I think my subconscious wants to help, it really does, but it’s like a toddler that spends more time falling over than running, and it was headed in the wrong direction anyway.
Then I give up and make myself a comforting cup of tea, only to turn back and find the blocks are arranged in a tower that’s colour-coordinated, structurally sound enough to withstand a siege, and elegant enough for a Disney princess.
Okay, maybe it’s not that good. Disney princesses are really picky.
My subconscious shows its colours
I first noticed the phenomenon when I was doing a maths exam. Around question 15, a little voice in the back of my head said, “go back and fix question eight.”
“What’s wrong with it?”
“You mixed up the limits of the integral.”
I went back. My subconscious was right.
“How did you know that? I wasn’t even thinking about question eight any more.”
“Yes, but I was.”
My subconscious is no help at the time, but when I move on it keeps plugging at the problem and often manages to surprise me.
Late to the blogging party
I noticed the same thing when I started blogging. I resisted starting a blog for a long time, thinking I had nothing to talk about. (As it turns out, you don’t need anything to talk about, so all good there.)
To make sure I never drew a blank when I sat down to write a post, I set aside time each weekend to brainstorm ten post ideas that I could use during the week. Seeing as I only post twice a week, that gave me plenty of leeway to not use terrible ideas. Thankfully.
The first weekend I say down and painfully wrung ten ideas out of my brain. Each was harder to find than the last, and they were mostly dreadful. Then I went to make a cup of tea.
Bing! Up popped idea 11. It was better than any of the others.
I finished making my tea and sat down to edit my novel, and idea 12 flashed into mind.
For the next few hours, random ideas sprang up. My subconscious had finally realised what we were doing and decided to play. It was late to the party, but it came in the end with wide-eyed bumbling enthusiasm.
My subconscious and the creative process
The same process work for generating story ideas. I’m not one of these writers who sneezes ideas. Tell me to write a short story and I’ll stare at an empty page with no idea what to say.
At one point I realised I wouldn’t be working on my current project forever (though it might be fairly close), and I’d have to start thinking about what to write next.
I took a deep breath and did what I always do when I run into writing problems: opened a writing craft book. The book gave a list of exercises you can do to generate story ideas. Two in particular caught my eye: the title game and the first line game. They pretty much describe themselves. You come up with a title or a first line, and then scrawl down all the ideas you can think of for what the book might be about.
I play for half an hour at a time once a week. At first it was hard and painful. The ideas were mindless cliches like “there’s a bad guy who tries to take over the world and the good guy has to stop her.” The whole thing seemed like a waste of time.
But then the toddler finally got the game and started spewing sparkly ideas all over the carpet.
After my half hour ends, my brain keeps going for about three days. By day four it’s been distracted by shiny marbles, but each time it comes back faster when I call.
Ideally I’d do half an hour every three or four days to keep my toddler perpetually in the zone, but life has other ideas. Once a week is nearly as good.
I love that my mind works like this, but at the same time it scares me. If I stop thinking about stories and fantasy worlds, will there come a time when I won’t be able to think about them any more? Is that what it means to grow up? No, thanks.
Fortunately, it seems that all you have to do to keep from growing up is keep playing with your inner toddler. You might end up with blocks all over the floor and sand wedged in your unmentionables, but it’ll be worth it.
Does your brain work like this too? Do you have a favourite method for generating story ideas?
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