Columns > Published on August 26th, 2019

Access Your Subconscious for Better Writing

Photo by Jenny Frenzel

Throw away all preconceptions that you've got what it takes to make a great story by following a formula. It doesn't matter how smart you are, how high you scored on the SAT, or how prestigious your creative writing program was. Your conscious mind and your intellect cannot create a great story alone. If there's a mathematical formula for learning how to write fiction, it's probably too complicated for humans to quantify. If you've ever read a story that should "technically" be good—because it had characters who went through sufficient growth arcs, a plot that progressed at an even pace, and a lesson to be learned at the end—but it lacked a certain something, that's probably because it was built by someone who intellectualized the entire thing and didn't give it their own essence.

The writer's primary tool is not their intelligence. It is their creativity.

The essence of creativity lies in the subconscious. It is "the place where ideas come from." And it is the conscious mind's relationship with the subconscious that allows creative people to create great stories.

The subconscious is all the processes taking place in your brain that your conscious mind is not aware of. It is void-matter. It is the dream swirling underneath reality. It is your primate and your fairy brain. It is a powerful processing machine that can hold way more data and make more assessments than your conscious brain ever could. It is a lizard that crawled out of the sea with computational power greater than a supercomputer.

The subconscious is a powerful tool, and one that's necessary for humans to exist. And I've found that writers with a good relationship with their subconscious create better, more memorable stories. Because anyone can write a story. But not everyone can plug into the rhythm of the universe and ride high on the frequency waves of the inner voice powering the wheelhouse that is you.

So this is the article for you if you're:

  • stuck and unable to come up with ideas
  • feel like you're creating boring and plain stories
  • not writing as deeply or thoughtfully as you want to
  • or you just want some new techniques to store in the good ole' mindbank

If any of the above apply to you, here's what you can do.


That's it. Just stop.

Throw away all preconceptions that you've got what it takes to make a great story by following a formula.

The first thing you must do when you're frustrated, tired, grinding your teeth, furrowing your brow, brain dead, and creatively blocked is to stop.

Allow your mind to let go of the problem that you're working on.

You can visualize it as a clenched fist relaxing if you want. Whatever you need to do to direct your focus away from the problem.

Creativity works best when you're not hyper focused on whatever you're trying to solve, as it utilizes a different part of the brain. Brainstorming, mind maps, and other creative tools are all well and good, but when you've been banging your head against a metaphorical (I hope metaphorical) wall for hours, the best thing you can do for your writing and your mind is to cease and desist.

Breathe. Step away from the computer. Go get a snack or take a shower. Sometimes you'll find that's all you need to get unblocked — just a few minutes of blissful, unrepentant quiet inside your own skull

But if that doesn't work, move on to some of the other techniques below.

Go Mind fishing

This is sort of like a guided meditation. You go to a quiet, comfortable place with no screens and close your eyes and think about the project you're working on. Allow the images to come to you without latching on to a particular one. Allow the images to move and flow, like waves. You can zoom in and out of particular scenes that interest you, but try to avoid thinking too hard or fixating on one idea. The point of this exercise is to allow your brain to roam freely, and to think alongside vectors you normally wouldn’t.

This is difficult to do because it's boring. You will have to sit alone in the quiet, and if you're not used to doing this it will drive you crazy. We like stimulation — music, television, big sparkly showers of fireworks. While those activities are engaging, they don’t give you much space to actually think about your writing. That’s why if you can manage to do this exercise for even ten minutes, it often yields great results that would normally take days.

Shake up Your Routine

The human brain likes habits and patterns. We rely on a sort of mental shorthand, because making decisions is a lot of effort. So we create shortcuts in an effort to expend less mental energy. We drink at the same coffee shop. We part our hair on the same side of our head. We reach for the same brand of bread at the grocery store.

This is all well and good for normal, everyday things. Like imagine having to weigh the pros and cons of which bread brand you should get every time you went to the store, and how much time that would take for the small amount of benefit it would provide. If we all did this, the human race would’ve died out a long time ago.

But routine can be a numbing agent for creativity. If we see the same people, go to the same places, listen to the same music, and write in the same place at the same time — we’re not providing ourselves new sensory input for creativity to work with. Sometimes all it takes to get hit with a burst of new inspiration is to take your laptop outside on the patio, or write in the morning instead of at night.

You don’t even have to change up your writing routine. Your subconscious is complex and sophisticated, and it can do creative work (often its best creative work) when you’re not even thinking about it. Do something new. It doesn’t have to be too crazy. Just different enough from what you normally do to make it a novel experience. Go to a new park. Find a different route home. Kiss a stranger (if the stranger be willing). Hell, buy a different brand of bread. Buy a different type of bread! Shoot for the damn moon.

The point of shaking up your routine is that your brain will be forced to be more alert, and seek out new connections. If you do something different it can’t rely on autopilot, but must make deliberate decisions. This can give you that aha! moment. Sort of like blowing the dust off your mind keyboard.

Don’t expect this to work every time, because it won’t. The subconscious doesn’t follow ordinary rules, and finding new ideas or adding juice to a story is more akin to a magical process than science. But sometimes, this is just the kind of thing writers need.

I think of changing up my routine every so often as a sort of writer hygiene. People need to brush their teeth and wash their hair. Writers need to read books, write, and occasionally shake up their routine to provide new data and form different connections.

