5 Steps to Subconscious-Driven Creativity

I’ll let you in on a secret — I have a ghostwriter. In fact, for many of these blog posts, all I do is sit at the keyboard, type what the ghostwriter has written, and then slip in a reference to bacon.

That ghostwriter is my subconscious. Don’t think of him as unpaid labor; he also enjoys my bacon.

For the last thirty years or so I’ve programmed myself almost nightly to break through creative barriers, find a path in confusion, and achieve answers to questions difficult to express. I referenced my experience in a tweet after last Friday’s Creativity Tweets of the Week inclusion of a link to motivational business blogger Daniel Wood’s post “How Dreaming Can Help You Succeed.” A Twitter conversation I had with creativity guide  Teresa Van Lanen of Making Art of Life helped me realize I needed to write my own post, or at least ask my subconscious to whip up a draft.

Let the idea come to you, like a surfer in (hopefully shark-free) waters.

Wood’s post suggests you go to bed and imagine that you’ll have $12 million in the bank in two years. My right brain loves that idea, but my left brain says (1) I’m not sure how one programmed dream night will manifest such a large, long-term goal, and (2) it seems unwise to have that much in a bank when the FDIC only ensures bank accounts up to $250,000.

As my Twitter pals Michelle James and Melanie Sklarz know, I resist writing “3 Steps to a Better/More Creative/Happier/Slimmer/Funnier/Less Malodorous You” posts, but I’m doing a step-by-step post here because I truly want others to know how they can find creative answers in themselves.

STEP ONE: CLARIFY YOUR OBSTACLE — His example of $12 million is an answer to many, many potential problems, but it seems like cheating because you’re telling your subconscious the answer (I need millions). You’ve just cut off other paths to reach whatever goal you think the money will solve.

My preference is to identify a blockage in my life. It could be anxiety about a pending conversation, say with a boss or family member; the need to find a new job without being entirely clear what that job would be or how I might find it;  a loss as to what I’m going to write the next day; confusion as to why that short story I just finished doesn’t quite “work.”

Look, the ultimate goal is the same for all of us — happiness, success, wealth, good health, positive stuff. Think of your subconscious as a therapist. You both agree on the ultimate goal of a good life. Lay out to your therapist a problem that you’re having, and allow her to guide you to a self-generated solution.

STEP TWO: NARROW YOUR REQUEST — You know how in project management you’re told to break a project into smaller, trackable tasks? This is similar. Don’t ask your subconscious “What is the plot of my next suspense novel?” Focus on what you know, and ask something you don’t.

For example, you know your hero is a dashing blogger and reporter in Washington, D.C. What does he love? Bacon. What motivates him? Bacon. Now go to sleep asking your subconscious “How does my hero’s motivation put him in jeopardy?” When you wake up, you’ll find that his investigative reporting leads him to stumble into an international criminal ring seeking to corner the world bacon market.

STEP THREE: CLEAR YOUR HEAD — Your subconscious doesn’t respond well to stress. This step is important for finding a solution to a writing hiccup, but is even more important if you’re working out what you want to say to a difficult boss or finding a way out of a financial crisis.

You want to have a restful sleep, so in the hours before you go to bed, don’t do anything related to the question you intend to pose. Read a good (unrelated) book, watch a funny (unrelated) TV show, have a nice (unrelated) chat with your spouse. Do your normal bedtime routine. Then, when your head hits the pillow and you feel ready to nod off, ask your question.

STEP FOUR: LISTEN TO THE ANSWER — If your subconscious has cooperated, when you awake an answer will be there. You need to act fast, to listen to whatever is in your head and to write it down. Did I say fast? I meant it. And in as much detail as you can. Because like any dream, it is easily pushed away by the realities of conscious life.

Give your subconscious some time to move, and don't ask it to travel too far in one trip. Oh, and don't make soup out of it.

Also know that it may not be a clean-cut answer. You may not open your eyes and hear “My hero has just stumbled across an international conspiracy by writing a story about campaign contributions to a Kansas senator who is on the take from an evil commodities trader in pork futures.” It could be more vague, just disconnected thoughts about investigative reporting, campaign donations, monopolies, and bacon. What you need to remember is that this solution IS COMING FROM YOU. That means that if you spend conscious time poring over the clues your subconscious has given you in your sleep, your subconscious will help you assemble them properly while you are awake.

