Short answer: Most of the time; but not always.
Five months after I turned 40 I found myself in the fortunate position to be able to take a year off and work full-time on the novel we all supposedly have buried in cell tissue somewhere inside us. And so I did. I set myself the disciplined practice of writing “two pages a day, come what may.” If any day came to an end without me writing my two pages, I had to force myself to stay up and write them no matter what. No excuses.
This kind of discipline turns out to be quite good for the brain. It only took two or three trials before I never again came to a day’s end without having crafted those two pages. From that I learned writing procrastination was something I definitely wished to avoid. In order to inspire those two daily pages, I bought and read close to 100 books on writing in general and novel-writing in particular. I also attended writers’ conferences and workshops. Reading about writing and hanging out with other writers, it turns out, inspires my writing brain by simple, associative immersion.
Bare Zen Bones
One memorable workshop I attended was offered by Natalie Goldberg at Green Gulch Zen Center shortly after she published her mega-hit, Writing Down the Bones. Natalie didn’t actually offer anything she hadn’t included in the book, but two things she reiterated in her own voice took on memorable gravitas and remain with me to this day. The first was: “Give yourself permission to write the worst crap in the world.” The second was: “Write about what most deeply disturbs you.”
Well, these two directives turned out to be powerful tools for accessing unconscious regions in my brain. Permission to write the worst crap in the world effectively silenced the critic/editor (who is only temporarily silenced knowing he will get his say when editing time comes around later on); writing about what disturbed me turned out to be an invitation to surface traumatic experiences buried dungeon deep in the depths of my dark right brain, where many painful memories live and lurk.
One other thing writing about what disturbs me did was open me up to the very real possibility of … being deeply disturbed — a lot. By all kinds of things. Which indeed, I quickly came to be. Surprisingly, what I found myself most deeply disturbed by, and what I came to spend My-Year-of-Novel-Writing writing about, was a stranger I just happened to spy across the basketball court one night at Stanford’s Maples Pavilion.
IN The Transference Dance, But Not Of It
Being more than a little familiar with the psychological mechanisms of projection and transference, when I found myself being greatly disturbed by a young woman sitting across the court from me at Maples – a woman whom I had never seen before and knew nothing about – the only reasonable conclusion I could make was that something in me longed for expression and healing integration. And so I began writing. About her. And about all the ways a stranger I knew absolutely nothing about, deeply disturbed me.
I wrote more than 700 pages. They simply emerged full blown from my unconscious without much censoring at all. They all fit into a perfect story structure that had a clear beginning, middle and end, and when the last page was written, it became obvious that this process was really about … ungrieved loss – a significant loss I never even realized I’d suffered until I began … Stalking Simone. Out of my imaginal healing journey, Simone turned out to be a real-life niece I never met, born out of wedlock to my sister at age 17. I went on to win the Jack London Award with that first novel.
What We Look Like Doesn’t Matter
From this creative exploration, I took away several important lessons. One is how the brain frequently morphs people into personally important figures from our unfolding lives with whom we have unfinished business. They live unconsciously in implicit memory, and in our brain and body as unintegrated, incomplete experiences. We don’t see people as they are; we see them as we are. And this is key: most of the time we don’t realize this morphing is going on. Or that it’s purpose might be to provide an important opening.
Another thing I took away from the process is the very real possibility that “healing is always trying to happen.” I’ve talked a few times about the natural, organic nature of this process in these blog pages – in particular about how that process can be supported by taking the stance of Radical Accountability – it’s my brain and my body that is feeling disturbed in any moment. Thus, it’s my work to explore what the disturbances might be about and what I might do to skillfully address them.
As to whether or not the uncon- scious can be trusted, I offer this story above as one instance where it was and could be. Information Theory researchers however, offer a bit more compelling evidence that it mostly can be – which I’ve also written about here. And that is: of all the bits of awareness available to us in any moment, our senses are able to consciously take in roughly 1% of it. For the majority of us, being 99% unconscious is apparently enough to avoid becoming Darwin Award recipients over the course of a lifetime. And that’s a good thing. Mostly.
But just imagine- what if you could actually double This-Moment Awareness … to a whole 2%!
P.S.A. - You may recall my blog post entitled: Why Knowing How My Brain Works Makes it Work Better. The upcoming Social Neuroscience Training is designed for just that purpose. Click HERE to learn more.