Writing to the Tune of the Unconscious

subliminal-audio-powerAt the 2014 SCBWI LA conference, there seemed to be a fair amount of focus on the creative process and how you can better tap into your muse. Meg Rosoff (How I Live Now) http://scbwiconference.blogspot.com/2014/08/meg-rosoff-most-powerful-tool-you-have.html suggested that the secret to creativity really lies in being able to connect the unconscious with the conscious—and there’s a little passageway that moves between them. The more you use that passageway, the stronger it becomes. She didn’t mention the scientific name of that passageway, but I guess it doesn’t matter much to a writer what it’s called. It’s just getting there. I kinda think it’s like the yellow brick road. Or maybe it’s like a green mossy path that winds around. Oh, it could be a spiral in a 3-D spike that allows the thoughts to pour through.

Other folks mentioned habits of writing just before going to sleep, or just after waking. Some like to meditate as part of their routine. Then there’s drinking a beer (okay, I added that) or stronger spirits (thinking Ernest Hemingway), staring at the wall or a candle (that could probably be considered a form of meditation), opiates (can be habit forming) and other hallucinogenic substances (just make sure you’re able to write it down before you forget!)

Scientists take a more hypothesis-driven approach to looking at the neuroscience of creativity. When I try reading their journal articles though, I feel like I’m in a labyrinth of brain structures and regions and connections, whose names could only exist in a science fiction novel. There are some cool articles by Nancy C. Andreasen

http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3115302/ that are more appropriate to the lay-person, non-neuro geek.  One of the theories that resonates with me is that creative people tend to be divergent as opposed to convergent thinkers. A convergent process is a series of steps that leads to a single outcome. A divergent thinker may believe there are many possible responses to an open-ended question.

That’s me. I’m divergent, which is a strength and a curse. Here’s an example.  My day job is spent mostly at the computer, so by the end of the work day I am tired.  Walking to my car one evening, I was following a woman carrying a medium size bag of something heavy. You could tell it was heavy by the way it pulled on her arm. So I started wondering what it could be. Could she have brought several cans of soup that she needed to take home for dinner? Could it be several reams of paper that she was taking home from work? Ah, a work thief! Then my mind goes darker. Could it be a bomb? You know, one of those homemade things you can get instructions for on the internet? While I walked behind her, my mind could not stop the weird thoughts regarding this woman’s bag.  I think that qualifies as divergent thinking. Not that it’s very useful or helps me to survive in any way. But endless mind noise can be entertaining. And it happened at a time when my conscious brain wasn’t in full control. The unconscious was letting itself out for a little air.

Stories can go anywhere, and when they aren’t forced, they lead you to the most interesting, confounding, fun, sparkly, fresh, dark places. When your unconscious is given the reins, sit back and enjoy the ride. Oh, and don’t forget to write it down. And don’t think about it too much! The minute you start to think about it, the unconscious hides in the nearest hole…or maybe hides up a tree, or perhaps under your bed…Sorry, it’s late at night.

Do you have strategies for coaxing your unconscious out?

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WHAT…am I doing, writing a novel??

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So I’ve mentioned before that I decided to write a novel. So what to write about? And how to do this? I had no idea what I was doing. I’ve written lots of non-fiction; I’m also a scientist, but non-fiction science papers are rather formulaic…Intro, Materials/Methods, Results, Discussion (boring).  But without a MFA, I had no idea of the nuance of fiction writing. So, like most scientists, when you don’t know anything about what you’re doing, generally you follow one of two processes: research how others do it and/or shotgun an approach that you know works.

For me, I thought about writing a book as something similar to a product. Writing a novel could be defined as a project and I know how to manage projects and know a little about product development, so that’s where I went.  What’s a novel have in common with a project?

1. Creating a novel is a finite number of tasks. It has an end.  At some point you will have a novel.  It might be really crappy, but it’s a finished product. Same with a project/product.

2. There are phases to writing a novel: 1st draft, 2nd draft, plot revision, character development and so on.  There are phases to a project: Conception/Initiation, Feasibility, Development, Validation, Commercialization. Let me describe how I’ve used these phases in my process of writing a novel.  Now, I should preface…I’m in the development phase of my current, FIRST novel, so anything after that is just a guess…an educated guess, nonetheless. So, I’ll only consider conception phase for this post.

