Unconscious Mind: The Art & Soul of Fiction
Madison Smartt Bell | May/Summer 1996
This essay was adapted from the author's forthcoming book on the art of fiction, Narrative Design: A Structural Approach for Apprentice Writers.
To teach creative writing, or to be taught it, is a paradox. "Creativity," whatever it is, must be innate. Our intuition tells us that much. But creativity is now taught constantly, in reasonably formal settings all across the country; this teaching has become a totally common classroom activity. The creativity which is thus professed takes many forms: the plastic arts, dance, theater, and music are commonly taught, as crafts, along with the writing of poetry and fiction.
To be the target of creative writing instruction, a student, whether novice or advanced, is quite a different experience than to be apprenticed in any other art. You have no paint or clay, no instrument, no concrete material to work with. Nor can you use your body as material to be shaped, as an actor or a dancer would. The substance of creative writing is (relatively) abstract.
On the other hand, creative writing is qualitatively different from other abstract fields of study. You will not encounter universal axioms and theorems, as in mathematics, or a fixed corpus of information to be learned, as in history, or even a generally agreed-upon set of rules for procedure, as in expository writing. More likely, you will find yourself adrift in a cloud of conflicting opinions: your teacher's, your classmates', your own. Out of this perhaps salubrious confusion you are asked to make something—a structure of words—which this audience will for some reason find to be æsthetically satisfying.
The lack of fixity, the flux of most creative writing classes, permits at least some kind of freedom—but freedom can be a spooky thing to handle. Precisely because the methods of instruction tend to be in a process of constant metamorphosis, it's important for the student to understand what that process is and where it may lead. Let the student beware, or at least, be aware.
We may begin by looking at a hostile critic of creative writing instruction as it commonly operates today: John Aldridge, author of Talents and Technicians: Literally Chic and the New Assembly-Line Fiction.
It might be argued that while universities may be adequate institutions for the study of literature, they are clearly not constituted to train its potential creators, especially given the nature of the training provided. Unlike graduate programs in the visual arts and in music composition, writing programs do not, as a rule, require their students to learn specific techniques, nor do they measure their progress through their growing ability to make use of those techniques in their own work. There is, in short, no formal curricular plan for monitoring the development of writing students as they evolve from apprenticeship through ever more demanding performance requirements until they arrive at a situation at least approaching competence.
Some parts of this passage are outrageously inaccurate. After all, many creative writing instructors teach "specific techniques" aplenty; there is even a glut of specific techniques. And some instructors do employ a formal curricular plan, while others are much more laissez-faire in their approaches. But Aldridge is at least right to say that there is no formal creative writing curriculum common to creative writing teachers everywhere. Whether this state of affairs is good or bad, meanwhile, may be a more difficult question than he makes it seem.
One of the difficulties of creative writing as an academic discipline is that it is so new. The teaching of music and visual art as crafts in some systematic fashion is centuries old; it goes back as far as Renaissance ateliers, even to the medieval guilds. There is no long-standing tradition of guilds or ateliers for fiction writers. The form itself, as we now understand it, is quite new. The novel itself did not completely find its feet until the nineteenth century. As for the modernist short story (still and likely long to remain the fundamental writing workshop text), it is mainly a twentieth-century phenomenon.
Imaginative writing has always been a solitary and (as Aldridge lovingly puts it) somewhat antisocial activity. Apprenticeship existed, no doubt, but it was an apprenticeship to books and not to living masters of the craft. In the past thirty-five years or so, imaginative writers involved in the teaching of their art have tried to reverse this situation by 180 degrees. The big surprise would be if there were not a huge welter of confusion surrounding the whole enterprise.
