On Writing: The Power of Your Subconscious

Friday, January 4, 2013

on writing: let the old man in

The dream: I was in a dark basement, the sort of thing you see in a Saw movie, where everything is gray and black and filthy and broken and caked in gunk. I was naked, thrown into a shower stall. The water was freezing, sputtering, harsh. Doubled over with cold, coughing, terrified, I wanted nothing more than to escape. The shower door rattled and opened-- it was an old man dressed in rags, and I foot-pushed him away and slammed the door again, wrapping my arms around myself and crying. He'd be back. No matter how many times I shoved him away and slammed the door, he kept coming back.

The reality: I opened my eyes. The water in the bathroom was running, spluttering: my husband in the shower. I was cold: when he'd left the bed, he'd taken one of my blankets with him. The light was gray: halfway between night and morning. I was filled with dread: that old man, in the dream, something waiting just outside the door. And I was angry: I didn't want to be awake at all, but I couldn't get back to sleep.

I pulled up the covers, rearranged the cat on my legs, and stared at the dust on the ceiling fan. I need to clean it off, but I dread it, and I never notice it unless I'm awake in bed at just the right time.

And finally, I knew who that old man was.

He was the giant edit letter waiting for me downstairs. The one I've been foot-pushing out of my mind for weeks. The one that just really wants to open the door and get clean already, even if it hurts.

The one that I've been dreading.

So, as I lay there, my subconscious still ripe and sleep-warm, I just let him the hell in.

Within minutes, it all came together. The questions I've been pondering, the major changes that have needed revising, the mythology. An entire world that had previously been interesting little bits that didn't quite fit together: they merged into one understanding.

I have a nine-page edit letter, three pages of personal notes, and 230+ pages of manuscript.

And, thanks to one annoying dream and subsequent wake-up, I can codify it all into one sentence.

I spent my morning playing God. And it felt good.

That's one of the biggest lessons I've had to learn about writing: sometimes, you can't force it. But you can't just sit around and wait for it, either. You have to be ripe, you have to let it work itself out. You have to put away the anger and just let things in. You have to face your fears, even if that means opening the door for them.

Sometimes, you have to let the old man in.

* * *


Note: I do not, in general, advocate letting creepy old men into your shower, nor am I a big fan of being naked in dank Saw basements that offer neither hot water nor skin-friendly soap products. 


It's a metaphor.