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.