It’s odd, the way the unconscious works; for all the research on it since the concept was first explored in any depth by Freud in the late nineteenth century, it remains even more an unexplored area than the depths of the ocean.
Yet, writers particularly rely on it even more than artists, I think; I know there are those who dispute the existence of this hidden depths of the mind at all, though how they account for the strangely dream like state in which writers create, I don’t exactly know; possibly a form of madness?
I do know that some complete scenes for books have come to me when playing baroque music –played out like a film in my minds eye, and it is interesting that some sources argue that baroque music does in fact make both sides of the brain (my what?) work in harmony. I can’t find any link on this at the moment, though, which would indicate that at least one side of my brain isn’t working too well…
Some months ago, when writing about writer’s block (ugh!) I came on some intriguing advice on this website, which suggests amongst other things that writers should try to write as early in the morning as possible, as the time when you are closest to sleep is also the time when you are closest to your unconscious, and that this is excellent for creativity. Of course, this isn’t possible for lots of people, and it’s purely impossible for anyone with a small child, unless that child happens to be an angelic sleeper, but I do think that there is something in this; it’s surprising how if you start writing when half asleep, after a truly horrendously bad night, the ideas seem to start to flow almost of their own accord (but not always, of course; and almost certainly not when suffering from a dismal case of writer’s block).
Again, I can’t find that link (indicating that I am particularly poor at finding links in the evening) but I have found some fascinating discussion on this link
‘As mentioned above, creativity peaks in the morning as the creative connections in our brains are most active. If you believe that creativity is your best source for ideation, then the early morning should be your best time for new thoughts.
The greatest evidence for this effect is with dreams. Science has told us that creativity is a function of connections between many different networks throughout the brain. With that in mind, consider this observation from Tom Stafford, writing for the BBC:
An interesting aspect of the dream world: the creation of connections between things that didn’t seem connected before. When you think about it, this isn’t too unlike a description of what creative people do in their work – connecting ideas and concepts that nobody thought to connect before in a way that appears to make sense.
Try this: Ideas when you’re at your groggiest
If early morning idea sessions aren’t your cup of tea, you might be interested in a study from Mareike Wietha and Rose Zacks that found creative ideas often come at our least optimal times.
Their experiment measured insight ability and analytic ability, two components to the creative idea process. Participants identified themselves as either morning people or evening people and underwent a series of tests at different times of day. The tests for analytic ability revealed no significant findings, but for insight ability, the results were telling:
What Wieth and Zacks found was that strong morning-types were better at solving the more mysterious insight problems in the evening, when they apparently weren’t at their best.
Exactly the same pattern, but in reverse, was seen for people who felt their brightest in the evening: they performed better on the insight task when they were unfocused in the morning.
The theory goes that as our minds tire at our suboptimal times then our focus broadens. We are able to see more opportunities and make connections with an open mind. When we are working in our ideal time of day, our mind’s focus is honed to a far greater degree, potentially limiting our creative options.’
It is interesting that with regard to the unconscious, Freud and Jung fell out over their differing interpretations of it; Jung wished to incorporate an element of what would now be seen as ‘parapsychology’ into his concept of the unconscious, and believed that at their deepest level all our unconscious minds are linked; this all, of course, links in with his ideas about what he called ‘synchronicities’ – the statistically impossible number of strange co-incidences in everyday life.
This concept might explain how it is that two writers can come up with strikingly similar ideas for plots, characters, etc at the same time.
When writing, you are aware of conscious influences to your writing – in my case, for instance, Jane Austen and Patrick Hamilton –but how far are we aware of those unconscious influences? We are most likely being influenced by some event or reading material long forgotten.
For that matter, why do we remember the reading material we do remember? Is this because it has a lingering fascination for us? I think this may be so, however critical we may be of it.
I have written before about the snowed in period in the Clwyd Valley, where I was reduced to reading a good deal of stuff bought as ‘job lots’ in auctions by my parents to fill the innumerable bookshelves in the house. I read several books by Georgette Heyer and ‘The Outcast of the Family’ by Charles Garvice.
I recall, too, the plots of some of the books which I read a couple of years before this, when I started to read adult fiction.
One of these was a grim story of remarkable political incorrectness concerning two men of restricted stature; it was called ‘Me and Victor and Mrs Blanchard’; probably the main reason why I remember that story, is the astounding brutality of the scene where another male lodger is terribly beaten during a fight and left half dead on the stairs.
Another was one I have never been able to trace, a short story about a man who did almost nothing, and spent hours sitting with his feet up on the doorknob. Another occupant of the house told him: ‘I hate you because you’re a bum; everyone hates you.’
I don’t, however, remember the ending. Maybe the protagonist became a workaholic whom everyone adored. I have never been able to trace this story, although I’d like to re-read it, as it’s subject matter seems so unusual; but it’s notoriously difficult to trace a short story.
I read another story which a female relative who shall remain nameless had out from the library, a romance by Barbara Cartland. Set in Victorian England, it concerned a very unhealthily overweight girl in the US whose mother forced her to marry an English duke for the title; he was marrying her for money, and had no plans to see her after the wedding.
She collapsed immediately after the marriage, and her tiara rolled down the aisle; her mother was so outraged that she died of a heart attack. The girl lay in a coma for a year, but during this time, her devoted aunt gave her massage and fed her healthy drinks, so that when she woke up a year later, she weighed seven stone, and her hair had miraculously turned from mousey to silver gilt.
Shortly afterwards, she set off to England to work in some capacity for the duke she had married (I’ve forgotten what job she took up; or why; I do remember the aunt thoroughly approved of the scheme). The rest of the story was predictable, but it took me some time to realise that it wasn’t a spoof, as it could be read as a truly wonderful one.
I wonder what was going on in the unconscious of Barbara Cartland when she wrote that one…