Your Unconscious is Not a Terrorist. You Are Allowed to Negotiate.

Preservation of life is your unconscious mind’s primary function. Beyond breath and hunger it uses another tool to keep you alive: alertness to danger.

Because your unconscious is an ethereal non-physical entity, non-physical threats weigh the same as the physical. Whether the light at the end of the tunnel is the headlamp of an oncoming train or a painful memory, the instinctive response is avoidance. Run from danger; that’s what your unconscious does. Most of the time, it’s a good bodyguard.

You’ve seen it in a movie or TV show: protected VIP convinces overzealous bodyguard to allow some latitude, provided safeguards are in place. Sure, kid, you can go to the zoo, but we’ll have a tracking device in your shoe and men in black at every gate.

Your unconscious is a bodyguard trying to protect you, not a terrorist trying to take you down.

a conversation with your unconscious

What if you could negotiate some free time, give your bodyguard the morning off so you could write from your heart, pouring it all out, wheat and chaff together, spilling some of that internal truth onto the page? What if, for a little while, you made your unconscious feel safe, so it would stay out of the way while you go on a hot date with a great scene for your novel?

You can. Here’s how.

Give Yourself a Good Talking To

You may as well pretend your conscious and unconscious are two different people. What goes on in your unconscious is mostly a mystery to you (you are, shall we say, unconscious of it?)

Most of us try to effect change in thinking and habits by overpowering the unconscious with our conscious. (Or we pretend the unconscious doesn’t exist at all, telling ourselves that what we think is real, and thinking harder will make it more real.)

Try stopping your heart or digestive system with your conscious mind. Stop a cut from healing, or your body from tiring when you exercise or need a nap. Willpower. We’ll talk more about its near uselessness tomorrow.

You need your unconscious on board if you’re going to play this game, writing truths and all that. And the only way to get it on board is if it chooses. You can’t force it, you have to ask politely.

In my experience, the most effective way to do this is to literally talk to your unconscious. Out loud. Full sentences. You’re a writer. Do you think this will be the first time others have looked askance as you have a chat with yourself? If you prefer, take a drive. It’ll look like you’re singing along with the radio.

Acknowledge to your unconscious that it’s only trying to protect you, and you appreciate it. You don’t want to suffer physical or emotional damage. You’re aware of the potential for danger in writing this scene about the time your first love showed up at the dance with your archrival Pat Lonergan.

But this scene is important to your art, and you need it to evoke those original emotions. Tell your unconscious that you already have the memories, so writing them down won’t be anything new. Once they’re written, if it’s too dangerous, you’ll destroy it. And if you realize during the process it’s too painful, you’ll take a break, renegotiate this contract with your unconscious, and proceed at a safe pace.

Yeah. It all feels a little silly. Until you do it once, and watch yourself take huge leaps toward an improved reality.

Keep your side of the bargain and your unconscious will give you a leash and let you play a while.

Do a test run. Have a talk with the big U, make it feel safe, and pour out one of those challenging scenes or difficult memories. When you’re done, put it in the drawer without reading it. Come back tomorrow, and see, with fresh eyes, that it’s some of your most powerful writing. (And tell us about it, in whatever level of detail you like.)

Tomorrow: why willpower isn’t the answer to getting through difficult writing.

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