Some people write as therapy. Some people let their subconscious write. These are both cognizant choices that are made by the author as part of their craft. I’m not talking about either of those.
Have you ever written something that just popped onto the screen? Some strange character backstory – something instrumental in forming the character’s personality – and then thought, “Well, that’s weird. But it works, so I’ll leave it.” Has that ever happened to you?
Where do you think that came from? The simple, obvious answer is your subconscious. But what made you write that, really?
Was it something that happened during your character’s childhood? Look in your own childhood. Is there a link? There just may be, if you’re willing to see it.
Am I being cryptic? Probably. That’s because your writing isn’t going to reveal something obvious or inconsequential. It will clue you in on something so private, so profound, that you won’t want the world to know what it told you. Because, there is more of us in our writing than we like to think.
When I wrote Night Undone, I ventured far outside my comfort zone. In an interview, I likened the publication of the novel to standing naked in the middle of a busy intersection. I didn’t realize how true that was. I thought it was because I’d written a character-driven drama about a retired spy who felt her time was over – who’d outlived her usefulness. It was poignant, and not like anything I’d ever written before. Up until that book, it had all been about blowing things up. Explosions are gratifying. I didn’t think anything else of it.
But when something makes you so uncomfortable that you feel like you are standing naked in the middle of a busy intersection, perhaps that needs to be more closely scrutinized. Was it really just because I was writing outside of my normal genres? Probably not. There was a secret hidden in the book. A code – a key to unlocking a deep, dark torment that has haunted me all my life. And I had no idea.
In one scene, Special Agent Night recalls how her father had never wanted a daughter, and had cursed her for not being born a boy. I had no idea where that came from, but it worked, so I went with it. In one of the upcoming sequels, I expound on it, and it turns out to be a major factor in Agent Night’s childhood and life. The repercussions of this one, seemingly minor brain fart mushroom into a driving force behind what’s right now a ten-book series. Yet still – I thought nothing of it. It wasn’t about me. It was about her.
My own father truly wanted a daughter. I know that for a fact. My father treated me like a princess. I was very lucky to have my dad. So, where did that resentment from Agent Night’s father originate? As it turns out, it was a clue to something else from my childhood. Something I couldn’t see. And maybe, just maybe, I wasn’t ready to see it.
I wrote Night Undone in 2010. Just this week, in 2014, nearly four years after I started writing that novel, a family incident caused an epiphany. It made me see what Night Undone was trying to tell me in its own, misdirected way. A statement, out of context, overheard by a six-year-old me – festering for over forty years… and what a relief to have that now lifted off me.
The subconscious is a powerful and amazing thing. Writing is also a powerful and amazing thing. It is available to us as a vehicle for the subconscious to use if we, as authors, are being true to ourselves. And, if we are willing to listen, our writing will clue us in to the deep-seated incidents that plague us. Writing wants to help us heal. But we have to be ready.
12 thoughts on “When Your Writing Knows You Better Than You Know Yourself”
Great piece, KS. I can empathize. I had a reader come up to me one day, breathless, and ask, “Isn’t it incredibly frightening to expose yourself like that in public? My god, there’s no way I could do that…” She was talking about a couple of specific scenes I’d written that I hadn’t given much thought to, but when I re-read them trying to see what she had seen, it hit me between the eyes. Gah.
That was early on in my writing and I’ve gotten to the point where those kinds of things don’t freak me out anymore (I used to be a private person. Now? Not so much 🙂 ) Whenever I avoid a scene, I know my subconscious is trying to tell me something. Your comment that writing is healing is absolutely spot-on.
And hey, it’s way cheaper than therapy…
Way cheaper. LOL. I was very surprised at what that scene was trying to tell me, but I didn’t make the connection until after the family got together. Wild stuff. I will definitely pay better attention next time. 🙂
While nothing specific shows in my work that points to my past there are certainly elements of me and issues I have faced in my characters. But I spread them out over several of them. I was somewhat aware when I did it. But aspects have emerged I have come to recognize as things still being dealt with. In a way I hope I never run out of unresolved issues – I might run out of grist for my writing mill. 🙂
Excellent piece, KS. I’ve had this happen enough times to make me think that something bigger is going on.
This has come up for me a few times, too. And yes, writing is definitely cheaper than therapy. 😀
Beautiful post, Kat. I had nearly the same thought after writing my first novel. I told someone in an interview I felt as if I were standing naked in the town square. Somewhere during the writing of the third I figured out what that was all about. I do believe the subconscious is an amazing and powerful tool, and I also believe tapping into it has the potential to give our writing an authenticity it might not otherwise have.
The subconscious is amazing — like an iceberg, it controls our lives by being the massive substrate underlying our conscious existence.
Fabulous post! What a thrill to recognize those subtle pieces that comprise your life. I hope you have many more!
Kat, this is a wonderfully honest and intriguing post; very thought-provoking. It seems obvious that many of us have discovered the invisible conduit from our subconscious minds to our writing, yet I’m not sure any of us really understand it or the way it works. It suffices that it is there and that we’re aware of it. Writing can work on so many levels, some that may be almost invisible until the right perspective at the right time highlights it for us to see. I think it’s wonderful that your book–pure entertainment to everyone else–held a major breakthrough for you. Yup; therapy at its best. Thanks so much for sharing this story.
Phht! I stand naked in the middle of Denny’s all the time. All it gets me is a trip downtown and a written warning from my manager.
Sometimes what we write comes from an unconscious thought or a suppressed memory, and sometimes we just make it up. Since this is a safe for work site I will state simply that, after reading my book, a neighbor said to my husband, “You are one lucky man.” 😉
Thought provoking; I think that most writers would agree, wholeheartedly, with your illuminating conclusion concerning the deep, psychologically motivating drives of writers in general and authors of fiction in particular. I certainly do.
Excellent post, Kat.
I don’t write a lot of scenes that “haunt” me, at least in an uncomfortable way. I do remember, though, that when I began writing The Stone Dragon, it was on a Thanksgiving vacation. I just remember having a vague idea, and then I was suddenly (three days later) seven thousand words into the novel.
I do feel there was something that I wanted to write, a subject that I wanted to explore, that I had never really consciously made a plan for. That desire just jumped out, and my creative energy populated that event with magic, dragons, gnomes, and nymphs. I think this fits into the idea of this post. There are rewards in just allowing ourselves freedom to go with uncharted currents.
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