Writers Abroad Blog
Are you a Dressage or Rodeo Rider?
Posted by Angela

Where does a unique writer's voice come from? I believe it starts with a strong connection to the unconscious. The unconscious can be a dark and frightening place; home to death, anxiety, envy, anger; aspects of ourselves we don't like. But you also find love, yearning, playfulness and creativity there. Which brings me rather unexpectedly to dressage. Think of the conscious mind as a dressage rider, rational, connected, concerned with the everyday; the conscious mind gets you to work and pays your taxes. The unconscious mind is the horse; big, unruly and wild, the place of dreams and desires. When the two work together in harmony the results can be spine-tingling.

What happens when we are 'in the zone'?

Neuroscientist, Lewis Hou conducted tests using an MRI scanner on jazz musicians. He compared his differing results when musicians played music from composed pieces, and when they improvised. During the improvised sections, the dorsolateral, prefontal cortex (situated near the temple) was temporarily disabled. This part of the brain is responsible for many cognitive tasks such as planning and organising but also social inhibition. It develops very slowly during adolescence, which is why adults don't throw screaming tantrums in the cereal aisle in Tesco's. It's only in later life when we introduce the rational, critical faculty that we start to distance ourselves from that free-thinking uninhibited child. While we can happily kiss goodbye to the tantrums, we need to hang onto that creative, uninhibited urge which drives children to paint, draw and write without fear of failure.

Cutting off Teddy's Head

When I was an art student at Goldsmiths in my late teens and early twenties, it was easy for me to access my unconscious. I was in a safe, structured environment in which eccentricity and uninhibited creativity were encouraged. When I bought a giant teddy bear, cut off its and head and stuck a mirror shard in its neck as a head replacement, I realised I had a lot of suppressed emotion to deal with. But this emotion was a HUGE source of creativity, resulting in 12 months of output and my final degree show. Furred, anthropomorphic furniture displayed in a pastel mint-coloured room allowed visitors to step inside my subconscious world. Beyond the anger, I discovered joy and energy, and family and friends left my show feeling uplifted and inspired. This early training in accessing the unconscious has stood me in good stead for all later creative projects. I have rarely suffered from writer's block. I have had periods of not wanting to write, when there was too much upheaval in my life, but that's a different story.

Tips for 'harnessing' the unconscious

  • Use your dreams as inspiration for characters and/or plots. Kubla Khan, Jane Eyre, The Shining, The Twilight Series, Stuart Little, Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde and Frankenstein were all dream-inspired.

  • Try stream of consciousness writing. Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg has great exercises for flexing those instinctive writing muscles.

  • Write down your dreams, not necessarily for use as subject matter, but I find it really helps to open the channel between conscious and unconscious thought processes.

  • Give your characters a free rein. Let them act out your and your readers' subconscious desires. Protagonists and antagonists can live out our good and sinister sides vicariously.

  • Stop trying! Take the dog/yourself for a walk, allow yourself time to daydream and those ideas will pop into your head while your organising mind is taking a break.


So are you on friendly terms with your unconscious and does it help you develop characters and plots? Or is it an unwieldy bucking bronco, best avoided in case it throws you off? Perhaps you have some tips to share for getting into the zone. Writing during the month of November for Nanowrimo/having a digital detox/retreating to the garden shed? I'd love to hear your ideas.

With thanks to author, Meg Rosoff and her Artsnight Review Documentary

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