Thursday, August 20, 2009

Work in Progress: Dreamweaver, or How to Harness Your Subconscious

I’m not a touchy-feely, New Age, hippie type, and yet I fully believe in the power of the subconscious when it comes to writing. How else to explain that magical moment when you figure out the next move in your story, or suddenly see something about the character that surprises you? (One of my favorite writing teachers used to say, “Write until something surprises you.” That’s maybe the best, most succinct writing advice I’ve ever heard, so of course I’ve stolen it and recite it like a wild parrot in my classes.)

The only problem with the subconscious is, well, our lack of control over it (duh). You can sit and sit—you can take a walk—you can go cook something and pretend you’re not dwelling upon that tangly writing problem, and yes, during all this, you can be quite confident that your subconscious is working away. But—it’s doing so on its own schedule. There are rarely immediate answers, and that’s just the way it is.

Or is it?

This technique does not work 100 percent of the time, but it does work enough to become a “trick” that I recommend, and a strategy that I trust for tough writing problems.

The scenario: You’re stuck in your project. You’ve been thinking and working and trying to write your way through, but nothing is working. You’ve tried stepping away for walks and so forth, but you still can’t figure out what the piece needs. Here’s what you do:

1. Make sure there’s a notepad/pen by your bed.

2. Choose a night when you don’t have to get up early or at the demand of an alarm clock the next morning.

3. Go to bed at a time when you’re able to have a few moments or so to think before dropping off.

4. During this dropping off time, think about your writing problem. Don’t try to solve it, just run through it in your mind (gently, not obsessively—we’re not trying to cause insomnia!)

4a. If you overshoot and wake up in the night, unable to sleep b/c you were obsessive, use that time to think—gently!—about your writing problem.

5. Wake up as naturally as possible—no alarm, no nagging voices—and as you return to the world, think about your writing problem in a drifty, gentle way. Let yourself take a while—15-20 minutes. You must avoid those internal and external nagging voices!

6. Here’s the magic: nine times out of ten you will see the resolution to your problem, or at the least, a way in.

7. Write down your ideas on the notepad and congratulate yourself on your brilliance.

I suppose some people would then advise that in the ideal world, you would go to your writing immediately, but I don’t find that to be necessary. These ideas are so solid and so right that they will stick with you for quite a while. And it’s helpful to have the conscious brain working on the details.

And now, after clearing up a few irritating and lingering personal-life projects, I plan to tackle the ending chapters to the draft of my novel, which I figured out by using the process above.

(P.S. O, Punishing Gods of Writing Hubris, please don’t think that I’m bragging, and OBVIOUSLY I know it will harder to do this than that breezy sentence implies, and yes, I know that this ending in my head will shift and I will despair that I’m a know-nothing and so on…in short, please-please-PLEASE don’t punish me for what may seem to be hubris!)


DC-area author Leslie Pietrzyk explores the creative process and all things literary.