Monday, August 6, 2007

Tapping the Unconscious

There is often a fixation on word count, craft and the mechanics of writing for those attempting the longer forms of fiction. I can get completely wrapped up in these aspects, and they’re very important. But the real motivation to write comes from our creative natures, our desire to tell a story in a way that only we can and by the liberating joy that we find during those times when we are writing almost automatically and letting the words flow from a place we can’t access when we think too hard about it.

There were two sessions at the recent retreat I attended that were led by Denver’s Poet Laureate, Chris Ransick that I did not attend and wish I had. Chris Ransick, MA, MA won a Colorado Book Award for poetry in 2003 for his first book, Never Summer. His collection of short stories, A Return to Emptiness, won the 2005 Colorado Author’s League Fiction Award and was a finalist for the 2005 Colorado Book Award in Fiction. His most recent book, Lost Songs & Last Chances, was published in 2006. Chris holds masters degrees in English/Creative Writing and Journalism.

Chris led the book discussion on The Wild Braid, by Stanley Kunitz, and I got a glimpse of what I was missing out on in his workshops.

Stanley Kunitz received the 1995 National Book Award in Poetry for Passing Through: The Later Poems, New and Selected. Five years later, The Collected Poems, combining both early and later work, was published. Kunitz received nearly every honor bestowed upon a poet in this country, including the Pulitzer and Bollingen Prizes, a National Medal of the Arts from President Clinton in 1993, and the Frost Medal from the Poetry Society of America in 1998. He served as consultant in poetry to the Library of Congress (and again when the post was called US Poet Laureate). He was State Poet of New York and a chancellor of the Academy of American Poets. Stanley Kunitz died on May 14, 2006 at the age of one hundred.

Throughout his life Stanley Kunitz created poetry and tended gardens. The Wild Braid is the distillation of conversations that took place between 2002 and 2004. His essays and poems explore personal recollections, the creative process, and the harmony of the life cycle.

Anyone with a deep connection with nature, with gardening and with the written word cannot help but be deeply touched by this book. Chris Ransick is such a person. He has been gardening all of his life and opened our discussion with a short essay on his experiences with the organic vegetable garden he has lovingly nurtured at his Denver home for over fifteen years. Chris has a weblog I visit every day called WordGarden that brings together his reflections on gardening and the writing life.

Much of what we discussed about The Wild Braid and about writing in general was the connection we have between nature, the subconscious and the creative process of writing. Chris finds a deep connection between working his hands in the soil, nurturing the plants, weeding, feeding and harvesting the bounty of his garden and the creative process. I thought about how many of my writing friends have mentioned gardening. Most of the writers I know tend gardens. I in my own humble way, have limited experience with the modest perennial garden planted in front of my house that I was delighted to see really did come back this spring and with the brilliant annuals I planted this summer that I tend to closely, deadheading them, examining them for signs of insect infestation, monitoring them for signs of over or under watering. There is a distinct connection between working in a garden and freeing the unconscious to access thoughts and ideas that don’t occur to us when we’re focused and concentrating.

Chris asked us about physical activities that stimulate the creative process for all of us. Walking alone is certainly a common way to unleash the unconscious and it works for me and certainly I’ve read about other writers who walk regularly as part of a writing routine. I mentioned painting – not paintings, but interior walls – I’ve done a lot of it over the course of many moves and find that I enjoy the quiet and the repetitive motion. Physical activity provides more oxygen to the brain and this stimulates our thought process. Those physical activities that have us moving, but require little direct focus stimulate all kinds of ideas, especially when we’re out in nature. Henry David Thoreau wrote an entire fifty page essay called Walking.

Poetry scares me, although it intrigues me at the same time. I’ve never studied it and have read some, always feeling as though I’m not seeing it all, but there is a very direct correlation between a poem and the poet’s unconscious creative energy. As I read more if it, I can feel that primal, creative element at work. In working on, studying and discussing writing as it relates to the novel, we’re often pulled quite a distance from that unconscious, creative energy; that process that surely was the reason all of us who are driven to put pen to paper began to do so in the first place. We’re often so practical about the construction that I wonder if we aren’t revising out some of the original, unconscious creative work that drove us to write in the first place.

I’ve been reading Lost Songs & Last Chances and the poems draw me in and show me the elements left of a story, when every piece not needed is stripped out and what’s left is the pearl that evokes the visceral, “I get it” response. I don’t know if that’s what poetry is supposed to do, but that’s what it does for me.

Reading poetry makes me think that maybe each novel has a poem hidden inside it; that there is a dense reduction each story simmers down to that leaves the reader with the rush of images and sensations that came from within the writer and that was the fertilization and conception of our story.

Do you consciously place yourself in surroundings that open you up to ideas, creativity and inspiration? Where do you find it? How do you summon it? Does poetry inform your fiction writing?


Larramie said...