But creative writing education is also judged (hostilely in a great many cases) by the result, that is to say, by the published and often popular work of that interesting minority of creative writing students who do go on to become "professional writers," and who are indeed charged with the burden of creating the literature of the future. To say that a book smacks of the creative writing workshop has become a sort of reviewer's cliche, a shorthand expression for the idea that the work in question is trite, hackneyed, stale, spiritlessly mechanical, mediocre, myopically self-involved, and so on and so on. In Aldridge's version:
Their early training in the graduate schools of creative writing may well account, at least in part, for the fact that in their subsequent careers a surprising number of the newer writers have produced work that is technically conservative, stylistically bland, and often extremely modest in intention, with little about it that could possibly be offensive or provocative to anyone. They have been well taught, after all, to avoid taking risks or indulging in the kind of technical experimentation that might provoke an accusation of originality, and to concentrate instead on the slight, safely manageable effect, preferably a briefly rendered, rather wispy moment of experience during which nothing particular happens and out of which arises no large revelation or crescendo of meaning but at most some faint murmur of irony or pity that is often so faint as to be nearly inaudible.
What Aldridge says here is not always true. And in fact, the worst shortcoming of Aldridge's book is all the good writing he fails to discuss, writing that would more than live up to his definitions of quality, much of it written by products of creative writing programs (or at any rate, alumni of those programs). Still, what he says is sometimes true. It turns out to be true a little too often. Therefore, it has to be taken quite seriously.
Several years ago, I spent two semesters teaching at the Iowa Writers' Workshop. It is the oldest "studio" writing program in the country, and by many standards it is still probably the best. The Iowa workshop not only attracts the best applicants to graduate writing programs in the nation, it also turns away ninety-six percent of the applicants in fiction each year. It was there that the workshop method, now common to about ninety-five percent of all creative writing programs across the academic landscape, first evolved. The Iowa Workshop, in short, is the ur-creative writing program.
It has also been, for a very long time, a bugaboo for critics of Aldridge's turn of mind. In the mid-seventies it already had not only a reputation for attracting talented writers and launching successful literary careers, but also for turning out mechanized, soulless, homogenized fiction. There was, supposedly, an official Iowa academy style, as tyrannical in its own way as, for instance, the editorial policy of a magazine such as the New Yorker of those days. As a student, I was so sufficiently put off by this latter reputation that I did not even consider applying to the Iowa graduate program. Later on, I went there to teach with a certain amount of trepidation.
What I found was not quite what I'd expected. If Iowa-generated fiction did have a distinctive academy style, I'd have looked for it to be handed down from the masters. That was not at all the case. No one teacher or teaching approach was dominant; the very size of the program, and the way it was organized, made it virtually impossible for any one teaching method, or the influence of any one teacher, to gain the kind of ascendancy that was rumored without the walls.
In the fiction half of the Iowa Workshop there were then about fifty graduate students in either their first or second year, enough to make it one of the the largest programs in the country, I believe. These students were divided in roughly equal numbers among the four fiction workshops which ran concurrently each semester. Of the workshop leaders, only two were permanent members of the faculty. The other two were visiting writers like myself, likely to be on the scene for no longer than a semester or two. Furthermore, none of these workshop leaders had any oversight of what the others were doing in their classrooms. No particular approach to the task was endorsed or promoted by anyone. Within the limits of law and propriety, we were free to do whatever we damn well pleased.
Under these conditions it was virtually impossible for any one teacher to accumulate much influence over the writing style of even one student (although that might have happened, occasionally, if one particular student sought out the workshops of one of the permanent faculty again and again, thus in effect choosing a specialized apprenticeship). And it was completely impossible for any one teacher to dominate the group at large. The students just weren't in the hands of any particular workshop leader long enough for a singular influence to harden. The students rotated among workshops, and the teachers themselves rotated in and out regularly. There was a lot more variety and diversity in the whole situation than I would have supposed before I arrived there.
However, there were enormous, crushing pressures to conform in those Iowa fiction workshops. The pressure came not from any teacher but from the students themselves. It was a largely unconscious exercise in groupthink and in many aspects it really was quite frightening.