STEP FIVE: BE PATIENT – Twice this year I’ve mentioned this process to groups of writers, and faced reactions ranging from skepticism to outright dismissal. In both instances, however, one individual expressed genuine enthusiasm, but my fear was if they tried what I’ve just outlined here, and it didn’t work, they’d give up and move on.

I honestly don’t know when I began having this nightly conversation, but my first memory of it dates back 28 years. It’s now such a part of my routine I don’t think about it. But I’m sure that when I was in my teens, I wasn’t as good at clarifying my obstacle, narrowing the question, of clearing my head, and of listening to the response. And even today, I don’t always get a straight answer, and sometimes what I get seems like something I could have figured out without the help. And sometimes — no offense, subconscious — what I’m given seems great while groggy but is useless once I’m fully awake.

Start small. Keep with it. That’s standard advice in the development of any new skill. But what I know now is that my skill, while one I somehow stumbled upon by accident, isn’t unique to me, but is hard wired in all of our brains.

Have you had experiences where your subconscious gave you ideas? Perhaps in your sleep but maybe in other ways, such as meditation or even a nice walk? How do you work with your subconscious?

About Patrick Ross

I'm the author of Committed: A Memoir of the Artist's Road.

46 Responses to “5 Steps to Subconscious-Driven Creativity”

  1. This is a concept I believe is more powerful than we think.

    Subconscious creativity is, at least in theory, the basis for ALL creativity. I’m writing a book about it, you know? :)

    • “Subconscious creativity is, at least in theory, the basis for ALL creativity.” That is very well put. I think the problem for we creatives is that we often feel so little control over it.

      Keep me informed on the book, I’d love to help you get the word out on it and offer any help you might like.

  2. I think we use the same ghostwriter :) Thanks for sharing your process Patrick. Each step you outline is important but the one many people resist is #4 –

    They hear their subconscious but they don’t take it seriously and listen and ignore their fleeting thoughts.

  3. Thanks, Patrick. I really love your bacon blog, and that is occasionally touches on creativity! It’s a combo platter.

  4. So, I tried this for two nights, figuring it was time to let my subconscious do some work for a change, and stop struggling and muscling through business challenges with my poor little awake brain. It’s tiring and not helpful to worry all day, and to try to “make things happen,” which is so 2008, Corporate
    Job Me. First night, not much in the way of results. No big deal, it didn’t hurt anything, and maybe I just was not consciously aware of the beginning of an important process. Who am I to say? Night 2: I spent a relaxing evening puttering around, working on a knitting design sample, quick-connecting with some Twitter friends, and finding positive online content for the creative furnace. Went to bed with the intention to invite help for business growth/money making issue, with the note that I would like any solutions to be easier than the workaholic perfectionist part of me thinks they have to be. This morning my alarm went off at 6:41. Did not remember any dreams, and decided that it was a little too early, since I stayed up late playing. When I woke up for real, I remembered one wee facet of the last dream, and, in a differently-conscious way, immediately made a connection to a pretty good, probably workable idea to increase my business (in an easy, interesting, innovative way) and the added bonus of a new garment design idea thrown in! Took some quick notes and made a sketch, and now I feel the relief of not having to worry over this today. Very interesting…where did those ideas and words come from this morning? The dream image did not make that much sense, but the little, half awake, in-between stage thoughts sort of did, and as my waking mind started to take over, the idea became more clear and rational. But it is not something I really need to “work on” today. I took my notes, like a good girl. I can be open and see what decides to present itself as I go through my day at a more relaxed pace, and I’m sure there’s more, much more, where that came from in the bigger part of my mind, just waiting for me to invite its help tonight while I sleep. What a relief that it doesn’t have to be so hard. Thanks for this ridiculously helpful post. And your recurring “I Love Bacon” theme is wonderful and ingenious.

    • Andrea, you have really made my month! The idea that this “ridiculously helpful post” has helped one creative thrills me. And now you know that it can happen again.

      It doesn’t always happen for me. And I should note that when I awake, it’s not so much that I remember a dream, at least not in the way we think of dreams (surreal adventures). You’re a visual creative so these insights may come to you in visual form. As a writer, they come to me in the way of incomplete thoughts, like a voice saying something I don’t completely understand but know I should listen to.

