Charlotte Rains Dixon  

Writing While You Sleep

Nearly every writer I know (myself included) prefers the aftermath of writing—having written—to the actual act of writing itself.  And every writer I know would pay dearly to find a way to make the tyranny of facing the blank screen more bearable.  Well, there is a way, and it’s as simple as falling asleep.

Yes, falling asleep.  When someone is trying to make a decision, we tell them to “sleep on it” for a reason—because the subconscious works on ideas and orders them for you while you are asleep.  But not only can you help your brain to do this while slumbering, you can harness your subconscious during waking hours, too.

“Each of us possesses a brilliantly creative subconscious mind,” says screenwriter Cynthia Whitcomb.  “Most of the time we don’t give it credit for its creativity.”

The trick is to feed your subconscious mind the direction it craves.  I learned this when I was faced with writing two big projects at once.  My natural inclination was to wring my hands and moan and groan about my inability to write two things at the same time.  While deeply absorbed in one project, nagging voices about the other one would pop up.  You should be working on the memoir, the voice would say.  How are you going to get it done on time when you are focusing on the novel? 

Out of desperation, I learned a way to subvert the negative voice.  My subconscious is working on it, I would reply.   While I initially started saying this only to shut up the cacophony of voices, to my surprise, my subconscious really did follow my direction, and when I switched to working on my novel, all sorts of ideas were at the ready. 

So I decided it would be to my benefit to learn how to coddle my “second brain.”  The most important thing is to get in the habit of telling your subconscious what you need.  Be specific.  For example, how can I show Carrie’s unhappiness with Bart in chapter eight? Every time you think about your project, repeat the problem:  I’m working on Carrie’s unhappiness.  Now you’ve imprinted your subconscious with your writing need.  How to encourage it to provide an answer?  There are several ways:

1.Sleep on it.  Write down your problem and review it before you climb into bed.  Or, read a few pages of your manuscript and tell your subconscious, Tomorrow I want to finish this scene.

2.Take power naps.  Follow the above procedure during the day, and give yourself ten or fifteen minutes to close your eyes and doze.  Often I lean my head back against my chair for a snooze and have to keep sitting up to write as the ideas flow.

3.Exercise.  Review your problem before taking a walk or starting your daily yoga session.  Sometimes just getting up from your computer and changing location is enough to jog the brain.

4.Engage in repetitive activity.  Sew, knit, weed, plant flowers, dust, vacuum.  Something about the repetition allows ideas to come up in the spaces between.

5.Drive.  Nothing like a mini-road trip (or even a long one) to free the brain.

6.Concentrate on something else.  How many times have you sat down to pay bills only to have the best idea for your screenplay yet?  (Which means, of course, you get to delay paying the bills for a while while you run to your computer.)

With all of these activities it is vital for you to carry pen and paper with you.  No, you won’t remember the idea you had while rounding the curve on the tenth lap of the track.  You’ll forget the brilliant snippet of dialogue you invented while gardening if you don’t write it down.  Carrying pen and paper is a signal you’re ready.  When you start stoking the subconscious it will respond, and if you are not ready and receptive, believe me, it will shut back down.  Like a muscle, the more you use your subconscious, the stronger it gets.

Finally, returning to the topic of sleep, let us not forget about dreams, which are a powerful source of story ideas, symbolism and imagery.   The best way to remember dreams echoes the technique for stoking your subconscious—get in the habit of writing them down as soon as you awake.  Since you are carrying paper and pen with you everywhere, this won’t be a problem, right?

Respect and revere your “second brain” with these simple steps and you’ll be amazed at how hard it will work for you.  Before you know it, you’ll even be writing in your sleep.

1 Comment

  1. Aleta

    I loved your article! I’ve often find that if I think about a topic as I’m falling asleep, the answer will be realized in the morning. Isn’t it wonderful how the brain and creativity work? Creative time for me is either early in the morning or late at night. I should keep a pen and paper by the nightstand. I don’t write novels, but I dabble in poetic endeavors from time to time. Pleasure to read your site!


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