The basic strategy of a fiction workshop is probably well known to anyone who's read this far—or if not, it soon will be. The mold for it was originally cast at Iowa. The student writes a piece of fiction, most likely a short story, in solitude, with some degree (quite large, we hope) of psychological privacy. He brings it in and distributes it to twelve or fourteen classmates and the teacher, who take it home, read it, make their notes, and bring it back the following week for perhaps an hour-long discussion of its merits and defects. The task of the teacher is to guide this discussion, with a hand gloved in either velvet or iron, depending, and to produce a synthesis of the result: a prescription for revision—if revision is required.
What's wrong with this picture? It sounds almost idyllic: a happy community of cooperating artists. But there are snakes in the garden.
I was aware of the first pitfall before I ever came to Iowa. Fiction workshops are inherently almost incapable of recognizing success. The fiction workshop is designed to be a fault-finding mechanism; its purpose is to diagnose and prescribe. The inert force of this proposition works on all the members, and on the teacher too. Whenever I pick up a student manuscript and read a few pages without defect, I start to get very nervous. My job is to find those flaws. If I don't find flaws, I will have failed. It takes a wrenching sort of effort to perform the inner volte-face that lets me change from a hostile to an enthusiastic critic and start rooting for the story to succeed. (Though in fact there's nothing more exciting than that moment, and probably it's the main thing that makes me want to teach.)
As for the other students, they are just as influenced by the factors above as the teacher, and on top of that, there's the probability that in confronting a successfully realized piece of fiction, the classmate has to cope with a certain amount of conscious or unconscious envy. (Indeed, envy may sometimes arise for the teacher too, but with a little effort it can be transformed into an enjoyable experience.) Well, once the group is back in the classroom, these forces militate against any consensus that a given story has succeeded, is finished, and requires no further work. Take that to its logical extreme and you see that the student as writer has been assigned the task of Sisyphus. There is no way to ever finish anything.
A smart teacher, though, will learn to beat this demon. There are certain symptoms, in classroom discussion, that a work has in fact succeeded in whatever its intended mission was. When the talk begins to shift from flaws in realizing the story's apparent intention to the idea that the intention itself ought to have been different—i.e., that the writer should have written some different kind of story—that's a signal to the teacher that the story may have been successfully completed. It's a good thing for students whose work is under discussion to learn to listen for that signal too.
And when a teacher identifies a piece of finished work in preparing class, it calls for a different kind of classroom presentation. Instead of performing the customary autopsy, the teacher must present the story as literature. (Well, it is literature now, isn't it?) The teacher has to show how and why the story has succeeded (and thus, how it is exemplary for the others). The fault-finding force of inertia inherent in all workshops means that it will be hard for the teacher to convince all the other students that the work has succeeded, but if he argues skillfully, he will probably manage to convince the author, which is the main thing that matters at the end.
At Iowa, I began to recognize some other hazards of the workshop method of which I'd been previously unaware. The students were very diligent about annotating each manuscript and writing an overarching commentary at the end—each student producing a separate version of the instructor's work (and some of them were already teaching undergraduate workshops). When the classroom discussion was finished, these fourteen annotated copies would be handed over to the unfortunate author along with mine. My heart misgave me every time I watched the student (victim) gather them up, and an inner voice whispered, Please, when you get home, just burn those things.
But of course, they didn't do that. It would be idiotic if they had. After all, this was the criticism they'd come to receive; they'd paid for it, worked for it, striven for it. I found out through private conversations that many of these students, if not all, would indeed spread out the fifteen different annotated copies and try somehow to incorporate all the commentary into a revision of the work.
The results of this kind of revision were often very disheartening. I'd get second drafts that very likely had less obvious flaws than the first, but also a whole lot less interest. These revisions tended to live up to Aldridge's contemptuous description of workshop work, being well-tooled, inoffensive, unexceptional, and rather dull.
