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Thread: Conscious vs. unconscious writing in fiction

  1. #1

    Conscious vs. unconscious writing in fiction

    I've heard many fiction writers -- and I've found this to be the case in my own experience as well -- speak of the fact that their writing comes from the unconscious rather than the conscious mind. At least, that their best writing does. That it comes from a dream-like or reverie state of mind, as a kind of mysterious and spontaneous emanation from some depth, and not as the result of conscious, logical planning processes.

    On the other hand, fiction usually does have structure and some coherence, which seems to require some planning. And people do edit their pieces, and obviously that editing must have some conscious element to it. A lot of people seem to outline their pieces extensively -- that also sounds like primarily consciously guided work.

    What is the place of unconscious as opposed to conscious writing in your work? How do you strike a balance between the two, or do you lean far in one direction or another?

  2. #2
    _ SomethingOrOther's Avatar
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    What is the place of unconscious as opposed to conscious writing in your work?
    My raw material largely comes from the unconscious, or at least the not-thought-too-hard-about-ious. I refine it, organize it, and structure it in a very conscious way.

    The first paragraph is true. When I think too hard, I create stunted, uninspired, frustrated writing.

    How do you strike a balance between the two, or do you lean far in one direction or another?
    I don't try to strike any overall balances--I choose whatever approach I feel is best for what I'm doing. The direction I lean in is situational as explained above.

    That it comes from a dream-like or reverie state of mind, as a kind of mysterious and spontaneous emanation from some depth, and not as the result of conscious, logical planning processes.
    Top secret: my best material comes from the meows of dogs and barks of cats. In fact, a lot of my writing is outsourced to a group of puppies on typewriters. I pay them more bones and tennis balls per year than any other firm. They all smoke bubble pipes and wear jackets with elbow patches. Here is a passage of brilliance one has produced:

    ae,gj ;lawe eramlkp bm3lpghk-aw pko[jawejorge jpkawer oajkwef j;opeaj ;;kgr;r kpokjaekpjg kpejwg jkpo[wreajp[wjkp kpja[gmlkprga eraje jkareokw jo[ernkg[cxgr,,t, awerjk jlk3lkgraavjmbnnxvclawpwt pok[orgeasngirk;vm ;awowp ;rma;wnre.fm;alwjrkawrzmiwkzl;krwjmpwrgae awp

    About to take the literary world by storm.
    Last edited by SomethingOrOther; 04-24-2012 at 10:56 AM.
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  3. #3
    practical experience, FTW friendlyhobo's Avatar
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    I feel like the planning or outlining process isn't necessarily the opposite of spontaneity. That the dream like focus comes out in that process for some people as opposed to the drafting process. I prefer planning in fact (and I am one of those people), because then I can refer back to my enthusiasm and regain it in the much more challenging drafting process. Also I think that logic is beautiful .

  4. #4
    Retired Illuminatus dangerousbill's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by theorange View Post
    .
    What is the place of unconscious as opposed to conscious writing in your work? How do you strike a balance between the two, or do you lean far in one direction or another?
    The storyline (including subplots) and characters come from the mysterious depths of the earth, like iron, silver, and copper.

    Smelting them and hammering them into useful shapes like swords and coin is the task of the conscious mind.
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    I just hate a lot of scenes I write, actually. Then I try to sneak up on those scenes again some other time

    I do definitely have to balance how conscious I get of my writing as I write it. I write best when the thoughts feel like they need to be caught.

    My editing doesn't require that, thank goodness. And I can think of structure and scene ideas outside of my writing sessions, but there's no promise that the writing will go very much like I envision it. If it gets too out there, I close up the computer for the night
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    Quote Originally Posted by theorange View Post
    What is the place of unconscious as opposed to conscious writing in your work? How do you strike a balance between the two, or do you lean far in one direction or another?
    It might even be true that at different times I'm doing one or the other, but I've never considered myself to be writing consciously or writing unconsciously (subconsciously?). I write. What comes out comes out. There's no sense of wanting to balance conscious and unconscious writing or leaning one way or the other.

  8. #8
    Tell it like it Is Susan Littlefield's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by dangerousbill View Post
    The storyline (including subplots) and characters come from the mysterious depths of the earth, like iron, silver, and copper.

    Smelting them and hammering them into useful shapes like swords and coin is the task of the conscious mind.
    This is so well said.