      Have fun with this. I’m going to celebrate by frying up some bacon. :)

  5. Great post! I am always looking for ways to more eloquently discourse with my subconscious and I’m looking forward to implementing some of your suggestions.. I’ve just recently been asking myself VERY specific questions, and I find that when you get specific, the answers do come.

    • Hi Matt, glad you like the post. I think that’s a very good point about specificity. If you say “Give me an idea for a great novel,” that’s probably asking a bit much for your subconscious to process!

  6. I have my Social Security card and my grandmother’s letters, thanks to my subconscious. I had packed all of my important documents in a “safe place” and moved them myself when I relocated from Baltimore to Washington. Months later, I knew they were somewhere in my apartment, but an hour or so of turning the place upside down yielded nothing. The answer was locked inside me. I had put them somewhere. I asked my subconscious to tell me where. When I woke up the next day, I went straight to the box under my bed where they were.

    • Thank you for sharing that, Laura. The subconscious can answer so many questions for us, and as Matt pointed out above, specificity can play a big role in its success.

  7. Wow – I love this. But how did you know my Twitter hero was a dashing blogger and reporter in Washington, DC? Uncanny…

    This idea is so cool, I have to try it. I’ve been trying to get the sense of the new short story I’m working on – maybe this will help!

  8. Excellent post. So glad you linked here from the post about poor William at camp getting a letter from his heartless mother or I might have missed this. ;)

    I don’t have any problems believing that your method works. I know enough about the subconscious mind to see that your steps are friendly ways to work with the genie within.

    The method I currently use to get help and answers from my subconscious (or beyond?) is called soul writing, based on the book Writing Down Your Soul. I practice it every day and have received some life guidance (on practical matters, such as how to reduce my insomnia, as well as help with emotional issues) that I know I would not have found using my conscious mind – even though I’m good at research and trying lots of creative solutions.

    This morning I asked some questions in my soul writing pages and then went to make breakfast. My conscious mind switched over to items from my To-Do list and forgot about the questions. In the middle of my mundane thoughts and soft-boiling some eggs, a suggestion popped in that I know I would not have thought of myself.

    I’m bookmarking this post. Your steps are similar, in some ways, to the process of soul writing . . . but I don’t always remember to follow the most effective steps. Any reminder I can get (esp. written with so much humor :D) is much appreciated. Thanks for sharing your method, Patrick.

    ~ Milli

  9. Hi Patrick, glad to have discovered your site. I started a new site just over a month ago and after the initial mad excitement and flurry of writing and ideas, I’ve been conscious (not a sub in sight) that it’s been more of a struggle this last week. I’m going to try this programming approach.

    • Glad you’ve found your way here, Tess! I think anyone who has started a site has experienced the same thing you are, so hang in there, and I hope this technique helps.

  10. This is exactly why I Journey (Shamanic Journeying). There is so much stuff, well, stuffed in your subconscious. When I Journey, I always get a response, I get it right away, and it’s always a surprise. The mind is a wonderful thing!

  11. Great post, Patrick! And I don’t know how you do it, but every time you write the word “Bacon”, I crack up. Did you do something subliminal to me in my sleep?

    • I can’t speak for you, but bacon calls to me when awake and asleep. At least my dream bacon doesn’t increase my weight or decrease my arterial blood flow!

  12. BTW … do I note a turtle theme going on here?

  13. These self help methods are sound like the law of attraction. I agree that they are very powerful indeed and can help you obtain success and make money. Thank you for these success secrets.

  14. I do EXACTLY this same thing. I’m also fascinated by the subconscious’s ability to make unexpected, seemingly random connections when you encourage that type of thinking. It’s not accident that the breakthrough inspiration for my current WIP came after a 2-hour workshop that encouraged intuitive thinking. Great post!

  15. WOW! And the first step, is always the most difficult. Love this post, Thanks!

  16. Honestly, Patrick, I don’t typically give my subconscious much thought–in a “direct” way ;) But I do think that if you think about something before you go to sleep, there’s a good chance it will work your way into dreams (which I almost never remember anyway) or at least be given a chance to be “thought” about through our subconscious, possibly helping to open our mind to a solution. Love this and so glad you posted the link again :)

  17. …work “its” way, not “your” way *sigh* I’m lucky I can think at all this morning, seeing as I woke up dizzy. I hate these days ’cause it’s such interference. Especially when I have so much thinking to do as far as prepping for this weekend’s conference. Anyway, just had to clarify :D

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