Bear in mind that I myself, the teacher, was particularly trying not to exert any undue influence at this stage of the game. I let the group have its head and do much as it would. It was all very democratic. Those depressing revisions were the outcome of the individual student trying to please the group mind-trying to please everyone at once—trying to satisfy fifteen different line editors. The inevitable result was to pull the work toward the middle. The middle, of course, is where mediocrity flourishes.
Well, I was beginning to understand how a specific "Iowa style" could develop, how any workshop anywhere could develop its own academy style over time, and how there were a lot of things about this process that really weren't so great. There are inherent tendencies in all workshops to enforce conformity, no matter who is leading them.
At Iowa the situation was actually exacerbated by the fact that the students were so good. The uniformly high level of talent meant that the students were more deferential to each other's opinions than they might have been in a more average program with wider spectrum of ability among its writers-allowing the leaders to separate more quickly from the pack. And so the group mind's pressure to conform was magnified.
What was going to happen to all that talent—fifty students in fiction at the Iowa Workshop? Admission to the program was so competitive that all of them must have written at least one story that was publishable or the next thing to it, simply in order to get in. But I knew it was statistically impossible for all of them to succeed in becoming "professional writers." Most would probably not publish even one book. They all wanted to. Desire was not an issue. But there had to be some trait that separated the ones that would "make it" from the ones who would not.
I remembered writing two thirds of my own first novel under the scrutiny of a graduate workshop. Every few weeks I'd have my hour of attention. I'd listen to the discussion and the summation, infrequently make a few notes. At the end I would smile and say thank you and go my way. By the time I got home, most likely I'd forgotten most of what had been said. I'd sit down and write the next five chapters.
Now this was a kind and nurturing workshop where the group mind did not withhold its fundamental approval of what I was doing. But still, my classmates liked to editorialize as much as any workshoppers. If I had set out to satisfy everyone in matters of detail, I might still be fiddling with the first chapter even today.
I opened my second semester workshop at Iowa with remarks along these lines:
Assume that when your work is being discussed, about ninety percent of what you hear will be useless to you and irrelevant to what you have done. Learn to listen carefully and to discriminate what's useful to you from what's not. Remember the relevant part and ignore.
But the talk is always technical. It is all about the mechanics of plot, of characterization, setting, description, point of view, voice, tone, and so on. The attitude of the group toward the work is surgical. A process of dissection is going on. The text is handled as a machine in need of repair, or at best, the successful functioning of the machine is analyzed and admired.
All this is much as it should be. You cannot really learn anatomy without dissection. But the risk is that the process will lead the student to forget that the story is supposed to be a living organism. Tilted too far in the direction of mechanics, the process will turn out monsters of mere technique.
It's a risk not only for students but for teaching writers also. It's the reason that some writers won't teach at all, and why many who teach can't proceed with their own work while teaching. It's tricky enough to wear two hats, let alone two heads. But to survive the experience of being a student, you really have to have two heads, and considerable facility in shifting your consciousness from one to the other.
Workshops are all about developing a craftsman's consciousness-technical mastery. That's something all writers do have to acquire. But the procedure for passing on craft ability tends to ignore that no stories are originally written on craft intelligence alone. There's something else operating at the inception, something which needs to operate all the way through the period of composition, something which is much, much harder to talk about than craft.
The overworkshopped student is at risk of losing this indescribable thing. You go home from class with your head crammed with specific techniques. When you pick up your pencil to write, you no longer think, This or that is happening in my story, but, I am implementing this or that technique. Even worse, you are no longer alone. Your teacher and classmates have burrowed through your earholes into your skull and are now taking up a whole lot of space in your brain. Without your lost psychological privacy, it's very hard for you to function. With a tremendous amount of stress and strain, you may achieve an anatomically correct sort of Frankenstein monster, but it's not very likely to get up and walk on its own.
Even worse, this whole paradigm is a recipe for writer's block. Once you have internalized the voices of your whole workshop, you're not just second-guessing yourself, you've multiplied it by a factor of fifteen. How to go forward in that situation? In situations where craft-training becomes overwhelmingly dominant, writer's block spreads faster than herpes.
