Or “how to write while you sleep.”
Part 1: Get Creative: The Liminal State
Most people understand writing as a function of the conscious mind. You have an intention, you sit down and express it best you can.
However, the actual writing process is far more convoluted than that, and there are many “off-label” uses for the lesser understood parts of consciousness, where writing is involved. Nowhere is this more true than with the long-form creative process, which is more like a marathon than a sprint, and more like a surrealist “drift” than even a marathon.
Indeed, many of these byways, alleys and side-paths lead us through a meandering labyrinth, and we may even care to engage the physical process of one foot before the other.
Ambiguity is the labyrinth’s central nature. It is always unstable, changing its personality and ours as we change perspective. … Like a psychic nuclear reactor, the labyrinth generates creative emotional and psychic processes in whatever guise it appears. It is continually breeding new versions of itself that demand we revisit our categories and redefine what the symbol means to us in our time. … the experience of the labyrinth is not only ancient, it is hardwired into the brain structure of the earliest humans, biologically indistinguishable from us, who first recognized its ineffable potency.
In pre-literate antiquity, the labyrinth design and its cousins, the spiral and the meander, were symbols that occurred worldwide in rock art and weaving patterns, on pottery, and was scrawled as ancient graffiti on a wall in Pompeii. From the Near East to New Grange in Ireland, and from the American Southwest to Siberia, the labyrinth pattern is one of the oldest symbols in the history of mankind and one of the most universal.
—Dancing at the Edge of Death, Jodi Lorimer.
Much that has been written about “drifting” might be equally applied to writing, and vice versa.
One of psychogeography’s principle means was the dérive. Long a favorite practice of the dadaists, who organized a variety of expeditions, and the surrealists, for whom the geographical form of automatism was an instructive pleasure, the dérive, or drift, was defined by the situationists as the ‘technique of locomotion without a goal’, in which ‘one or more persons during a certain period drop their usual motives for movement and action, their relations, their work and leisure activities, and let themselves be drawn by the attractions of the terrain and the encounters they find there’. The dérive acted as something of a model for the ‘playful creation’ of all human relationships.
Unlike surrealist automatism, the dérive was not a matter of surrendering to the dictates of an unconscious mind or irrational force. Indeed, the situationists’ criticisms of surrealism concluded that ‘the unconscious imagination is poor, that automatic writing is monotonous, that the whole genre of ostentatious surrealist “weirdness” has ceased to be very surprising’. Nor was everything subordinated to the sovereignty of choice: to dérive was to notice the way in which certain areas, streets, or buildings resonate with states of mind, inclinations, and desires, and to seek out reasons for movement other than those for which an environment was designed. It was very much a matter of using an environment for one’s own ends, seeking not only the marvelous beloved by surrealism but bringing an inverted perspective to bear on the entirety of the spectacular world.
—The Situationist International in a postmodern age by Sadie Plant
I’ve found this to be nowhere so true than in a city such as Boston, where the streets themselves seem to serve as a spatial metaphor for the creative process — not a circle cut into 4 quadrants, as in the classical plan, but rather an organic structure built from original Indian walking paths, grown, cut-down, re-structured and re-purposed over the years. Get lost in the city, letting your mind get lost as well, and you just might find the solution to that scene you’ve been struggling with for a week.
But maybe even this will not do. Some problems will not dissolve by way of drifting, and the only means I’ve found left at that point is to fall asleep.
I’ve often joked that the best parts of my novels are written when I’m asleep. Like many jokes, this isn’t entirely untrue. How often do you suddenly happen upon inspiration, or unexpected connections, as you drift off? If you manage to wake yourself, you might scribble notes that can later take a form, or merely serve to perplex you. “The slashes on her hands, the angel’s trumpets, a flower,” the note reads. What did you mean by that? The transcription process is not the writing process.
As I’ve shared in many interviews about my novels, this isn’t as absurd or uncommon as you may think. However, the common wisdom that inspiration has been born from dreams is, if my experience is any indicator, a misunderstanding. It is not the dream state that is so fertile, as the threshold of sleep, those liminal lands that offer up many connections and solutions, if we can only drag their glamour from those depths and connect them with more substantial matter.
Of course, not all such fragments are captured. And fewer still take to the soil they’re given.
There is probably a hidden architecture behind most texts, of what never made it to the page. Like an actor holding a prop none of us can see on screen, I’d like to believe these “hidden architectures” still inform the corpus.
I have developed a number of fairly simple practices to help capture more of this gossamer stuff, and I’ll share what I can with you, though as is often said, “your mileage may vary.”