Conception is a fun stage of product development.  Anything goes! Your imagination can create any product.  At this time, the more ideas you have, the better. The process will winnow down those ideas, but brainstorming is a great idea at this phase.  Also, for products a close connection with your customer is a good idea.  You don’t want to produce something your customers don’t want, do you?  So, my concept phase looked like this:

  • Target audience: First off, I had to decide who was my reader.  For me, I was a recent reader of Young Adult. I think this is because with my e-reader, I didn’t have to go into the children’s area of the bookstore to look for books. There’s wonderful YA out there to read. It’s fast-paced, easy reading and in the end, it’s generally about hope and happy endings. My son is a YA, reads YA, has YA friends, so it seemed like a good fit for me.
  • Value of reading: Thinking of my target audience, I decided that I should understand why I read. I kinda touched a little on this (http://wp.me/p2L2zP-A), but decided to take it even further. I wrote all those reasons down…escape, warmth, emotions, belief in humanity, etc.  All the themes I like in books, or the emotions I feel when reading were listed out.  I don’t feel that Lou Ann is so different from anyone else that my reasons would be so different from other readers.  Also, I’ve heard that write something yoConceptu like. That made sense to me. If no one else likes your book, at least you do, right?
  • I then brainstormed my concept for this novel.  I figured with my scientific background, my strength might be science fiction, so I settled on that genre.  Every run I made for several weeks, I would think about the possibilities of this story.  I’d write it all down, using colored pens. And then I’d look those ideas over, crossing out (dumb!), adding in (awesome!), adding another question…brainstorming that question, another question would rise, more answers and on and on until a concept started oozing from the primordial goo.  I wrote it all down.  I pasted pictures that resonated with me in my book. I still have my concept book.  It’s fun to look back at all the ideas I had, and how they were distilled into something cohesive. And also nice to see how far I’ve come. (This can be especially helpful when hitting the doldrums of plot revision, rewrite and the lonely times of writing).

I think creative processes come to everyone, it’s just being open to them, and of course, what you choose to do about them once they come into your life. In my concept phase, a mentor image came out of this process. That mentor is my MC’s human boyfriend’s dad…Warren. He originally started as a gollum-like creature in a cave. Now, he’s a meditation expert in Oregon, an elder leader of his tribe.  So, needless to say, the process is a journey of change…lots of it! But one I totally recommend!

WHY…I started writing.

I ask myself that question often. I’m leaving tonight for the West Coast summer conference for the Society of Children Book Writers and Illustrators, so I guess I’m committed at this point. But why I decided at this point in my life and not during my high school English class is the real question.

I remember my high school English teacher, Edgar Cook…a real cute guy, enthusiastic about literature, writing…and fun. As a senior though, I was more interested in spending my time in the Chemistry lab…bugging him to let me out of class to hang out with the other science geeks.  He wrote in my year book “Have a great and wonderful time in college–in college you can go to the lab anytime! So I did…spending the next 32 years of my life in the sciences.

So now, why am I writing? The short answer is, I read…voraciously! Well, as much as I can anyway. As a younger, more rebellious soul, I would stay up all night in bed, with whatever book had caught my attention. Now, I try to get my 8 hours of sleep so I tend not to pull all nighters…but when I retire, watch out!

The last time I had a reading spurt was Valentine’s Day, about 4 years ago. Valentine’s Day holds different feelings for me than most folks. My mother always used to send me the most beautiful, fun valentines, usually with a little cash stuck in the envelope. That memory I’ve tried to pass along to my own son, finding a gift for him at Valentine’s Day. My husband and I went to B&N to get him a Nook (you know, to encourage reading over all the electronic stuff that kids have nowadays) as that year’s gift to him. After the salesgirl demonstrated all the Nook could offer, my husband surprised both of us by asking her to bundle up 3 of them.  Woo hoo!  Reading without having to go to the library? Just download a book or sample and have ready made entertainment? I didn’t come up for weeks….and I started to write my first novel soon after.  And what did I start to write? Well, science fiction, of course.  Those 32 years in the sciences had to be for something…right?

What does reading have to do with writing? Well, reading has given me so much enjoyment and entertainment, that I want to give back to that collective, to be a part of the writing world…so perhaps someone else might enjoy my story. That’s why.

So, I’m sure at the SCBWI conference this weekend, I’m going to get advice from all the successful writers about how important reading is to becoming a successful writer. All I can say to that is…check!