There is another way. The great defect of craft-driven programs is that they ignore the writer's inner process. Creativity, the inner process of imagination, is not discussed. So far as the craft-driven workshop is concerned, creativity is sealed in a black box; you're supposed to remember that the box is there, but there is a tacit agreement not to open it in public.
Some teachers, though, take the opposite tack. They try to attack inner process head-on. A teacher of this stripe wants to pry or coax open the black box and come up with hands dripping with that mysterious ectoplasmic creativity stuff.
The tactics of such teachers may be either gentle or violent, but the ultimate strategy is the same in either case: to open to the teacher and to the group that private area of primary process where the imagination does its work. They may employ meditation, or soporific music, or various mental and writing exercises intended to bypass the left brain hemisphere and activate the right. By putting inner process in the center of the whole enterprise, these approaches seek to remedy the great defect of craft-driven workshops, which is to be so polite about not discussing inner process that students are at risk of forgetting that it ever existed.
On the more violent end of the spectrum are found various japes and pasquils borrowed from group therapy. A hostile observer might call all this sort of thing brainwashing. More neutrally, one might define it as hypnosis by confusion. In fact these two are one and the same. The strategy is to assume tremendous authority, elicit enormous trust, and then abuse both, deliberately and to the maximum-psychological shock tactics. Similar methods are used by hypnotists when they're in a hurry, and by cult leaders everywhere. The purpose is to reach areas of the target personality that are otherwise inaccessible. For the religious, it's the soul; for the Freudian, it might be the id. A David Koresh wants to get into this place to awaken his disciple to the glory of God. Your more bloody-minded writing teacher, meanwhile, wants to get into this place to awaken his disciple to the glory of art. He is in one hell of a hurry, and he is willing to use dynamite to open the black box.
The inner-process teaching strategy can indeed get interesting results. But to my mind, the risks it presents to the individual student writer are too great. One's inner process should in fact remain private. If you admit into it the writing teacher, and/or the writing group, you risk forming a quasi-pathological dependency. What happens if the group dissolves or the teacher withdraws (or withdraws approval)? All inadvertently, they may take the irreplaceable contents of your black box with them.
To put it in metaphysical terms, while you may with good reason choose to offer up your soul to God, or to a lover, it probably is not a smart idea to hand it over to a creative writing instructor. The writing teacher probably didn't want your soul all that much in the first place, is unlikely to be equal to the responsibility of caring for it, and will probably be incapable of returning it to you in a useable condition.
Where do we go from here? Consider the two halves of the brain. Research in psychology has assigned specific faculties to one hemisphere or the other with a reasonable degree of certainty. The right brain is generally supposed to be the locus of creativity, among other things. Dancing, music, intuition, imagination, and falling in love are all the provenance of the right hemisphere. The left brain, meanwhile, is in charge of math, logic, chess-playing ability, income tax, and—language.
What this means for creative writers is that the two hemispheres must somehow be trained to cooperate in the process of realizing imaginary work in a concrete form. Presumably the two faculties should cooperate on a roughly equal basis, without one gaining great ascendancy over the other. They must work in concert and in harmony.
The left brain is the home of craft consciousness. Here is the warehouse for however many specific technical abilities you are able to acquire. Somewhere in the right brain, meanwhile, the black box full of creativity is stored. Craft-driven workshops have a natural tendency to exercise the left brain at the expense of the right, with craft consciousness becoming so dominant that creativity is squelched. Inner-process approaches, on the other hand, may concentrate so exclusively on releasing creative energy by whatever means available that the necessary craft controls are overwhelmed and anarchy ensues.
Good teachers have always known, intuitively, how to guide students to the middle way between these two extremes. Wise and discerning students may often find the right path on their own. But the fact remains that both the student writer and the teaching writer really do require two heads. You cannot do without critical intelligence. Most of the time spent in workshops is spent on developing the critical faculty. It is indispensable for talking about texts, for finding their flaws and also their merits, for both appreciation and trouble-shooting. But critical intelligence originates nothing.
