Sherwood Smith November 6th, 2009
QUESTION: Let’s talk about the meta part of writing. When we were young, it was all about the story. As we get older, we not only look harder at the material, but at ourselves as writers.
How have you changed as a writer?
KIT: I hope, quite simply, that I’ve gotten better. I think I have. When I look at DAGGER- and DARKSPELL, I am bitterly aware of flaws that I don’t see in the later books. I’m not impressed with the craft in BRISTLING WOOD and DRAGON REVENANT, but at least it doesn’t make me cringe! By TIME OF EXILE I feel I was hitting my stride. One thing I do know is that while I can consciously work on issues of craft (is the dialog different for different characters? are the descriptions succinct but clear? that kind of thing), all the overarching plots and even the minor complications of the books came out of my unconscious mind, some deep level that had synthesized years of reading and living. It was magical but a painful kind of magic at times, with periods of depression when I had to let the well re-fill itself.
ALIS: Kit said, “One thing I do know is that while I can consciously work on issues of craft (is the dialog different for different characters? Are the descriptions succinct but clear? that kind of thing), all the overarching plots and even the minor complications of the books came out of my unconscious mind, some deep level that had synthesized years of reading and living.”
My response to that is to ask, what is the unconscious mind and how does it work? I don’t think we can actually answer a question that neurologists have been struggling to understand for decades and philosophers for centuries, but I’d like to talk about what it means to us and to the way we may approach writing.
One element I notice over and over again is the degree to which layers are unfolded, connections fire off within the brain, linking up seemingly unrelated threads. Plots that have run into obstacles are suddenly, perhaps during the course of a walk, revealed to open down a path so unexpected in its consequences that as a writer I feel I could never have come up with that solution consciously, that is, if I had thought it through in the forefront of my mind. There sits a place farther back where this works goes on just on the edge of my awareness. I have learned to trust that if I do not force, some things will work themselves out with enough time or enough tangents bringing them around to my attention. I’m not sure anyone can explain this process; certainly no one has yet done so in my lifetime or before. We have only identified that it exists, and we call it the creative process, but analysis evades us.
KIT: All I know is, there is a large part of the mind that works without our consciousness knowing or directing it. It produces dreams, certainly, which are akin to fiction, but it also handles all the mundane stuff: keeping the lungs emptying and filling, the heart beating, the hormones oozing, and all the rest of it.
I keep thinking about the phenomenon of blindsight. If someone’s brain is injured in such a way as to damage the big nerve pathways leading from the eyes to the optical bit of the cortex in the forebrain, they become blind, even though their eyes are still in perfect shape. But, oddly enough, their peripheral vision still functions, though they cannot see. That is, if someone makes a move in the periphery, the person “sees” nothing — but he knows that the other person made a move. The nerves are not damaged that lead to a far older vision center in another part of the brain. This particular center apparently functioned without any need of consciousness to know it “saw”.
I suspect that the build-a-story part of the brain operates in some similiar way. The neurons are happily firing and solving the problem in a normal brain way. We simply aren’t conscious of it. Hence, the “unconscious” is our chosen term in this scientific age. Now, earlier cultures saw this process in a different way. Most of our surviving works from the Greeks and Romans, for instance, were written by men. They speak about “The Muse”, a female figure that ‘inspires’, ie breathes upon or into them, their work. What this seems to me to describe is an experience of a part of the mind so deeply buried that they saw it as coming from outside of them, from The Other, a female and thus alien (in their view) source. I wish we had some knowledge of how the few female writers in ancient times saw this process, but we only have a bare handful of framents and poems from a couple of named women writers.
I have heard — or read interviews with — modern writers who feel much the same way about their creations, that somehow their creations come from such a deep level that the sources feel alien, even frightening. F. Scott Fitzgerald remarked, in fact, that writers drink so much because they are afraid of the creative moments that take them over. Others resent not being able to control and dominate the process of creating — a very male thing, somehow — and drink to ensure the process stays dormant when they want it to. Now, I’ve heard about many women writers who drank too much because they were so frustrated by the unequal treatment they got from publishers and critics, but I don’t recall any of them being afraid of their own minds in this way.
Virgina Woolf talks about hearing a voice in her head telling her the story while she wrote frantically (by hand, remember) trying to keep up and not lose any of it. Since she’d read about Freudian theory, she saw this voice as part of her own self.
SHERWOOD: The older I get, the more I realize that no two perceptions of a story, much less the process by which it comes about, match entirely.
I’ve read some interesting thought on reading and brain function—Maryanne Wolf’s PROUST AND THE SQUID, and Lisa Zunshine’s WHY WE READ come to mind—but they seem to grasp firmly onto the elephant’s tail, working forward from there, while writers have hold of the trunk, and are feeling their way backward.
KIT: I think that’s a good way of putting it.
SHERWOOD: I used to think I was just that special, as a teen, because I was running the creative track of my mind secretly, while pretending conformity in real life, until I began to realize just how many similarities there were between me and my schizophrenic uncle. At some point he mapped his reality onto the world, while mine ran alongside it, but in the eyes of relatives, was there any difference between us? (Other than the fact that I didn’t get arrested.)
KIT: I’d say there was a great deal of difference. You were in control of your story-telling, and he wasn’t in control of his disease, just for starters. Certainly writers (and painters and musicians) are always being accused of being nutcases, but the two states are very different. I think of Pope’s line that runs something “Great wits to madness are oft allied”, but allied isn’t the same as identical. People who have no imagination can’t seem to understand how powerful the imagination can be. Schizophrenia, on the other hand, is a disease, and a painful one. I doubt very much if it’s allied to the creative process.
Depression, on the other hand, which I’ve certainly experienced at various points of my life — now there is a mental state that is linked to creativity, in my opinion, anyway. The problem is that depression is such a catch-all term. It can mean a paralyzing mental illness, or a physical deficiency with genetic roots, or extreme exhaustion after a crisis, or, finally, a simple “pressing down” of mental energy when the unconscious mind needs to work some deep problem out. It’s this last state, this turning inward of mental energy so it can be used by non-conscious parts of the brain, that is “allied with great wit”, or so I think.