Instinctual writing
February 4 , 2008

Instincts play a big part in my writing. Generally, if I follow them they lead me to interesting places, making connections between my story and my characters that my conscious mind can't get to. For me, outlining kills this process of discovery. The story stalls because to my instinctual mind it's already been written, so why write it again? 

This method isn't without problems. Sometimes it doesn't work at all, other times it only half works: I'll start off with an idea, some characters and setting, and pretty soon I think I know what the story is about and head off down the highway. Inevitably, I hit a pothole—usually a big 'ol pothole that can turn into a sinkhole. I flail around trying to get out of the pit, having a hard time (sometimes) even recognizing where the edges of the pit lie. (Or lay, as the case may be.) 

When that happens, I can either keep flailing until something pulls me out, or lay the story aside and wait until my conscious mind catches up with my instinctual mind. At times I need the help of an outside agency. When the problem isn't with my characters or setting, but with the deeper layers of plot—the themes, for instance—I sometimes have to look to research reading to rescue me. I do a certain amount of research reading before I start writing, but only on the ideas that I recognize up front are going to be part of the story. The problem is with all those ideas I didn't realize were there going in. 

Case in point: my partially finished novel, Venus In Transit. I got a long way into that one, thinking all the while I was on top of things, before I realized I'd fallen into a rabbit hole and couldn't get out. I scrabbled for a foothold, but nothing. I worked on other stuff, periodically going back to VIT to chip away at it. Still nothing. Each time it went back into the trunk it said, "There's something I need." "What?" I'd ask. "I don't know. But I'll know it when I see it."  

This fall I decided to give it another try. I started reading books on parapsychology, hoping they would give me a clue (since the MC is a parapsychologist). Somewhere in browsing Amazon, I came across a book called Trickster and the Paranormal by George P. Hansen. Instinctually, I knew it was exactly what I needed, and it hasn't disappointed me. I've read it slowly, because it's one densely packed mama jama, and all along the way it has sparked ideas, given me new appreciation for the themes of my story, revealed aspects of character I'd only guessed at before. The remarkable thing—and this isn't the first time I've experienced this—is that all of the things I needed to bring into my conscious mind were already there, laid down by my instincts, but in some odd "alchemical" code. I just needed to see them in a different way in order to understand them. This book has helped me do that.  

The unconscious is the voice of the collective. It knows all the codes that we don't see in our waking lives. It's forced to send messages via instinct and dreams because the left brain, the conscious mind, always thinks it's in control. It's The Decider, and doesn't want to listen to the advice of it's messy and primal dark twin. In reality, we are such a hodgepodge of social programming that we aren't capable of making any decisions, creative or otherwise, without the vast library of societal prejudice, assumption, and conditioning, the collective hive mind, coming to bear. We're just not aware of it at the time. 

It's not a popular notion in the rugged individualism culture of America—but that's another discussion for another day.

Copyright © 2010 P.J. Thompson