What You Don’t Know You Know About What You Don’t Know

Barsk: The Elephants' Graveyard by Lawrence M. Schoen
Written by Lawrence M. Schoen

My formative SF reading included a lot of sense-o’-wonder adventure stories. Was there subtext to those tales? Maybe with some, but if so I suspect I missed it entirely. I was too busy enjoying myself, traveling through time and space, meeting aliens, and grappling with ideas that made the preteen me wide-eyed and slack-jawed. So decades later when I started writing, no surprise that a similar voice emerged (at least, in my better stuff). Part, perhaps, of writing what you know.

More recently, questions of what I do and don’t know have occupied my mind. As both a cognitive psychologist and a hypnotherapist, I’ve been thinking about the role the unconscious plays in writing, and in my own fiction in particular. A couple things jumped out, one that’s probably obvious and one less so.

Obvious first: good worldbuilding isn’t about cramming in endless detail that only you (okay, and your mother) will love. Rather it’s about creating such a lush tapestry in your mind, at both a conscious and an unconscious level, that it underlies your process, seeping into the writing as verisimilitude, that seamless and seemingly effortlessness that we all want.

The less obvious point is that the unconscious mind can be trusted to handle all the subtext of a work, in much the way it incorporates the details inherent in the worldbuilding. This frees the author to focus on all those cool, sense-o’-wonder things. Some examples: In writing Barsk, the conscious part of my writing was focused on telling a story about uplift, but at some unconscious level I apparently put in lots of stuff about intolerance, as practiced both by the intolerant and the object of their intolerance. Go figure. I also went into the book intending to create a pair of characters whose friendship was the most important part of their lives, but unbeknownst to me I was really going for the poignancy of a relationship that transcends death and redefines obligation. Huh. And I also thought it’d be cool to throw in some threads about prophecy and telepathy, all the while not realizing that I’d gone off to explore philosophies about manipulation and lifestyle choices of being a player or the played. Seriously, where did that come from?

All this introspection led me to have similar conversations with other authors (usually at the bar during conventions) about the intentionality and the weightier things in their fiction. Some insisted their work held no allegory, no subtext, no message. Others assured me that as authors they felt a responsibility to use their fiction as a soapbox. It’s worth noting that both explanations are products of the conscious mind, and are the result of reflection, revision, and/or rehearsal.

We could stop there and be done, but there’s more to the story. I’ve had the opportunity to engage more than a few writers through trance (which, curiously, also often happens in bars at conventions) and glimpse the creative unconscious at work. It has its own agenda, its own skill sets, its own tools. The goals of the unconscious mind are as deliberate as, though not necessarily accessible or revealed to, the author’s conscious. Or more simply, whether the author is aware of it or not, this is where that subtext gets brewed. It’s these unconscious processes that inform our writing and engage our readers, in ways we may not consciously ever know we intended. But we did.

Which is why when I’m asked about my own fiction, whether I intended this particular message or that compelling theme, I’ve learned to just keep my mouth shut and smile enigmatically. Unless of course you’re a fellow hypnotist and we’re at the bar. Then, maybe, you’ll get the whole story. And if you do, please let me in on it.


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