Embracing Hypnagogia: How to Write Using Your Subconscious

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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.

Instead of never crossing the streams, you cross them until the universe explodes and the sky turns to beautiful multicolored flames.

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 columnists might speculate he chose steel balls to match the composition of his testicles; other columnists might be more mature.

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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Josh Zancan's picture
Josh Zancan from Crofton, MD is reading East of Eden by John Steinbeck March 25, 2015 - 12:56pm

I'm a big fan of this and employ it often.  With enough practice, I've been able to go into a mild hypnagogic state and just write directly from that state of mind.  It's totally liberating.  Here's what I do generally (it varies depending on the project, and how much of a plan I have going into the story):

Get myself into the right state of mind (there could be whole articles on this alone, I can go into it further if need be).

Imagine the first "frame" of the scene I'm writing (assuming I know the first frame; otherwise I just go with whatever pops up.  Many times, I'll have an image in my head - a street or a bar or whatever - but don't quite know what to do with the scene itself.  This comes in later.).

I just start typing what I see.  

Now, if you're really in a mild "trance", the words you write out won't totally register with you on a cognitive level.  You'll be aware that they are there, and maybe even what they say, but they're in the background of your mind.  

As I write, if I can maintain this flow, I enter a deeper and more relaxed state, and this is where hypnagogia really takes hold.  The scene starts playing out before me, and the emotions of the characters come to me as clearly and naturally as the imagery, which often allows me to express them with equal clarity.  As it plays out, I write it.  Like a movie where I can read the minds of all the characters.

I keep this up, usually until I get to the end of the scene, but it varies.  I have a restless mind, so sometimes I don't have the inner capacity to stay in it for a particularly long time (if it's a particularly long scene), but if two sections flow together well, sometimes I can keep going between the two.  I find a lot of it comes down to what my goal is, cognitively, before I start this process.  Once the goal is reached, I tend to naturally come out of it.

I'll give an example of this:

I'm casually writing a story set in Savannah (casually being: it's a side-project right now, not my main one).  I visited there a couple years ago and I have a picture of a long sidewalk that, with the lamp posts and spanish moss and all, looks really cool.  Something about that photo, and Savannah's aesthetics in general, has always struck a chord with me.  So in my early experimentations with this process, I used that photo as my first frame. I started with the imagery, and then something in process clicked.  The character I was writing all of a sudden had an emotional response to the imagery (which, I assume, was really just an aritculate expression of my own emotional response to the photo that I'd never been able to identify and articulate before).  Then the photo became active: traffic started moving, a girl started walking down the sidewalk, etc.  Of course, because it was a photo I had taken, from a place I had been, a lot of myself was plugged into this scene, but if you're going to take this hypnagogic approach, expect a lot of yourself on the page, whether explicitly or implicitly.  That said, I have done this with complete fiction - that is, the characters were not in a situation I had ever been in - and it still works very well.  If you're just starting to experiment with this, I do recommend trying out something that you have a personal tie too.  Helps get comfortable with the process and the result is always fun to read.  Journaling helps too with learning how to just write and write and write without stopping to think (I personally focus on my emotions/anything on my mind, but I can't say for certain if it matters what you journal about).  Sometimes I do some free-written journaling before working on a story, just to get myself rolling.

I also find that when using this method, I get some of the strongest, clearest, and articulate first draft prose I've ever had.  The editing process is all the easier because of this; many times it's a matter of cleaning up the more technical aspects of the writing.  But, if something does need to be reworked - or if it doesn't work at all - I'm less resistant to make changes, since I don't feel like I actually worked that hard on it.  I don't know about you, but if I work really hard and spend an hour trying to sludge through 1,000 words and feel worn down and defeated at the end of it, I'm much more defensive of those 1,000 words.  But with this, the process is less stressful and feels very fast.  I don't actually write any faster, but the time rolls.

If you haven't made this connection already, it has some functional similarities to Kerouac's spontaneous prose concept, which I've always been intrigued by, but without some of the limitations.  I think it allows more creative control.  Because eventually, with enough practice, you can become a more active part of the hypnagogic process and really root around your environment.

 

 

Redd Tramp's picture
Redd Tramp from Los Angeles, CA is reading Mongrels by SGJ; Sacred and Immoral: On the Writings of Chuck Palahniuk; The History of Sexuality by Michel Foucault March 25, 2015 - 1:40pm

I've only done this once, and it was totally unintentional. Was right before bed, and I really wanted to write but didn't really have the energy so I laid down with my Kindle, nothing more than the vague idea I wanted the narrator to be a mother whose baby was about to be sacrificed by a cult, and I started. But every few minutes I was pulling my head back up, snapping open my eyelids to tap out the next couple sentences. It needed editing the next day, but I remember opening my Kindle, looking down at this...thing, and not really remembering writing it. It was creepy, but not bad, my brain definitely went places I couldn't have made it while fully conscious.

Also, when laying there in bed, eyes closed, trying to just get my brain to settle down, let me go to sleep, that's usually when my mind explodes in a million directions and, as you said, pieces start breaking apart and fitting together, and usually that's when I'll have electric flashes of ideas, things I can use, or things I don't know how I'll use but that I know I need to not forget. So I have my notebook handy.

L.W. Flouisa's picture
L.W. Flouisa from Tennessee is reading More Murakami March 27, 2015 - 7:36pm

I'll recommend this to some friends. Hypnagogia is essentially what I write. As someone who experiences a mixture of lucid dreaming and sleep paralyses.

Actually, when don't I have sleep paralyses. That's the question. I wouldn't recommend combining lucid dreaming and sleep paralyses without experience with just sleep paralyses--itself not something I'd take lightly.

I like to think of my night terrors as multiple layers of inner reality. The layers are only thin, and your perspective changes. Beware though, some dreams are harder to wake out of than others. I'm not sure how I woke up.

It would be nice if there was a lite version where your not chased by phantom men in black tall grey types.

Thuggish's picture
Thuggish from Vegas is reading Day of the Jackal March 31, 2015 - 9:23pm

I do this a lot and at times it's gotten me some good scenes to work with. It's not hard for me, really, I just write before going to bed when I'm tired.

Funny side note- doing this and rereading my own stuff is often better than reading a book for getting to sleep better.

I have a sneaking suspicion that this technique will work much better for people discovery-writing.

I also have a sneaking suspicion that alcohol (not to the point of being drunk) can have the same effect as described. 

Anna Grönlund's picture
Anna Grönlund from Sweden is reading The Blindfold by Siri Hustvedt June 30, 2019 - 12:18pm

I wrote my first novel during those hypnagogic, semi-manic nights post partum. Having a newborn baby wake you every two hours can do wonders for putting you in a hypnagogic state.