rather run of the mill, nothing really surprising was happening. And it lacked her spark. 

I dreaded saying so. 

What emerged in our discussion was that, really, at heart, she knew this, and each effort to improve it made it worse. 

But also that she’d been having what she called a daydream, a persisting one, of the story as a film with a rather bizarre scene with two new characters. It didn’t fit with her original storyline … 

I told her she could have more time, a lot more, and sent her away to follow the trail where it took her. Barely a month later, an unusual and exciting story arrived on my desk. She’d unlocked the telling and the story was fraught with delicious dramatic tension throughout.

Simple. Easy to forget. Easy to bury it beneath that craft-based struggle with plotting, tightening, shaping.


Easy to forget that the process of refinement and clarity is a stage superimposed after the essentially instinctive flow of word after word after word, idea after idea, image after image through your head. 


Equally easy also to struggle on with a problem, not realising that if you look away from it, do something else, invariably your subconscious will present you with some kind of direction through. Interesting writing doesn’t spring from just making words behave properly. If that’s all there is, it loses its energy, originality and power. Interesting writing, stories that open doors for readers, spring from a messy mix of exploration, trial and error – drawing deep from each writer’s unique subconscious. 


So – my message is, trust your subconscious. It’s a bottomless mine that throws up gems.




@bevbirchauthor
Beverley Birch is an author and editor. Her own books have been nominated for the Carnegie medal and shortlisted for awards here and abroad, and range from picture books and novels to biographies, retellings of classic works, and collaborations with photographer Nick Birch. As editor, she’s been three times shortlisted for the Branford Boase Award in recognition of the editor’s role in nurturing new talent. She stepped down from her fiction commissioning role at Hodder Children’s Books a year ago to concentrate on her author life and on giving workshops for promising writers as part of Imogen Cooper’s Golden Egg Academy. [www.goldeneggacademy.co.uk, or follow Golden Egg Workshops for Children's Writers on Facebook.] Beverley also continues selectively to provide editorial consultancy for publishers.

18 comments:

  1. Fabulous article, thank you. Wonderful description of the way creativity works.

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  2. A lot here to pin up on the wall to read and re-read: as ever, Beverley, your words are rich, layered and thoughtful. Thanks!

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  3. Thanks Linda and Lesley - also early morning often the time when stuff surfaces - when we are most likely to be pressured with daily life - so space needs to be found. Easy if you are an early riser. Not easy if you stagger from bed late!

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  4. Thank you Beverly for such an interesting piece. I'm often amazed at what will bubble up from the mulch in my mind if I just leave it for long enough! So much more effective then attempting to force an answer :)

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    1. forcing it never works, does it? But answers will be hiding in there somewhere if you give them space. Takes courage, though, when harrassed by deadlines

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  5. This is great - thank you Beverley. The best ideas always seem to ping in from nowhere when I've switched off my writing head for the night!

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    1. never be without a notebook! ever had that memory of a brilliant idea you knew you wouldn't forget .. but then Life intervenes, and when you attempt to retrieve it ........

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  6. thank you Beverley - so reassuring to read this - I'm beginning to understand about tucking new stories away for a while. It is hard to keep relaxed and look away when you're trying to make a living out it. Though, imagine if Maurice Sendak hadn't looked away from "Where The Wild Horses Are"

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    1. Exactly! But my first novel emeged from an idea I had when I was 12. And RIFT from several whispers of ideas in my teens, surfacinf when I was most under pressure with non-fiction contracts

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  7. I'm so glad to read that this happens so often. I was a little spooked by it happening to me.

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    1. that's where the trust comes in. Spookiest of all is when something you've imagined then happens, down to the finest detail. or something you invented turns up in your research, and you can be certain you never read or heard it before.

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  8. Great advice, Beverley. I love not knowing where my ideas are coming from. I find it so much easier to let my characters write their stories. They are far more imaginative than I am.

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    1. and often more daring ... and letting your characters lead the exploration is essential for discovering the heart of the story. Then we need to know what to leave visible for the reader. That's when the control comes back in ...

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  9. I'm very left-brain dominated, and I suffer from a need to map out, plan and organise every inch of a story before I work on it. Although this structure is important, I'm finding that the more I prescribe, the less I'm interested in actually writing the story! The trick for me seems to be knowing the point where I've planned "enough" to give me the confidence to let the right side of my brain loose.

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    1. yes, I think using the planning as a kick start and jettisoning it soon to start writing can be a good balance- not using it as an actual guide. I really believe in exploration through mind-mapping - but I never look at it again till I get to the trim and shape stage, as a reminder of threads to weave in.

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  10. I love this.
    I'm struck by how little writing is about pens and paper and laptops and how much it's a body and soul experience - it's how we process words not just fingers or even just fingers and brains. Favourite bit: stories come from "from the uniqueness of each of us, experiences, perceptions, anxieties, emerging from and played upon by everything we see, hear, smell, read, watch, perceive."
    Thank you Beverley

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    1. Yes, I agree, and the sad thing about publishing pressures is that there so little time to foster the creative fires at the heart of it, just as the creative act of reading and engaging with a book, body and soul is under continuous threat for kids

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    2. This is a timely reread for me - thanks to a reminder of it from Golden Egg. I love when a story spills out of you that's difficult to chase back to any real event or conversation. I wonder if when we read and hear things we never forget them. Consciously, yes, subconsciously, never?

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