The Subconscious: A Writer’s Best Friend

by | May 25, 2018 |

First I said a Plot Buddy was a writer’s best friend. Then I added Self-Knowledge. Finally, I’m asserting it’s The Subconscious. I’ll now claim these three to be the Writer’s Trinity.

Today is the next installment in my Recovering Creativity quest guided by Julia Cameron‘s Vein of Gold.

Working with the Subconscious: Grab-Bag Collage

We writers work with words. Although we strive to paint pictures in our stories, our medium remains words. The act of articulation is the act of bringing something – an emotion, an event – to consciousness.

Images bypass consciousness. Cameron writes that “images speak directly to the subconscious” and therein lies their power. I’ve long held the notion that a great movie poster’s effect skims just below the threshold of articulation to grab our imagination.

Even though I was on board with the idea that images speak directly to the subconscious, I was completely surprised by the result of the first image-based task Cameron gave me:

“Working as rapidly as you can, pull twenty to thirty images from a stack of magazines. Glue these images to a poster board in whatever way feels enjoyable to you. The images do not need to – and often don’t or won’t – make sense. They are intended to be very free-form, spontaneous, and top-of the-mind. You don’t need to know why an image appeals to you…. Just yank and paste.”

I was game although a bit skeptical and maybe even cynical because I figured the exercise was going to be predetermined by the magazines I happened to choose: Women’s Health, Psychology Today and The Economist 1843 (a magazine of ideas, lifestyle and culture, as it says on the cover).

Here’s the collage I came up with last week:


I guarantee you this collage initially meant absolutely nothing to me.

The Subconscious: The Collage and My Secret Selves

On Saturday night I got together with my friend Kristine who I wanted to tell about the Secret Selves exercise I blogged about last week. I knew we’d have fun identifying and naming hers and playing around with mine. Indeed, we had a ball – and Cameron recommends doing these kinds of exercises with a trusted friend because they often have insights into you that you miss.

The Secret Selves are your personal Board of Directors, and Kristine and I identified our respective Chairperson and who reported to who. Then we asked them all sorts of questions.

The Secret Selves are astonishing to me. Once you’ve identified them, they spontaneously answer your questions. Here’s an example from Saturday night:

Me: “What should I do about finding/making new friends?”

My Secret Selves in order:

Wanderer (Curious Cat): “Keep wandering.”

Linguist (Witchy Woman): “You will now have to show up at professional events.”

Note: Good point. For some years I have not been attending linguistics conferences.

Stand-Up Comedian (Jules): “You need to get social in Durham.”

Socialite (Juliette): “You need to get social in Durham.”

Note: Although I have taught at Duke for many years, my principal residence was in Florida. I just sold it and am buying property in Durham for the first time in 12 years. So the Stand-up’s and Socialite’s answers were reasonable.

Finally, I was totally taken aback by the Diplomat‘s (Henry‘s) measured response:

“Making friends is not my department.”

I was surprised into a laugh. Cold! On further reflection, however, it is true that a Diplomat’s job is not to make friends. His job is to solve interpersonal problems.

Now, back to my collage.

I woke up on Sunday morning, looked at the images and suddenly understood what they meant.

The central image is that of a man – clearly an executive – on a plane. That’s obviously my Diplomat Henry. On Saturday night I determined that he and my Wanderer (Curious Cat – genderless?) are my Alpha and Omega. They run my show, so naturally Henry is en route to wherever Curious Cat is sending him. To his left is an exotic bird, to his right is a girl in an airplane pose, both of which reinforce the central image of flight and adventure. Above Henry is a boy whose watermelon is a big smile: my Stand-up Comedian who is the middle figure in my selves.

I could go on, but my point is clear: my subconscious already knew what I first came to articulate several days later.

The Subconscious: My Next Story

I’m about to begin Book II in my Buy Me Love shapeshifter trilogy. As usual, I know very little about it except that the plot has to continue what happened at the end of Book I and that the story is set in Orlando, Florida and involves werepathers.

Either before starting – or else early on in the writing – I’m going to do Secret Selves exercises for my two main characters, at least, and I will be sure to make both/all of them collages.

See also: Writing Tips

For more tips on writing a book, visit my complete guide on writing a book.

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This post was written by Julie Tetel Andresen

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