Tricking the Writer’s Brain: Put Your Subconscious to Work

Have you ever been lying in bed in the morning, not quite awake yet but still aware on some level, and suddenly had an idea for a story? Or thought of the perfect thing to get your hard-to-shop-for brother for his birthday? Or remembered just where it was you put your passport “for safe keeping”?

The brain is a funny thing. There are sections that seem to function only when we’re asleep, and often those feel like our smartest, most creative brain cells. Our dreamscapes are bizarre, mysterious places where we suddenly defy gravity, recall every word of our high school French, and make brilliant leaps of intuition. We know that our minds use the time when we are sleeping to work on some of the thornier problems in our lives, even if the form they take makes little sense when we wake. It stands to reason that, as writers, we can count on that time for solving some major plot problems as well.

But how can you convince your brain to tackle the problems you think are important? How do you tap into your subconscious and do a little of the steering? And better still, how can you be sure you’ll remember anything you think up while asleep?

Chances are, if you’re really troubled by your work-in-progress, or struggling to develop a new story idea, it’s already weighing on your subconscious. But that doesn’t mean you can’t give things a little nudge in the right direction. Our brains are pretty suggestible. Often, what we dream about is linked to whatever we did that day, or even immediately before bed. Now, I wouldn’t suggest you sit at your desk and struggle over your current writing project minutes before going to sleep; the frustration you feel might well keep you awake half the night, completely defeating the purpose. But you should have your question or issue in mind when you finally turn out the light.

Choose a day when you’ve been working on your problem project. Then do a little reading before bed — preferably something that won’t hijack your thought process, so no page-turning murder mysteries or anything of that sort. A book on writing is a good choice, since it will put your brain in a creative place without installing someone else’s storyline. Try something like Stephen King’s On Writing, Alice La Plante’s The Making of a Story, or Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird. After you’ve read for a half hour or so, think briefly about your writing problem, but then put it out of your mind and go to bed. Make sure to leave a pen and paper on your nightstand.

In the morning, try not to leap out of bed and start your day. Lie there for a few minutes and let your thoughts turn back to the story with which you’re having trouble. Try to think about it in vague terms — the big picture instead of small, specific moments. See if anything new falls into place. Jot down any ideas that come to you before they slip away.

There’s no guarantee this will work, of course. Or at least not the first time you try. But the sleeping brain and that half-dreaming state first thing upon waking can help you let new thoughts sift down from your subconscious. You might be surprised by the results.

Good luck, and happy writing!



3 thoughts on “Tricking the Writer’s Brain: Put Your Subconscious to Work

  1. This REALLY does work. I am a very active dreamer. I know everyone dreams, but I have very vivid dreams and always remember them.

    Whenever I am struggling with a certain scene or not sure where to go next, I lie in bed, close my eyes and try to picture the scene playing out in front of me like a movie. What would happen next if this were a movie, I ask myself. And slowly I drift away and somewhere in dream world the scene works itself out and I wake up with a brilliant idea. I’d say this happens 75% of the time, as long as I didn’t read some action novel where I end up fighting all night! lol.

    GREAT post!

  2. Seconding the effectiveness of this. I can puzzle all day over a plot problem, and often the best answer comes when I think about it a little before sleep (without obsessing or letting it bother me too much) and let my subconscious work things out. Sleeping on problems really helps, whether you’re trying to figure out a math concept or your character’s motivations.

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