Writers are a superstitious lot. A lot of us won’t admit that in public, of course. We want you to believe that we are masters of our destiny and that all of our talent was honed through hard work and inherent understanding of our creative drives. That’s bullshit, mostly.
When people ask us where our ideas come from it makes us feel awkward and uncomfortable. We don’t know. Not really. A lot of it, I think, simply goes back to how our brains are wired. Your brain might be wired for accounting or music or serial killing. Mine is wired to take disparate ideas, shake them up and spit out something newish. It’s also wired to love the dip, dive and swirl of language. That’s why I have some talent for telling stories, instead of, say, painting.
So, yeah, wiring is a big part of it. So is experience. I was raised by avid readers and book sellers. Intensely curious people who loved to sit around and spin yarns around the dinner table. I was exposed to art and myth and symbol and history and the fine art of gallows humor from a young age.
But beyond wiring and experience, there’s another element that many of us don’t like to talk about: The magic.
There are lots of quotes hanging over my computer monitor right now. Two of them pertain to what I’m trying to talk about.
“Trust the ghost.” and ”Stay available to revelation.” *
The keys words here are “ghost” and “revelation.” They both imply that there are forces beyond our physical beings that inform our creative processes.
Of course, another word for these mystical, seemingly separate forces is “Subconscious.” That shadowy blue space. The cave with the deep pool. The liminal spot between reality and imagination. Whatever you think it is, subconscious isn’t something we control. Yet as creative types we rely on it to give us all our best material.
The tension between needing to control our worlds (remember that God Complex) and the knowledge we don’t control them at all is at the root of a lot of writerly angst. How can I promise to meet a deadline when I’m not sure if my subconscious will be in a giving mood?
Trust the ghost.
Our subconscious acts as a sort of checks and balance for our ego. The more we try to force it to offer up ideas that will make us a bestseller, the more stubborn it becomes. She’ll dig her heels in and, if you’re a real jerk about it, she might close down her little idea factory altogether.
Some of you are rolling your eyes. All this talk of magic and ghosts and mysterious subconscious processes sounds like a lot of bunk to you. That’s fine. Maybe you’ve never experienced the sensation of being totally in the flow and feeling like you’re merely a conduit for words that are being channeled through your fingers. Maybe you’ve never experienced the adrenaline high of an idea exploding behind your eyes. Maybe you have and just don’t buy into mumbo jumbo. You’re a realist, thank you very much.
That’s fine with me. I’m just telling you that it’s not uncommon for writers to exercise this form of magical thinking, as psychologists call it. I don’t think there’s a damned thing wrong with it, as long as it keeps you writing. Because it doesn’t matter where the words originate, as long as they end up on the page.
But you should probably trust the ghost anyway.
For more on this idea, check out this TED talk by Elizabeth Gilbert.
*”Trust the Ghost” came form a book I read, but I don’t recall which one. If you know the origin please share it in comments. As for the “Stay available to revelation,” I first heard it in an interview with David Milch, creator of Deadwood.