Embracing Hypnagogia: How to Write Using Your Subconscious
My best ideas come to me when I’m on the verge of falling asleep. Usually, something brilliant will explode in my brain just as I drift off, and by the time I wake up in the morning, the idea will be gone. The only thing left in its place is a strange notion of once possessing some kind of idea. Like a pocket with a hole in it: you used to have car keys there, but now they’ve disappeared—only you can still feel them, like phantom limbs.
It’s likely you share this same frustration. Coming up with a plethora of ideas only to erase them with sleep. But what if there was a way to take advantage of these drowsy thoughts? Consider the trap the Ghostbusters use to contain ghosts. What if you could do the same with ideas? Only instead of a box, you use a notebook and pencil, and instead of never crossing the streams, you cross them until the universe explodes and the sky turns to beautiful multicolored flames.
Well, with the right kind of focus (and lack of focus), you can save these ideas before they’re lost forever. That’s where hypnagogia comes in.
WHAT IS HYPNAGOGIA?
Hypnagogia is the transition between wakefulness and sleep. During this state of mind, you may experience lucid dreaming or hallucinations (auditory and visual). It’s that moment when all those good ideas come pouring out of your mind at once, only you’re too weak to do anything about them. It’s a purgatorial state of mind between sanity and insanity. It’s when you typically hear noises throughout your house and you become convinced someone is trying to break in. Maybe this explains the monster-under-the-bed conspiracy we all believe as kids—and as adults, because let’s get serious here, there are totally monsters underneath our beds.
Hypnagogia can sometimes introduce what is known as the “Tetris effect”, which involves pondering how shapes in the real world fit together, which is useful when piecing together various storylines during the outlining process. Or, you might just hallucinate falling tetrominos as you close your eyes, which could still be pretty fun, depending on how much you enjoy Tetris. Hypnagogia can also allegedly cause sleep paralysis and out-of-body experiences.
But most importantly, hypnagogia might possibly be one of our mind’s most vital tools for creativity.
WHY WRITE UNDER A HYPNAGOGIC STATE?
Use hypnagogia because you want to experiment with a new method of storytelling. Use it because you want to write with complete creative freedom, with zero barriers. Being fully awake can come as an advantage for concentrating on individual topics, but it’s a death sentence for opening your mind to places you never expected travel. When you are cognizant, your perception is trapped in a narrow tunnel. The more tired you are, the more this tunnel widens and the deeper your imagination explores. Hypnagogia is the key to accessing your subconscious, and your subconscious is a treasure of untouched wonders.
When you are half-asleep, you’re willing to take more chances. You’re less intimidated by deadlines and guidelines. You no longer care if anybody likes or understands what you’re writing. Because of this, the imagery in your writing becomes unique and dreamlike. Sentences are formed in a bizarre structure you would have never been able to fathom while fully awake.
You aren’t just thinking outside the box. With hypnagogia, there is no box. There are no boundaries. You do not waste your time with filler. Every word matters, even if it isn’t immediately apparent.
HOW TO ACCESS HYPNAGOGIA
Writing in a hypnagogic state can be tricky. You have to will yourself to relax just enough to begin drifting off, but you can’t go overboard and fall into a deep sleep. Remember in A Nightmare on Elm Street, when Nancy asked Johnny Depp to stay in her room and wake her up once she started panicking? Well, maybe you could find yourself a Johnny Depp. Fair warning: the actual Johnny Depp probably won’t be available, and bugging any of your friends to hover over your unconscious body usually doesn’t end well. Trust me, I know from experience.
Like all writing (and most things in general, come to think about it), it’s better to do this alone.
Some people suggest holding a spoon, so when you begin to drift off, it clangs against your desk and startles you awake. Consider anything similar, something with weight to it, but not too heavy. I’ve heard a few brave souls claim to use glasses of water held above their crotches, which sounds kind of masochistic to me, but hey, whatever works. You could always be more conventional (boring) and just set an alarm ten or twenty minutes into the future, depending on your level of tiredness.
As you rest, try to train your thoughts on what you want to write. I recommend trying this with poems or short stories. Novels would be more difficult, as you’d want to ideally write the entire story in one sitting while you were still in the trance. However, novels aren’t completely out of the question; I just recommend you stick with short chapters.
Focus, but don’t stress. Keep your mind relaxed. Permit coherency to take a vacation. Once you snap back to attention, hopefully your brain is being attacked from every direction with various images and ideas. Don’t think about them. To think is to die. Instead, reach for your notebook or keyboard or voice recorder or whatever you’re using to write, and begin transcribing all your hypnagogic thoughts as fast as you can. Don’t attempt to restructure them in a way that makes sense. The whole point of this exercise is to write without thinking, to allow your subconscious to do the writing for you.
Creative hypnagogia has been documented by many famous artists and inventors. Thomas Edison, for example, was an avid supporter of this technique. He’d retire to an armchair with a steel ball gripped in each hand, dangling over tin plates left on the floor. Some columnists might speculate he chose steel balls to match the composition of his testicles; other columnists might be more mature. I belong in the former category. Once he began to fall asleep, his grip would loosen and the steel balls would fall onto the plates, startling him awake. Well, awake enough to be able to handle a notebook and pencil.
Salvador Dali was reported to perform the same ritual, only with a key instead of steel balls. Likewise for Aristotle and Einstein. Nick Mamatas, author of The Nickronomincon, actually introduced me to the term "hypnagogia" on Twitter, as he has been known to practice this method of writing. So I guess he's to blame for this column.
And, of course, Mary Shelly unintentionally used hypnagogia to come up with the initial idea for Frankenstein, which she called a “waking dream”:
I saw—with shut eyes, but acute mental vision—I saw the pale student of unhallowed arts kneeling beside the thing he had put together. I saw the hideous phantasm of a man stretched out, and then, on the working of some powerful engine, show signs of life and stir with an uneasy, half-vital motion. Frightful must it be, for supremely frightful would be the effect of any human endeavor to mock the stupendous mechanism of the Creator of the world.
—Mary Shelly, from the introduction of Frankenstein
Anyone here experimented with hypnagogic writing? What were the results?
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