Critical analysis is a perfectly safe and acceptable group activity. Creative process, on the other hand, is by nature private and solitary. The writer must maintain psychological privacy in order to remain capable of imagining the work. The strange paradox of all imaginative writing is that it is an isolated and secretive project that one undertakes in order to communicate (in most cases, for the desire of your private writer for public recognition is usually quite insatiable) with the greatest possible number of other people.
A few years ago, I began to visit a hypnotist because I had noticed with some consternation that the force of circumstances seemed to be quite rapidly changing my personality from Type B to Type A. Alas, hypnosis was not able to retard this transformation very much. Still, it was not wasted time.
I went into the first session with the false expectations common to most people who never have been hypnotized. I thought I would be swiftly and more or less against my will plunged into a black trance, that while unconscious I would be made to impersonate a chicken, and that afterward I would (mercifully) be unable to remember anything that had transpired.
The actual experience was quite different from that. I was first of all advised that my conscious consent to the whole procedure was crucial—if I withheld it; the hypnosis would fail. All hypnosis is essentially self-hypnosis, I was told.
All right, I was good to go with that. He dimmed the lights. There was even one of those Op-Art spirals on the wall, quite similar to those HypnoDiscs you used to be able to order out of the back of comic books, and I regarded this for a couple of minutes. I was told that upon completion of a countdown from ten, my eyes would involuntarily close. They did so. I descended into a state resembling twilight sleep-that condition between deep slumber and waking where, for instance, you may be aware that you are dreaming at the same time that you dream, and know that you have a choice whether to awaken completely or dream on.
The hypnotist began to direct my dream by reciting to me a sort of story, a narrative in the present tense, starring myself as the ostensible protagonist. Many hypnotists use these routines as part of the "deepening" stages of hypnotic induction, to intensify the level of hypnotic trance. It went more or less like this.
You are walking on a warm, grassy hillside spangled with yellow sunlight. Tall grass strokes your ankles; it makes a whishing sound as you walk through it. The sun is very warm on your back; you begin to sweat a little, though you are still quite comfortable, and you feel a warm trickle of sweat down your back. The field is full of red and yellow flowers, and all the flowers are swarming with bees. As you pass, you hear the buzzing of the bees, a growing, rising hum. You smell the flowers as you pass, the sweet dusty aroma of pollen.
At the foot of the hill there is a lake, full of clear, blue water and dark at the center. You are very warm; you are quite hot; you take off your clothes and go in to swim. The water is cool on your face as you break the surface, cool in the cups of your hands while you are swimming. Your strokes are strong but completely relaxed. You are swimming alongside a granite wall in the shadow of the rock, and near you, a shaft of sunlight strikes a lilypad where dragonflies hover.
At the center of the lake, you dive. The water changes color as you go down: dark blue, purple blending into black. You hear only water rushing past your ears, then silence, and you are going deeper now.
Now you are climbing out onto the flat rocks by the shore. Dip your cupped hand in for a drink of water. It is cold and fresh to your taste. You let what's left run out between your fingers, back into the lake. You stretch out on the warm flat rock and let the sun's warmth dry you slowly. When you close your eyes, your eyelids are stained a deep, warm red with the sunlght and the heat. You drift, you dream, you are going deeper now....
And so on. I made this one up, but that's the way they go.
While listening to all this (it went on for quite a lot longer), I felt that my awareness was dividing. It was not like being split with an ax, but a slow, gradual, willing process, like the division of a cell. The actor in the induction narrative was not my whole self, but I did occupy his sensibility, so that I could experience, sensorily, everything he felt, as you feel the experience of characters in your dreams.