But I mean, yeah, wash your hair too.

Find the Rhythm

It's always difficult to talk about the processes of the subconscious, because it exists in a place beyond language. We have to use things like metaphors and personification to attempt to understand them in ways we can communicate to others. So oftentimes talking about the subconscious can come off as a bit hokey or mystical, when really it's because we don't have the language to articulate it perfectly.

So what I'm about to say is going to sound a little crazy or woo-woo, unless you've done it yourself. But like I said above, working with the subconscious is more like magic than science. Because magic is just science that we don’t fully understand yet.

If you listen, you can tap into the flow of your writing and hear its rhythm before you've even thought of the words themselves. It's like a low grade hum that begins to take shape underneath the blankness. Or you can "feel out" the landscape of the words. This requires you to be still, relax, and pay attention. It's like seeing a blank canvas and then slowly filling out the parts you want, then adding in the specific details later.

I wish I had a better technique for how to do this, but I don't. I used to think it was something I couldn't control. But now I understand that the better I know my characters, the story, and what I want to achieve, the more clear the rhythm is. If I can't hear the rhythm, it's either because I'm tired or I don't understand something about the story. So I go back over each piece, like taking apart a machine and cleaning each component, so I can figure out what's missing and then put it back together again.

When you're able to find the music to the words you're writing, you'll be able to tap into the flow and write with a greater proficiency and creativity than you could when you painstakingly think about word choice. It's a little bit like dancing. When we dance, we're performing complicated math, but we don't actually think about it. If you were to stop and think about how your limbs were moving, you might find it extremely difficult to dance at all. So it is with writing.

You also need to have a good solid foundation of vocabulary and grammar to do this. And you need to feed your subconscious enough written works so it knows how words should flow correctly.  If you're reading this article, I assume that you already do.

Take A Shot

This doesn't work for everyone, but sometimes a shot of vodka can help you loosen up enough to stop over-intellectualizing your work. Or you can microdose. Can I recommend that? Whatever.

Go Beyond the First Level of Your Imagination

I also talk about this technique in my LitReactor article, "How to Write Edgy Fiction Without Being Obnoxious," so I'll keep this one brief.

You want to access your subconscious so you can write fresh, engaging fiction that isn't just a rehash of every other thing you've ever written. But your brain is lazy. This is a good thing, because laziness equals efficiency. But that means oftentimes if you go with the first idea for a story, it’ll be a repetitive cliche.

Pixar writers also uses this technique. You discard the first idea that pops into your brain, and think up 6 or 7 more. The 6th idea is more likely to be interesting and unique, as opposed to the first.

Not everyone can plug into the rhythm of the universe and ride high on the frequency waves of the inner voice powering the wheelhouse that is you.

Starve it Out (With Sheer Boredom)

I think writer's block is "real" in the sense that some days you are stuck and don't know what to do or how to move forward, but at the same time I understand those writers who claim it's not real, that it's a made-up malaise. Because you're never really "out of ideas," after all. If you were truly out of ideas, you'd be dead.

The mind is an idea machine. It's designed for stimulus — to the point where we'll hallucinate if left in a sensory deprivation tank or sustain brain damage if left in social isolation for too long. And when you dream, you dream vivid constructions that take data from reality and create elaborate scenarios because your brain never truly shuts off.

If you want to think of an idea, all you have to do is wait.

Let's be real here, there's a reason people talk about "writing a novel someday," and then never do it. It’s because there are about a thousand more exciting things to do than writing. Writing is a "low reward" type activity, in that it doesn't provide that same exciting stimulation as watching a show, reading, dancing, or cooking. When you cook a meal, you can have something to eat in about ten minutes to an hour — a quick reward for your efforts. When you're writing, the actual act is often like meditation with a keyboard. Maybe you'll have a story finished in anywhere from a week to several years, and after that you have to wait months to maybe get it published somewhere.

But if you can force yourself to sit down in front of your computer, set a timer for an hour, and then not get out of your chair until time is up — you’ll be surprised at what kind of ideas your brain will be forced to come up with out of sheer boredom.

Head in The Direction of Your Fear

Sometimes the thing that will take your writing to the next level, that will elevate your work, is the very thing you’re afraid to write.

We marvel at the courage of writers who can write about the things we often don’t even allow ourselves to think. Because they have delved down into their subconscious and tapped into a fear that many people have, but instead of turning away from it they've hauled it up into the light. Because the thoughts we are afraid of aren’t usually pretty. They’re messy, vulnerable

But they’re real. And that’s what resonates. And oftentimes the more real you are, the more in tune with your subconscious you are, and the better your writing will become.

Sometimes you feel blocked because the thing you want to write about makes you afraid, and it clouds your judgement and makes you less efficient. Because trying to avoid realness and the fear that comes with it makes you stiff and awkward as you try to write around whatever it is you want to avoid.

In Conclusion

Your ongoing success as a writer depends on your relationship with your subconscious. It’s a dance, one in which you never quite know all the steps. All you can do is go with the flow, work with it, feed it stimuli, and be patient.

Not all of these tricks will work for every writer. Some may work only part of the time. But as you continue to listen to your subconscious, you’ll often find that the lines of communication open up just a little bit wider, and your relationship with that part of your brain will improve.

About the author

Autumn Christian is the author of Ecstatic Inferno, We are Wormwood, and The Crooked God Machine.

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