Thursday, January 17, 2019

Stream of subconsciousness

Michael - Thursday

I've wondered for many years just how creativity is generated. I imagined that experts know a lot about this topic and others connected with the purpose and MO of the subconscious, but it's not really the case. There is a lot of speculation and many experiments, but I don't think many experts would claim to understand what is really going on.

When - in another life - I did research in mathematics, I had several occasions when I woke in the morning with a new approach that I hadn't considered before. It would make a good story to say that these were always successful. They were not. But they were always new and reasonable. Sometimes they did work and sometimes they could be worked into something else that worked. On the other hand, sometimes I would wake in the middle of the night with a solution to a problem. I would hastily write it down before I went back to sleep, scared that in the morning it would be gone and my breakthrough would be lost forever. In the morning I would check the details and always find an error or a missing and unfillable gap. I believe these analyses were left overs of the thought processes from my conscious mind that had been reincarnated as dream-mathematics.

On the other hand, I once woke with the kernel of a short story in my head. It was definitely a dream and one that I remembered very vividly. During the next couple of days, I wrote the story the way my conscious mind structured it, Stan gave input, and it was eventually published in Crimespree magazine as Parlour Game. It's the only story that we've written that was not set in Africa.

Stan and I both believe in brainstorming and that, I guess, is one way one tries to get the conscious mind to be creative. Last week Stan wrote about our dilemma with Facets of Death. If a criminal is careful, savvy, and works through other people, then he's very difficult for the police to catch. (Most criminals are none of these three.) The police need to play more or less by the rules; the criminals do not. We attacked the problem two ways. We would "sleep on it", leaving our subconscious minds free to do whatever it is that they do. Then we would "brainstorm" it, throwing out ideas no matter how way out and seeing where they went. This seems to be rather like trying to make two conscious minds behave like one subconscious one.

In the case of our problem, the discussion on Saturday night went something like this:

'What about the...'
'Hmm. Interesting...'
'But he's dead!'
'But does the bad guy know that?'
'Maybe not. The police don't even know who the dead man is, do they?'
'Maybe he could pretend to have the diamonds. Could he persuade the bad guy to...'
'Remember your character? Kubu's friend?'
'Yes! He could do it! That would be good. He seemed important when we wrote him but then he didn't go anywhere...'

Stan woke on Sunday morning with a plan for how this idea could be implemented, and I wrote it. By Sunday night the book was finished. We'd tried lots of other ideas before that one, and while they might have worked, they lacked plausibility or coherence with the story up to that point. They weren't satisfying.

The question I'm puzzling about now, is that character - Kubu's acquaintance - who seemed important but didn't really go anywhere. Was he just a lucky coincidence? Was he really supposed to be part of another story? Or was Michael Stanley's "subconscious" already somehow thinking ahead?

I'd be really interested to hear of other writers experiences. Do they brainstorm by themselves? Do plotters resolve it all in a linear sequential away? Or is it all a mixture - a sort of alphabet soup of ideas that somehow crystallise into a good story?


  1. Michael, I think the subconscious mind is a whole lot smarter than the “rational” mind. When that kind of solution shows up “out of the blue,” it’s because the unconscious mind put it there. What I find even more astounding, is that you and Stan can operate on that level as a team

    Doing it all by myself feels like a magic trick. I have to say that I cannot explain it but I love it when it happens. Like most of life’s experiences, it must increase the pleasure when it’s shared.

    1. Yes, it is a bit like a magic trick - it works, you don't know how, and somehow you feel you should!

  2. I knew you guys would pull it off, because you’re careful, savvy, and work through each other. :)

  3. I was talking about your experience when lecturing on Tuesday - the panic of not having the right ending when the word count needs it. My advice was to look closely at the typescript as the answer will already be there, written by the creative subconscious while the conscious mind was fretting over Brexit. Alcohol can free up the subconscious- so I am told...

    1. Caro, you were spot on as usual. I'm not sure about alcohol, but it certainly does no harm. That's my story and I'm sticking to it!