At the same time, as a part of me was actually responding to the experience it was suggested I was having, another part was watching the whole business and taking account of what was going on-some sort of a little left-brain homunculus with a stopwatch, which was by no means my whole self but another partial I that saw, among other things, that the whole deal was working, that indeed I was entering an altered state. Soon after, the hypnotist, satisfied with the induction's progress, was able to open direct discourse with my autonomic nervous system, while my left-brain consciousness (which had not been put to sleep) was able to watch everything that happened, with wonder and a pleasurable level of fright, as if through the porthole of a diving bell.
Afterward, the whole experience seemed to have important ramifications beyond the therapeutic. The first thing I noticed was how well that induction narrative succeeded in the task that you try and try to get beginning writing students to achieve: that is, to make a convincing address to all five senses. Literarily speaking, the induction narrative didn't do much of anything else (it wasn't supposed to), but it did this one thing extremely well. It created what George Garrett calls a sensuously affective texture, a sculptural surface that, so far as the mind's experience of it was concerned, was virtually indistinguishable from reality. And the purpose for hypnosis was much the same as it would be for writing: to convince the subject/reader of the visual/auditory/tactile reality of what was being described. For the hypnotist, it was very important to win this conviction at some location below the level of ordinary workaday left-brain awareness. It occurred to me then that the process of imagining a work to be written (as well, perhaps, as the process of reading it) might also require a similar kind of "deepening." Because after all, that sense of bifurcation, slow division of the consciousness, was really quite familiar. All hypnosis is self-hypnosis. Yes, I had been there before. Often. At my desk, for three or four hours every day.
Then I remembered something the novelist Andrew Lytle had told me about the process of composition. The first step and for him, I believe, the most important: "You put yourself apart from yourself, and you enter the imaginary world."
You put yourself apart from yourself. If he had set out to describe the initial stages of hypnosis, he couldn't have done a better job. That state of being slightly out of yourself-detachment-obliviousness, as the people who are trying to get your attention may irritably describe it—isn't it familiar?
I remembered a photograph I had once seen of a friend of mine, a woman writer, caught behind her typewriter and clearly in the midst of deep concentration. She was a beautiful woman, but not in this picture. In a fundamental way, she had ceased to be physically present at that moment. She had withdrawn so profoundly into the recesses of her imagination that her features had actually lost their form.
I remembered all the time I had spent in my childhood daydreaming—out to lunch, as they say. When it got good, I would often talk to myself quite audibly (to the dismay of my classmates). I have since partially broken myself of this habit—I still talk to myself (plenty), but I have quit moving my lips. And as for daydreaming—when you get right down to it, daydreaming is my vocation. You put yourself apart from yourself and you enter the imaginary world.
Then I recognized that the process of imagination that underlies creative writing, what happens as or just before you are putting the words down on the page, must inevitably involve a process of autohypnosis-not that the practitioner would be likely to call it that. You could be doing it without knowing that you were.
Most likely you would never have heard of hypnosis, certainly not in such an application. You might call it meditation. You might not call it anything. But you would sure enough be doing it, any time you worked successfully, happily, and well.
Here's the explanation for all those strange little tics and ceremonies you hear about writers having, the ones that interviews always try to ferret out and put on display, as if they were themselves the magic secret—sharpening a dozen pencils, caressing some lucky charm like a rabbit's foot or a netsuke—at an extreme is Graham Greene's going down into the street and waiting to see a certain combination of letters on the license plate of a passing car before he began work for the day (which must have produced considerable delays, I fancy). Here's why so many writers prefer to break off in the middle of some passage, fearing that if they stopped work at the end of something it would be too difficult to begin again—as when, upon your next stretching out to sleep, some tendril of your last night's dream may once again appear to you. Here's why you'll frequently start your work by rereading the last few pages of what you've done, futzing around with unimportant corrections, simply as a way of getting into it again. All these rituals belong to a process of autohypnotic induction, though you may call it what you will.
