On writing and the unconscious

The novel I’m currently finishing has a fiendishly complex plot. Cleverly, I didn’t plan it out in detail beforehand, so I’m now spending lots of time sitting in front of the computer wondering, ‘What happens now?’ and ‘Why didn’t I plot this properly earlier?’ Sometimes I think, ‘Why aren’t I smarter?’ but mostly it’s ‘Is there chocolate in the cupboard?’

This is not a problem I face when writing nonfiction, a mode I find much easier. Fiction and nonfiction – for me, at least – seem to be two different species. When writing nonfiction – that specialty of the rationalist mind – you can think your way through a problem. You can start from logical first principles and methodically connect cause and effect in an argument.

Fiction writing leaves you more reliant on the unconscious processes that work subtly below the surface, though perhaps it would be best not to overstate the difference. Over the years, I’ve heard several fiction writers say that when they have a problem in their novel, they sleep on it, and when they wake the solution is ‘there’ in their head. More commonly, others find their ideas and solutions ‘in the shower’, ‘doing the dishes’ or otherwise engaging in an activity completely unrelated to the work at hand. For this reason, asking a fiction writer where his or her ideas come from is beside the point. The more pertinent question is ‘How do your ideas come?’

For the rationalist mind, this is simultaneously one of the wonders and terrors of fiction writing: you seem at the mercy of something not entirely under your control.

The brain is complex and we still know only a fraction of it, thus the division between conscious and unconscious may simply be an analytical one.

The most famous theoretician of the unconscious was, of course, Sigmund Freud, who claimed that ‘the poets and philosophers before me discovered the unconscious; what I discovered was the scientific method by which the unconscious can be studied.’ That required a host of new concepts, many of which have made their way into day-to-day language: repression, displacement, sublimation.

For Freud, the unconscious was a dark creature of repressed desires, like some monster lurking beneath the waters of a lake. It worked symbolically because what it wanted was so often in conflict with the desires of the conscious mind. Hence the project of psychoanalysis was to interpret those symbols, through the analysis of fantasies, dreams, stray thoughts and the like. The psychoanalytic view would later become a key influence in surrealism, whose aesthetic logic was that of the dream. It was also important in literary and film criticism, especially of fantasy or horror.

For Malcolm Gladwell, in his book Blink, the unconscious is more like a machine capable of making snap judgements and decisions in a matter of seconds, connecting previously unrelated phenomena almost instantly. Gladwell explains it like this: ‘I think that what goes on in that first two seconds is perfectly rational. It’s thinking – it’s just thinking that moves a little faster and operates a little more mysteriously than the kind of deliberate, conscious decision-making that we usually associate with “thinking”.’

This view sees the unconscious as responsible for many activities undertaken as our conscious mind focuses on the things it considers important at any particular moment. A good example might be breathing: we can focus on our breathing, or we can focus on something else and let our unconscious take control.

One of the implications is that the unconscious machine must be steered in the right direction for its instant decisions to be constructive. Trusting your unconscious – your intuition, your gut feeling – is, quite often, the right thing to do. But face the machine the wrong way and you end up with all kinds of destructive behaviours, from phobias (the snap decision to feel irrational fear) to racism.

This is significant for writers. Most importantly, left-wing writers know that the unconscious absorbs the culture within which we exist. We can’t avoid the mire of mainstream sexism, racism, homophobia and other prejudices from permeating our minds, along with all the rest of our storytelling culture (rules of narrative, point of view and so on). When we write, the narrative tropes, character choices and other important elements are sometimes the first things offered up to us by our unconscious. Several times I’ve written characters, I’m embarrassed to say, who are ‘noble savage’ stereotypes. At other times, I’ve fallen into other clichéd narratives in which, for instance, the female character is ‘rescued’ by the male.

The point isn’t to be self-flagellating – who among us lives outside of our society? – but to be sensitive. The writer needs to understand society as a whole or risk reaffirming the ideologies of oppression. I’ve sat in writing workshops where a writer has sat blank-faced and uncomprehending as socially conscious participants have attempted to explain this to him (and most commonly, though not always, it’s very much a male).

Writing, then, involves a conscious rearrangement of what your unconscious has provided. That’s the only solution until the culture itself changes. Indeed, in some small ways we can hope that the writing itself helps to change that culture and to provide our minds with more enriching fuel, rather than the paltry stuff to which we are now accustomed.

It’s not that the conscious part of the process will forever be done away with in a more enlightened culture – both parts of the mind remain essential – but that the conscious and unconscious will no longer be conflicted in quite the same way. Instead of pulling in opposite directions, they might work together better. We might possess a more unified mind rather than the one divided by modern society.


Rjurik Davidson

Rjurik Davidson is a writer, editor and speaker. Rjurik’s novel, The Stars Askew was released in 2016. Rjurik is a former associate editor of Overland magazine. He can be found at rjurik.com and tweets as @rjurikdavidson.

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