Sometimes, rarely, I enter competitions. I’ve won two: a state of the art camera for a wildlife poster I designed, and the other a novel for randomly throwing my name into a hat. The camera got stolen, but I still have the novel–Yann Martel’s Beatrice and Virgil, which I haven’t read yet. You may remember that he’s the author of Life of Pi. I mention him because winning a copy of his new book was ironic, given a comment he once made in an interview, a comment so earth shattering to me it has refused to budge, and I still make regular efforts to refute it. He said, “The world does not need another novel.”
Right or wrong, in my search for my own truth, in the face of the deluge of novels pouring out of writers on so many platforms, I came to a conclusion that made sense to me. The single most compelling reason to continue wrestling with that beautiful beast–the novel–lies in who we are as individuals and who we are as part of a much greater whole. I grapple here with esoteric concepts, but I want to believe, more and more as I evolve as a human being and as a writer, that we are all part of something massive and grand. We’re all intricately connected and have impact on multiple energy and vibrational levels. It seems to me that a sacred space opens up between this collective whole and the unique power each of us brings to the microcosms we inhabit. Like fingerprints and snowflakes, we carry within us distinctive patterns entirely our own.
How do we access that space? How do we stick to a path that’s true for each of us–true in terms of nourishing our souls, and true to the impact we want to have on the world? Is it just about money and fame? Therein lies the danger and the paradox: to write we must, as Virginia Woolf said, have a room of our own. But something is lost in pursuit of popularity, and then yes, Yann Martel is correct–we don’t need another novel. In the mad scramble to emulate the success of writers who have gone before us, we lose the one element that drove them into the stratosphere in the first place: the best of them ventured where others were timid to tread.
And here I’ll venture into the area of that marvelous organ we still know so little about–the brain. I’m no neuroscientist, so those of you who are may want to hit me over the head for this. I’m no psychologist either, nor even a philosopher. I think of the brain as having three components: the conscious, the subconscious, and the unconscious. What we observe and know, what we believe as a result, and who we are at the convergence of being. It’s in the unconscious that treasure lies buried, and our job as writers is to acquaint it with the conscious…to synthesize awareness with what we have yet to discover or even comprehend. Therein lies the novel the world still needs.
I don’t have definitive answers to the questions I pose, but clues do spring to mind. Let’s assume you have a vague plot, a character or two in mind, a setting, and possibly an issue you want to explore. Flesh them out with research and all the conventions that resonate with you: outlines, plot configurations, random notes that strike you as you go to sleep or preoccupy you at sometimes inopportune moments. Carry a notepad.
Here are four ways to nudge the unconscious and embark on an unintended, fruitful and productive journey.
- Observe and imagine–random idiosyncrasies that clutter or enhance your day. I once went to Starbucks, where they had some kind of special on: buy one, get one free later in the day type thing. I saved the invoice for my daughter and slipped it into a book at the local bookstore, called her and told her to look for it a few hours later because she’d be in the area. I told her the exact location of the book. By the time she got there, someone had bought it–that particular paperback novel from that particular bookstore, who would have thought? She didn’t get her coffee, but there’s a story in there somewhere. Perhaps not a novel, but if I start by imagining the other young girl opening her new book and finding a Starbucks coupon nestled in its pages…
- Relax and follow–characters. These lie at the novel’s core, where most things begin. We invent them and have fun getting them to do what we tell them to. We control, manipulate and sometimes coerce them. But a particularly strong, vivid character is the perfect guide into the unconscious. S/he will take us places we never dreamed of going, if we sometimes lead and sometimes follow. Let’s say your book is set in Prague, and now this uppity diva wants to pack her bags and move to a swamp in Louisiana. Instead of fighting it, go with her. Find out where she wants to take you and why. This is tough to do, especially if we find ourselves in unchartered territory, blindly groping our way forward, but the tussle is good. Even the getting lost is good. Writing is a process, an adventure, a steep learning curve that’s not for the faint hearted. You may have to cut four chapters before regaining control, but the odds are all sorts of exciting stuff is going to start bubbling, and you won’t want to cut them, even if they take you somewhere strange and unintended.
- Pay attention–to the voice that makes no sense. It can manifest in dreams or a tickle at the base of your mind. It may be loud and insistent, but it can just as easily be soft as a breath, gone in a heartbeat.
- Cross train–to exercise your mind. Paint, play with clay, make origami figures, take a photograph. The senses are also trusted guides, and they’re often under utilized or accessed. They can trigger memories, desires, regrets. Sinking your fingers into a mound of wet mud…mmhmmm.
The world will always need another novel as long as we trust aspects of ourselves that defy convention, break new ground, and find ways to surprise readers hungry to experience fresh realities. The world will always need another novel as long as a writer has something to say about the planet and society we know, and says it in a voice that demands/begs/clamors to be heard. The world will always need another novel, as long as it’s brave.
Next up from Jenn…I’m trusting the unconscious.