Now the implications for students and teachers of writing become quite interesting. You will recognize that if the inner process of imagination involves a process of autohypnosis, then teachers who concentrate on inner process are, knowingly or not, actually functioning as hypnotists. The sorts of exercises beloved of this kind of teacher are all tools of hypnosis, really. Soothe yourself with relaxing music. Lay your head down on your desk and try to picture something. Use cut-ups and arbitrary combinations of images, words, or situations to try to jump-start your right brain.
Then there is induction by confusion, a form of hypnosis which makes use of a loud, authoritarian bellowing of contradictory instructions impossible to follow. Confusion induction is known to work better than the sweeter, gentler forms of hypnosis on subjects who are less than entirely willing to be influenced at the outset. Shock tactics, good old brainwash technique. But you cannot absolutely say it doesn't work. And indeed, there are some students who deliberately seek out this kind of treatment and are disappointed if they cannot find it.
But the drawbacks should by now be fairly obvious. Even assuming the best will in the world, if you are a teacher who relies, knowingly or not, on hypnotic strategies, you risk drifting over the line from pedagogy into psychotherapy, and since you are unlikely to be qualified as a therapist, all sorts of inadvertent abuses are likely to occur. And if the teacher's good will is less than perfect, well... what a nasty thought.
It's not that a student's inner process can't be influenced from without. It's that it shouldn't be. Inner process is the student's business and not the teacher's. An ethical teacher may recommend devices to stimulate the process of imagination, but that is a different matter from participating in them. It's probably true that, for the individual, the practice of art is not entirely distinct from the practice of working out one's private psychological problems, but as a teacher, you don't want to go fooling around in the area where these two overlap. As a student, you really probably don't want anyone else messing around on the inside of your head.
As a matter of fact, most students and teachers do understand all these things, consciously or unconsciously, and for this reason inner-process-focussed workshops are much in the minority, and have never really caught on in academic contexts. We are left with the Iowa-model workshop: craft-driven. Here the participants leave the black box shut, they don't get their hands all sticky with that creativity goop, there are no projects of group hypnosis by any description-nothing on the order of a Vulcan mind-meld.
As we have seen, there are excellent reasons for it to be this way. But the downside of the craft-driven workshop is that the students (and, not so unusually, the teacher, too) may forget that they are only talking about half of the process. The left-brain homunculus is elevated to a position of absolute power, when it should be operating in concert and harmony with the right-brain homunculus. And the left-brain homunculus, no matter how good it gets at picking apart your classmates' stories, no matter how good it gets at trouble-shooting your own stories, can never originate a story for you.
So you go home from class with your pumped-up craft consciousness sitting on your shoulder like a big turkey buzzard. When you sit down to write, you are stuck in yourself, paralysed by self-consciousness, unable to separate yourself, unable to relax your mind, unable to pass through the autohypnotic gate into the realm where the narrative you are working with becomes true and alive for you. Whatever you write falls over dead on the page. Anyone with any experience of writer's block will know exactly what that feels like.
The composition of fiction can, at least theoretically, be broken into two stages. First, and most important, comes imagination. Next is rendering. Imagination is no more or less than a highly structured form of daydreaming. Daydreaming is fun-a form of play. Once the people, the places, the events you are imagining become fully present to your senses, then it's time for rendering. The left-brain homunculus must go to work to express your vision in language. But the problem has been made much easier because it is no longer a task of creating a separate reality constructed of words, but only of describing what your inner eye has seen. For an experienced writer on a good day, the synapse between imagination and reading fires so rapidly as to be imperceptible; conception and realization are one. Ultimately, you have to believe. If it is not real for you, you cannot talk about it persuasively. Because the writing of fiction is all about producing an illusion, it's all-important that you believe in the illusion absolutely. You will never fool anyone else if you can't fool yourself.
All the rest is craftsmanship.
Madison Smartt Bell's most recent novels are Save Me, Joe Louis and All Souls Rising. He teaches at Goucher College and Johns Hopkins University.