A case for letting your subconscious run free when writing fiction
Much of the writing advice I see focuses on technique, mindset, emotional engagement, and other influencers that involve the writer’s conscious mind. Yet, these conscious efforts often yield unoriginal prose that lacks mystery, is too overtly descriptive, or is derivative of a work the writer admires. Don’t get me wrong- if you want to write a Game of Thrones clone, be my guest, and join the throng. But if you want to delve into your own unique voice, you have a tool we are all blessed with: the subconscious mind.
In this article I’m going to show an example from the creative process that helped me write my first novel The Rememberers. It shows how something as fleeting as glimpsed image can become the central theme and determiner of a story’s voice. Bear in mind that this process only became apparent to me years after it unfolded. I’ll touch on how that happened too.
A train racing through the woods in early spring
Several years ago I was in a train going through western NY on my way to NYC from my home, Rochester, NY. It was early spring, and while the trees were beginning to leaf out, you could still see into the forest we were passing through. I find scenery, seen from a train moving relatively fast, mesmerizing. I was gazing at this scenery and my mind was drifting when I got the briefest glimpse of the remains of an automotive graveyard that the forest had taken over. Just some rusting hulks with trees growing around and through them. Because of the speed I barely had time to register what I had seen before it was gone. But apparently my subconscious saw the seeds of a story there because it resurfaced and was so compelling that I felt I had a write a scene that somehow captured the feeling in that random scene.
A chance meeting on a train, or was it?
Before I share that sketch, dashed out in a few minutes, I’m going to digress (because my subconscious wants me to). First, about train trips: If you are blocked or simply looking to loosen up the creative juices there are two things I recommend: For short term fixes, a long walk and for regaining perspective, a solo train trip. Both are great ways to let your mind do its thing without your conscious getting in the way. Here’s the sketch:
(Please note: This is formatted more like a poem by intent. The place it occupies in the novel is a turning point where we find two characters in a place where they cannot remember how they got there or their past. It begins a section that attempts to display this disconnect with this formatting.)
‘Two people sit across from each other on a train, in the not too distant future.
Each thinks the other is familiar.
Slowly they each realize that there are things about their lives that they no longer are clear about.
Each goes back in time and recovers splintered memories.
Flashbacks to an apartment in a highrise with jet trails across a clear blue sky.
Both share the memory but they are together in it and they do not remember it.
There is another and another
They parallel each other but the memories are subtly different.
One shares a memory and the other responds with their version.
They don’t understand what is happening.
They are piecing together two lost lives.
They realize that something happened that they cannot account for.
Do others have the same experience?
Who are the people they have thought were real?
They are both married and have complete memories, or so they thought.
They are filled with questions.
The train stops and the woman gets off, somewhat in a daze.
The man watches her, paralyzed.
The train pulls away.
He sits with tears streaming down his face, staring out the window.
It is raining.
After an indeterminate amount of time he awakes with a start and gets up to get a cup of coffee and something on the opposite seat catches his eye.
It is a business card.
The sky clears and the train slows.
There is a wood outside filled with rusted cars. (emphasis mine)
The train starts again and he turns his head to watch the cars and wood recede.
Something about the scene…
It’s a trigger, he thinks.
She was a trigger.
A reaction has started that will accelerate in his memory and change his life.
He looks at the card.
It says Maria Wood. A plain name, not seeming to be real.
The train slows and people start getting up.
He gets up, takes down his bag, a backpack.
He takes out his wallet and takes out a card and drops it onto the seat.
He leaves the train.
The card says Ray Wood.’
This scene came out fully written, months after seeing that glimpse of the wrecks in the woods. And it became the central theme of a rather complex novel about loss, memory, and alternative lives. It sets the tone, though the rest of the novel is not written in this disjointed voice, a tone of presenting the mysterious without questioning. When my characters come close to discussing what it going on they are diverted away by a power that seeks to protect them. All of this from an image and an attempt to capture its effect on me.
A Note on Micro-fiction
I have a friend who is part of the burgeoning micro-fiction movement. This literary form consists of extremely short pieces of prose, often enigmatic in meaning. The scene above might quality as micro-fiction, however it had a different destiny.
It can’t be found again
I was on that train again this weekend. NY is like a second home to me and I always take the train. I nearly always look for those cars in that resting place but I have not seen them again. I do not believe I imagined them. It may simply be that in the hundreds of miles of forest the odds of seeing them again are slim. But I keep looking.
The lesson here is simple. Let the subconscious do its thing. Don’t get too literal-logic doesn’t mean much in life or in fiction. Tricks and tips about plotting and characters often overshadow the tools we have for storytelling, ancient tools and things we can tap into if we let our subconscious help us.