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.
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.
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?