Take a Creative Writing Tip from Stephen King
How to use your unconscious mind to expand your writing ideas.
When focusing on a writing challenge and unable to find a creative solution, I turn the problem over to my unconscious mind. It’s using what Stephen King calls ‘the boys in the basement.’
In his book, On Writing, Stephen King uses “the boys in the basement” to describe that unconscious mind that is always working away under the surface. Holding all our knowledge in the conscious brain, without storing some in the unconscious, we’d soon be losing our marbles. Therefore, learning to use the two parts of my brain in tandem sounded like an excellent plan to me.
The information in the conscious brain works like tabs in a filing cabinet. Pull the tab and we open a trap door into the unconscious minds. One explanation I heard says that the brain storage area is actually millions of little filing cubicles. Everything we’ve ever been exposed to is in there somewhere.
But it may not be in any order, or even in its entirety in any one cube. And since the unconscious has no filter, the validity of the information is in question. The true and the false are all stored as fact. And it is retrieved without judgment and therefore may not be currently applicable.
Therefore, when an event occurs, we are feed everything even if it is wrong. Not realizing this can get us in trouble, especially with emotions. Anger can be triggered by a miss-match of those facts. If you know that retrieval of information is triggering your anger, you can take that nanosecond and short circuit the anger if it is no longer applicable.
Controlling anger was my introduction to this concept. The younger me was one of those stereotypical hot-tempered red-heads. Given the slightest provocation, I could shout, stomp my feet and throw things with the best of them. When I learned how and why the anger flared and realized I could sidetrack those old ideas, I had to stop acting out. And I did. Now I am a bottle-dyed red-head without a demonstrative temper. (And I like myself a lot better BTW.)
Since this process happens most of the time without our participation, why not use it deliberately? I’d say it’s kin to priming the hand-pump on grandma’s farm. With an old hand-pumped well, if it hadn’t been used, you had to dump in a cup or so of water when you start pumping in order to get the well water to flow. Same thing with ideas and the unconscious. Put in a few key ideas and wait for the rest to surface.
After reading that King used the unconscious mind as a creative tool, I employed my unconscious in my writing process. When my first published book refused to gel, I posed the problem in my journal before going to bed. After a solid sleep, I woke with a statement on the tip of my tongue. Sheldon Harris came home dead.
And behind those words, the magic of a magicians’ scarf pulled out more information. My brain blasted into questions. Why did the character come home dead? When was it? Who died and who found them. And where were they? And what exactly does ‘come home dead’ mean? Answering the questions, I found the shape for my story.
My ‘girls in the basement,’ as I prefer to call them, had done their job. You can have boys, girls or elves in your basement. It’s up to you what you call them. But know that they are there.
And they run up and down the rows of cubes tossing up information related to our problem. With some knitting and mending of the details and ideas, we can find a solution.
Here’s the process. State the question or problem, write it down, and set it aside. The elves may need to really dig into the memory storage so, don’t push them. Get busy doing something else.
It isn’t necessary to sleep on it, although that’s an efficient use of time. You can engage the front of your brain while the elves work. Any mundane task that requires attention, but not much thought, will do. Take a walk, clean the oven, mow the lawn, shower.
Be sure to have a recording method at hand to capture the information from your elves. Follow the exploration of your unconscious with a fast-writing session. I’m usually pleasantly surprised, and occasionally ecstatic, with the results. The process has given me titles, plot quirks, and blasting-caps for writer’s block.
Try it. You don’t have to take it from me — listen to Stephen King. He knows what he’s talking about.