    Often times, I find myself in "the zone" where I just write and it comes out just right (ha, ha, pun intended ). I don't know if that would be unconscious writing, but it seems I don't make many changes to those scenes.
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  9. #9
    Lost in mental space. Namatu's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by theorange View Post
    I've heard many fiction writers -- and I've found this to be the case in my own experience as well -- speak of the fact that their writing comes from the unconscious rather than the conscious mind. At least, that their best writing does. That it comes from a dream-like or reverie state of mind, as a kind of mysterious and spontaneous emanation from some depth, and not as the result of conscious, logical planning processes.
    Bolding mine. I personally don't care for this kind of characterization. If I haven't consciously thought about or planned it, I also haven't sat there staring into space in some sort of reverie.* It just pops up on its own, likely the result of observations and ideas noted, internalized, and set in storage until needed.

    As far as describing that process, I prefer:
    Quote Originally Posted by dangerousbill View Post
    The storyline (including subplots) and characters come from the mysterious depths of the earth, like iron, silver, and copper.

    Smelting them and hammering them into useful shapes like swords and coin is the task of the conscious mind.
    Nicely put!

    * That's me; experiences may vary.

  10. #10
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    I just write them, and don't worry about where they come from.

  11. #11
    practical experience, FTW readitnweep's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Jamesaritchie View Post
    I just write them, and don't worry about where they come from.
    This. Also, if I'm stuck or I dislike where my writing is headed, I'll go do the dishes or polish the floors or something and come back to it later after not thinking about it for a while. When I come back, I always get past it. This may constitute for "unconscious" writing - or not.

    I think just writing without thinking about how or why is the important thing.
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  12. #12
    Very interesting responses so far. Let me try it from a few other angles as well.

    To what extent is writing a matter of:
    -"listening" to something inside yourself as opposed to a matter of "inventing" something?
    -"discovering" something as opposed to "creating"?
    -"bottom-up" and "organic" as opposed to "top-down" and "command-and-control"?

    Tolstoy said he could be surprised by his characters doing unexpected things. Nabokov said the idea of a character doing something like that sounded appalling and that he was in control.

    Do all these oppositions fall along the same conscious-unconscious axis?

  13. #13
    Retired Illuminatus dangerousbill's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by theorange View Post
    To what extent is writing a matter of:
    -"listening" to something inside yourself as opposed to a matter of "inventing" something?
    -"discovering" something as opposed to "creating"?
    -"bottom-up" and "organic" as opposed to "top-down" and "command-and-control"?
    Tolstoy and Nabokov were telling me this just the other day down at the pub. By now, I know that if my characters don't take over and write the story themselves by chapter five or six, the novel's going to be a failure.
    Dangerous Bill

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    http://www.amazon.com/Lessons-Domina...=william+gaius

  14. #14
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    Quote Originally Posted by theorange View Post
    Very interesting responses so far. Let me try it from a few other angles as well.

    To what extent is writing a matter of:
    -"listening" to something inside yourself as opposed to a matter of "inventing" something?
    -"discovering" something as opposed to "creating"?
    -"bottom-up" and "organic" as opposed to "top-down" and "command-and-control"?

    Tolstoy said he could be surprised by his characters doing unexpected things. Nabokov said the idea of a character doing something like that sounded appalling and that he was in control.

    Do all these oppositions fall along the same conscious-unconscious axis?

    I would argue that writing can be all of those things at some point. Most of my ideas come from my sub-conscious mind, and I can listen to those ideas and write them down, which I usually do. But sometimes I might write something else. I can create a character and discover something about him/her later on that I didn't know.

    I find it interesting that we may all be writers, but we don't all write the same. What works for me won't work for everyone else and vice versa. Your mention of Tolstoy and Nabokov is an excellent example of that.
    Last edited by writingismypassion; 04-25-2012 at 09:30 PM.
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  15. #15
    practical experience, FTW Al Stevens's Avatar
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    "Subconscious," as Robj pointed out. My fingers don't work when I'm asleep. And my dreams sure don't translate into rational stories.

  16. #16
    Seashell Seller Layla Nahar's Avatar
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    I like this question/these questions. I can see that for those who have been able to write viable stories without a steep learning curve, this may seem like a waste of time to speculate about.

    I used to think success in writing was purely from being able connect with your subconcious. But unlike the composition of say, a photograph or a painting whose results you experience in an instant, with music and stories there is a first step that leads to a next step, to a conclusion. You need your analytical mind to work that causality in to it. (basically like what dangerousbill said)
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  17. #17
    More cowbell! randi.lee's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by dangerousbill View Post
    I know that if my characters don't take over and write the story themselves by chapter five or six, the novel's going to be a failure.
    This is a very interesting response. I'll go with this.
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