Dreaming of Nazi-dragon-demons circa 1934

If you want to stimulate yourself into writing, amuse yourself in wordless ways. Instead of going to a theatre, hear a symphony orchestra, or go by yourself to a museum; go alone for long walks, or ride by yourself on a bus-top. If you will conscientiously refuse to talk or read you will find yourself compensating for it to your great advantage.

One very well-known writer of my acquaintance sits for two hours a day on a park bench. He says that for years he used to lie on the grass of his back garden and stare at the sky, but some member of the family, seeing him so conveniently alone and aimless, always seized the occasion to come out and sit beside him for a nice talk. Sooner or later, he himself would begin to talk about the work he had in mind, and, to his astonishment, he discovered that the urgent desire to write the story disappeared as soon as he had got it thoroughly talked out. Now, with a purposeful air and in mysterious silence, he disappears daily, and can be found every afternoon (but fortunately seldom is) with his hands in his pocket staring at pigeons in the park.

Another writer, almost tone-deaf, says that she can finish any story she starts if she can find a hall where a long symphony is being played. The lights, the music, her immobility, bring on a sort of artistic coma, and she emerges in a sleepwalking state which lasts till she reaches the typewriter.

Dorothea Brande, Becoming a Writer

The time to write is in the dreamtime, when the subconscious can take control. That’s what Ms Brande is saying. The time you create is when the mind roams free, forgetting the ties of logical and rationality. We all find our own places and time for this, be it in the bath, on the bus, or whilst doing the washing up.

There is more than one type of ‘writing’. What we’re talking about here is not the sitting-at-the-typewriter (sorry, computer; Ms Brande was writing in 1934 and sometimes I forget that I am not) and working out the words, but the creation: the stirring of the subconscious which is where ideas are born and raised. Those ideas are worth nothing without the work that follows: getting the damn things down on paper/hard-drive.

(Incidentally, take another look at Ms Brande’s sentences. Aren’t they beautiful? They’re so long. I’d never write like that – it’s not in me. I’m a staccato man – short, choppy, ungrammatical in places. But Ms Brande’s writing is so clear and precise. I read those words and I smile.)

A long time ago I wrote a piece for this blog about the spread of gadgets into all our lives. Even at the time I wasn’t too happy with it. I don’t know, but sometimes what comes out of our mouths isn’t quite what’s in our heads – and with ever-present deadlines there isn’t the time to polish it properly. But it was basically my attempt to say the same thing. We human beings are in danger of drowning out the subconscious. We’re all so stimulated: every moment is about doing, doing, doing – never letting a moment be wasted, being fitter, happier and more productive.

But our brains don’t work like that. A writer – a true writer – has to balance the subconscious with the conscious mind. We have to spend hours staring at nothing, or just looking at the backs of our eyelids. We find our own places to dream, as individual as the pieces we write. And then we have to hand over to the conscious mind to inflict logic upon our dreams, to give a framework, a structure – and to get those damn words on the page.

To be a writer takes discipline. It takes passion and intensity and the determination to get in front of that damned machine and type even when the will is far away, on the over side of the hill with the fairies or down at the bottom of the garden with the Poddington Peas.

But unless we take the time to let our spirits wander we will never achieve anything. Let’s agree to put our I-pads away once in a while. Let’s take bus-rides into the unknown. A writer can never waste his time. Sure, it may look like we’re asleep on a deckchair with a pitcher of Pimm’s by our side, but really we’re watching dragons in flight or fighting Nazis or confronting our inner demons, or all these things at the same time.

And that’s just as it should be.

Feed the tree

I bloody love the subconscious, I do. It’s all somewhat miraculous, the way that a dead end can suddenly be transformed into the open highway, an unrestricted autobahn. Just by not thinking about it.

As you know (and I’m sorry to bore you – again) I’ve been computerless for the best part of a fortnight now, and it’s disrupted everything. I have no routine. Fortunately my semi-waking brain is active even whilst my fingers are idle. I’ve got two projects on the go (projectus interruptus) and I’ve been turning over ideas and problems all the time.

Ideas are easy. Ideas come and go all the time, fleeting, gossamer-fringed things that can create typhoons with barely a flicker of their infinite wings. Others can wave and beat and flutter manically and yet there’s barely a ripple in the microclimate of the mind. Not to be trusted, ideas; often they’ll vanish as soon as you decide they’re worth acting on, leaving you naked in front of the computer, vulnerable and bitter. Others kiss you delicately, shift your orbit fractionally, fractally. Some you have to draw screaming from the well. Others are like gifts from the silent ghost who steps only in your shadow. Some you can’t look at directly for fear they’ll disintegrate before your very eyes.

But if you’ve got your donkey stuck up the minaret, there’s nothing like not thinking about the problem to coax it down. Or to give it wings, let it glide safely to the green pastures of Resolution. That’s what’s happened to me. The main thing on my mind has been Australis, the second novel in my trilogy. I’ve been ripping up the old story and replacing it with something almost completely new. More than that – I’ve been writing an entirely different kind of book. I’ve ditched my police procedural and replaced it with something more akin to a thriller.

And that’s fine, except that the ending I’d had before won’t work now. The audience will see the culprit far too far before the end and suspense can’t be maintained without doubt. So where do I go from here?

The solution, it seems to me, is to change the nature of the climax. In older drafts, the killer’s identity was the key reveal. Now – thanks to my subconscious – I have an answer. Change the high-point to be the capture instead. I always write with an end-point in mind; a place I want the novel to finish. This draft of Australis lacked that until last night, when my subconscious threw that startlingly simple bone in my direction.

So now I know where I’m going. It’s just that… sometimes I don’t really think I’m a writer myself. Just a conduit for the thoughts and dreams of another, some mythical being on a different plane of existence. Do I mine my dreams, my liminal thoughts more than others, or is this how everyone in the creative industries works?

So I wait impatiently for my computer to be returned to me so I can give these vague ideas real form, a proper shape. And they’ll change, I know; a story has a momentum of its own and there’s a limit to how hard you can pull the reins, how skilfully you can steer the course to where you want to be.

And in the meantime I’m reading. Reading ‘instruction books’ on the art of writing, because some little nugget of truth, some little habit will be written to memory if you read it often enough. But mostly reading stories, living in other worlds, and dreaming other people’s dreams.

Because if you can’t write, read. What better way is there to feed your subconscious?