Free Association as a Writing Technique
Warning, I’m going to get into some mumbo jumbo here.
I have something to admit as a writer, specifically as a fiction writer, though when I think about it, this probably can be applied to any writing. Except possibly technical writing- we don’t want product manuals and safety warnings to come from our deep subconscious.
When I write well I’m tapping into something undefinable, and I let things follow their own path. It is not completely random. I do have a notion where I want to go with a story or an idea, but I try not to think about it too much while doing the first draft.
The first draft is subconscious, the rewrites and editing are conscious
There are two parts of becoming a good writer. The first is the basics of vocabulary, grammar, and exposition. These are the supplies and tools you need to go on a journey. You learn them by reading, first and foremost, not by attending writing classes or buying online courses. Without them your work will not leave the stable.
Ideas, the basis of a story, are maps. Like maps, they point a way but they are not important once you get started. If an idea is any good it will take you somewhere unexpected. And once you are there, you have to let go of too much thinking and simply explore.
I realize this is pretty random and there is a reason for that. This doesn’t lend itself to logical description as a process. Yes, you can follow a formula. You know, write 600 hundred words at the same time each day without fail, not worrying about quality. As a model for getting things done that formula works. But it is only a framework for turning writing into a habit that gives your subconscious permission to start out.
Unlike most forays into the unknown, writing has a second aspect that makes this journey less scary than most. You can change things after the fact with rewrites and edits. But in my experience it is best to not shift gears after each session and go back and fix things. You need to let the weird stuff you just wrote ferment for a while.
Fermentation is transformative
Have you ever had Korean Kimchi? To most westerners the idea of eating something that has basically been rotting for a while is off putting. Remember, in old Korea they would layer vegetables with salt and chili in a crock, seal it, and bury it. After it had fermented for a long time it became transformed into a delicious condiment.
I would argue that stories are no different. We create them and then let them ferment below the surface, or on a drive somewhere. Only after this transformative pause do we open them up and read them as a reader and editor.
The really interesting thing about this process, actually the most interesting thing, is how you may not even remember writing those specific words. Characters do things on their own. Events unfold in unexpected ways. If you start messing with that too early you may ruin something good. Let it stew in its own juices.
You will get better at this
I love my first completed novel. It showed me that I could do this thing. But now if I read it I realize I’ve moved on from that level. I think this is why so many novelists have a first novel no one has seen. By the time we get done with one we know a lot more about the process.
This is the exact reason I’m writing this. I did not realize how deep a dive into the unknown writing is. You can’t dive until you let go of the world of your logic and free associate. I’m not suggesting random ruminating, though I kind of like the sound of that.
The free association is not random. It just follows a Zenlike logic that is different than we are used to. But I do have a trigger warning:
If you let yourself go into this place you will be addicted to the experience. You will want to go back. You will miss the feeling you get when you read something that blows your mind and realize you wrote it. Or when you read something and it sucks, because at that point you probably know how to fix it. That’s a great feeling too.
Sometimes you just can’t get there
Yesterday I texted a friend that I had not been able to write for three days, a long period for me. The fact that three days seemed long indicates that I’ve successfully installed a habit, which is, in itself, an accomplishment. But I’ve been doing this a long time so I’ve learned that it comes back.
I think of those times as gestation periods. It seems like you have no ideas or you just don’t care. It may be that I had too much conscious stuff to deal with. Or I didn’t like the weather. Who knows? But by now I know my subconscious writer mind is down there working things out.
Let that thing inside you do its thing. It will eventually come to the surface.