Why Should You Be an Unconscious Writer? by Jim Denney

How many of you will participate in NaNoWriMo this November? Raise your hands.

Okay, put them down or your cat will think you’re acting weird.

Even if you’re not trying to write 50,000 words in 30 days you can benefit from this awesome post from my friend and author, Jim Denney. He’s amazing. I don’t know anyone who writes more than Jim. Let his words inspire you to become the UNCONSCIOUS WRITER. Why? Because you will write faster and more creatively.

Please welcome Jim Denney.

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The Unconscious Writer

by Jim Denney, author of Writing in Overdrive

“We need to align ourselves with the river of the story, the river of the unconscious, of memory and sensibility, of our characters’ lives, which can then pour through us, the straw.”

—Anne Lamott

John Steinbeck, in a 1962 letter to an aspiring writer, said, “Write freely and as rapidly as possible and throw the whole thing on paper. Never correct or rewrite until the whole thing is down. Rewrite in process”—that is, stopping forward progress and editing one’s work during the first draft phase—”is usually found to be an excuse for not going on. It also interferes with flow and rhythm which can only come from a kind of unconscious association with the material.”

When you are first drafting (or “fast drafting,” a term I learned from my friend Michelle Weidenbenner), always move forward, never look back. By writing freely and quickly and without inhibitions, you tap into the writer’s most powerful engine of imagination, the unconscious mind.

Ursula K. Le Guin has described her writing process as “a pure trance state.” She says, “All I seek when writing is to allow my unconscious mind to control the course of the story, using rational thought only to reality check when revising.”

In Becoming a Writer, Dorothea Brande talks about a creative faculty we all possess, though few of us are aware of it—”The higher imagination, you may call it; your own endowment of genius, great or small; the creative aspect of your mind, which is lodged almost entirely in the unconscious.” Brande underscores the fact that this faculty is the UN-conscious mind, not the SUB-conscious mind, because “sub” suggests that which is low and inferior. Far from being inferior to the conscious mind, Brande says, the unconscious “has a reach as far above our average intellect as it has depths below. … The unconscious must be trusted to bring you aid from a higher level than that on which you ordinarily function.” In fact, she says, “the root of genius is in the unconscious, not the conscious, mind.”

One of Dorothea Brande’s most famous pupils, Ray Bradbury, often said that conscious thought is poisonous to the creative process, and that true creativity springs from the unconscious mind. In a 1975 speech, he said, “I have had a sign by my typewriter for the better part of twenty years, now, which says, ‘Don’t think.’ I hate all those signs that say ‘Think.’ That’s the enemy of creativity. … Emotion, emotion wins the day. Intellect can help correct. But emotion, first, surprises creativity out in the open where it can be pinned down!”

As we learn to rely on the power of the unconscious mind, we discover a completely new way of imagining, creating, and writing. Stories, characters, scenes, relationships, dialogue, and emotions gush forth with compelling energy from the depths of the uninhibited, unconscious mind.

This doesn’t mean that the conscious mind, the intellect, is unimportant. But the conscious, analytical mind is the critical and analytical part of us, not the creative part. Creativity springs from the unconscious. To write powerful, compelling fiction, we have to understand the role of the unconscious mind—and we have to allow the unconscious mind to drive the creative process.

What is the unconscious mind? Where in the brain is it located? Is it in the right brain or the murky region of the limbic system? Is the unconscious, creative mind the result of the synergistic functioning of many regions of the brain working together? Or does the function of the unconscious mind extend beyond the boundaries of the brain? Is it a creative activity of the immortal human spirit—a human reflection of the creativity of God?

I don’t know. No one knows. The term “unconscious mind” is a convenient label for a phenomenon we cannot explain. Fortunately, we don’t need to know where the unconscious mind is located or how it works in order for us to tap into its incredible creative power.

Gregory Benford is an astrophysicist and a science fiction writer. He is best known for his Galactic Center Saga, beginning with In the Ocean of Night (1977). Benford says that, though he is a rational scientist, he relies heavily on his irrational unconscious mind when writing fiction. He doesn’t consciously know where the “stuff” of his stories comes from. When he began writing In the Ocean of Night in the summer of 1975, he followed an unconscious, unplanned process that unfolded as “a series of revelations.”

Benford had written his way to the midpoint of the novel when a stunning plot twist came to him out of the blue—a shocking surprise that would take place at that very point in the story. It was brilliant—and completely unforeseen. And as Benford pondered the plot twist, he realized that he had unknowingly planted clues throughout the first half of the book. The plot twist would be absolutely fitting, would play fair with the reader by being set up beforehand—yet the reader would not see it coming any more than Benford himself had foreseen it. How had he managed to plant those clues when he wasn’t even aware of the direction those clues were leading him?

Answer: Benford’s unconscious mind knew all along. But Gregory Benford had to write half the novel in order for his conscious mind to catch up to what his unconscious mind already knew. “It was that kind of assembly work,” he later said, “in which you slowly understand what is going on. … This seems to be the way that I have to write books. It takes a long time to put together the ideas and figure out what it means.”

As you write, don’t think. Fantasize. Daydream. Let your unconscious mind take control of your story, give life to your characters, and plan the hidden twists and turns of your plot. Surprise your creative unconscious mind out into the open—then pin it down on the page.

“The story arises in the unconscious. The unconscious is shy, elusive, and unwieldy, but it is possible to tap it at will.”

— Dorothea Brande


Jim Denney has written more than 100 books, including the Timebenders science fantasy adventure series for young readers—Battle Before Time, Doorway to Doom, Invasion of the Time Troopers, and Lost in Cydonia. His latest book for writers is Writing in Overdrive: Writer Faster, Write Freely, Write Brilliantly. A veteran of both traditional and indie publishing, Jim is a member of Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA). Follow Jim on Twitter at @WriterJimDenney. He blogs at http://unearthlyfiction.wordpress.com/.

How many times have you let your unconscious mind take you to new places in your novel and met a character you never imagined? 

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  1. Excellent and informative. I do my best “thinking” when i am not. Many of my ideas for the characters, plot twists, etc. for the Tales from Farlandia series came to me while walking in the woods, in gardens or at the beach or riding my bike. This seems to work the best for me.

  2. YES. You are right and it’s a process I often forget and/or doubt. I need to trust my unconscious more … or at the very least, the process


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