Each novel may well hold a hidden poem at its core because it usually feels as though each poem holds a novel within its lines.

Btw, Lisa, I *love* the WordGarden" too.

Lisa said...

Larramie, I thought exactly the same thing about poetry. Poems feel so often to me like they are the very skeleton of a much longer story that may or may not ever be told. I'm glad you went to visit WordGarden. I so love to read Chris's posts.

iyan and egusi soup: said...


i've also noticed that many writers have gardens, or are drawn to plant life. i've been able to draw some parallels between my caring for plants, and the writing process: savoring the excitement of beginnings, and doing nothing when i'm unsure.

Lisa said...

iyan and egusi soup, you've touched on one of my favorite concepts, which is -- when in doubt, don't. In our culture it is so hard not to feel pressured to do something, even if it's wrong. Doing nothing until the right idea or inspiration strikes is highly under rated, I think.

reality said...

For me gardens don't do it. I love nature just as it is and prefer being in jungles, mountains, forests, or simply in a field of rustling wheat at sunset, when everything is quiet in my village.
There is a beauty to that, it needs to be experienced.
But the underlying process of creativity remains the same for all of us. There is something about nature that stirs our emotions.

liz fenwick said...

Thanks for visiting my blog Lisa.

I find my garden helps to stop my brain shuts it down which is needed.

Walking or long distance driving are my subconcious build-up times.

It's here in my adopted home of Cornwall that I find so much inspiration. It is both wild and culitvated at the same time. I am hit with so much beauty that I long to capture some of the beauty in my stories :-)

Thoughtful post. Thanks.

The Writers' Group said...

Lisa, I love this post and added Word Garden to my favorites. I think I'll have to read your post again and again to reflect yet more on that source.


ps- I love painting, too!

Therese said...

I studied poetry at some length in my MFA program, under the direction of two respected poets, one of whom has been nominated for the National Book Award (in poetry) and is now a judge for same.

I didn't know much at all about poetry before that. So I was surprised to learn that "good" poems require at least as much deliberation about construction and word choice as prose works do. Years of effort go into some (not very long) poems!

Poetry has SO many prescribed rules--which may be why the best of it feels primal and almost effortless in the same ways the best prose fiction does. Stripped, as a poem is, of the fill that makes a novel a novel, it's energy is necessarily more apparent--but it wasn't spilled onto the page the way it feels it must have been.

I agree that there are poems to be found within novels, and novels to be imagined from poems...and of course we must tap into our unconscious creative energy before we can do our best work. The secret of effective writing, in my view, is that both processes (creative and methodical) get employed in just the right proportion.

Patti said...

when i need a break from my usual writing space i have two places that do it for me dependant on my mood. one is my patio in the backyard. it has huge comfy furniture, privacy bamboo blinds and is busy with wildlife. when i sit out there, with my cool drink, i can think thoughts that usually stay hidden until i visit.

the other place is any overly noisy coffee house. i started doing this when boy was young and found the noise to be a filter. i knew no one was there for me, no one was calling my name (as in "MOM!"), and i could eat something delicious without interruption or sharing(sometimes you just want the whole muffin:)

as far as poetry goes, i have found that when i am searching for the next step in my fiction that i turn to poetry. my poetry comes quickly and is the equivalant to cross training. When my "running" muscles need a break then I "ski".

this was an intriguing post...made me think in the summer's heat!

Lisa said...

Reality, walking in nature seems to be the catalyst for creative thought for me too. Simply being in a garden doesn't do it, but there is something about getting down on one's hands and knees and working in the soil that does.

Liz, I loved your post today and you have me yearning to visit Cornwall and just walk and walk in all that beauty...

Amy, the WordGarden posts sometimes have me thinking for days. Chris is an interesting guy. I even read Aristotle's Poetics at his suggestion and -- well, another post.

Therese, I regret that the opportunity to study poetry under the guidance of someone who really knows what s/he's talking about has never come up. You've confirmed some things I suspected, but maybe someday I'll have a chance to really learn more. Both poetry and short stories are a bit vexing to me because while I do read some good examples of both, there is also some pretty awful work out there too and I don't really have the vocabulary to articulate why some is good and some is not. Learning more definitely goes on my long "to do before I die" list. Thank you for this thoughtful comment.

Patti, I can see you in both of those places! It's interesting because it sounds like you are inspired more by the environment itself without any kind of accompanying physical activity. When you were doing all that interior painting, I wondered if you'd be having bouts of inspiration (that's what painting does to me). Poetry is like cross training -- I like that.

Subscribe Now: Feed Icon

Literary Quote

It is worth mentioning, for future reference, that the creative power which bubbles so pleasantly in beginning a new book quiets down after a time, and one goes on more steadily. Doubts creep in. Then one becomes resigned. Determination not to give in, and the sense of an impending shape keep one at it more than anything.

Virginia Woolf