Imagination, creativity, psychology, it’s all in the conscious and the unconscious mind. We know ( or think we know ) how the conscious mind works, to the extent that we can even monitor brain activity in those parts of the brain stimulated by thinking of physical activity, like playing tennis¹. We are logical, rational beings ( unless we choose not to be ), though we also recognise our emotional aspect. We also, especially since Freud gave us a modern vocabulary to name it, recognise that our unconscious mind exists and influences us too.
Psyche, she who married Cupid, has, of course, been with us since classical times and has inspired many a work of art (see Burne Jones’ version right). In the Phaedo Plato has Socrates argue that psyche is the immortal soul or life spirit, indeed the word itself means ‘life’ or ‘breath’ in Greek, though this becomes latinized later as the anima – that which animates us.
Modern neuro-science too is interested in how the unconscious mind, sometimes somewhat inaccurately called the subconscious, impacts upon creativity and you can find lots on this in Psychology Today.
But how does this impact on writers?
Some writers plan out a novel methodically, others do not know, when they begin, where they will end up (though some planning will be done at some point, otherwise the story won’t be consistent). But, even with individual chapter synopses and an overall design, one’s unconscious mind is still in play. How does this manifest itself?
Writers often refer to characters doing things which they’re not supposed to, or that isn’t part of any plan. They seem to come to life and decide to do things of their own volition. This happened to me recently when two of the main characters in the novel I am currently writing slept together. This wasn’t in any chapter synopsis, or even part of the plot! The author was, I can attest, very surprised. So where did it come from?
The answer, of course, is from my unconscious mind.
Some writers don’t allow this type of manifestation. When asked recently, Lionel Shriver advised her interviewer that it never happened with her characters. They were firmly under control. Others, those I’ve spoken with about it, say that it happens more frequently than one would think. Given that there is a structure or framework and sufficient detail about the characters, who must be known intimately by their creator, it doesn’t take much for the unconscious to make the connections and – hey presto! I found one of my characters waking up next to the other and recalling, albeit vaguely ( I have no pretensions to the ‘bad sex writing’ award ) the night before.
Perhaps that this is what is meant, on a very practical level, by inspiration – the random association of existing ideas into a new unison. ( Locke, Essay Concerning Human Understanding ) Whatever it is, this latest example was a real surprise. Though, as I found out when I decided to amend the rest of the novel to incorporate the latest development, in fact, it needed very little amendment. It almost seemed as if this particular union was meant to happen.
Thank you unconscious mind.