Subconscious productivity: Accessing your inner self
As a writer, I battle with procrastination, always have. At times I also find it strangely hard to revise my work. But in graduate school I hit upon a way of using my procrastination to produce nearly final copy the first time. The “method” was suggested to me by reading the Autobiography of Bertrand Russell.
In it, Russell describes how he would think intensively and long about a proposed book topic, then dictate the book to his secretary, who would send the manuscripts off to publishers with only a few changes in Russell’s hand. I wondered at how Russell could compose his elegant prose in this way, and in particular how he could remember what he intended to say long enough to dictate.
Although it was scary, I began trying to apply Russell’s approach to my own writing. I found that, if I were not “ready” to write yet, coherent prose would not flow. I would end up with a series of disjointed paragraphs, or even sentences or ideas not connected in any coherent way to a final essay or chapter. But if I thought intensively for a few minutes each day about the writing project, then put it out of my conscious mind, some kind of subconscious process would continue working on the topic. When I would “return” in a day or two, coherent paragraphs were “there” waiting to be written out.
I have found confirmation of this subconscious operation of thought in another seemingly unrelated task: crossword puzzle solving. I’ve become addicted to the New York Times puzzles. I find that an initial working through all the clues across and down produces relatively little in the way of completed squares (except for the Monday puzzle, which always seems easiest); but each subsequent day, when I return to the puzzle I find obvious what was perplexing before. Again, some kind of unconscious working through clues must be happening.
My terms for this subconscious phenomenon have included a variety of metaphors: the notion of a shelf to which part of me repairs, viewing dispassionately what the rest of me is experiencing and doing; an adaptation of Freud’s Unconscious, ascribing to it a kind of life of its own, reflective, pondering, silent in the daily communications with others. But frankly, I’m embarrassed to confess that I have come to think of it as my inner ghost writer to whom I give writing tasks, checking in from time to time to see how he (or she) is getting along with them, adding where necessary additional information or references. I have come to trust my ghost writer as reliable, and certainly worthy of my solicitude.
Am I nuts? I wonder whether others have a similar “method” of writing. There’s an old joke that goes something like: “I hear there’s a conference on Schizophrenia: I’m of half a mind to attend.” Is my bicameral self, one a ghostly writer enslaved to the other’s writing projects, common or not?
You tell me.
Richard Hull is a retired Professor of Philosophy at the University of Buffalo and former TAA Executive Director.