Thoughts on writing, publishing, and the creative life
I recently self-published two works of fiction: a fantasy for kids (and adults with active imaginations) entitled How Mother Rat Invented the World and a fantasy adventure novel set in the Homeric Bronze Age entitled Swarm Metamorphosis. Although the process of editing, book design, cover creation, printing, distribution, and marketing proved to be a fascinating experience, it also revealed an unexpected tension between my roles as a writer and a publisher.
In entitling this article Author/Auteur, I’m borrowing a term from film-making. An auteur has artistic control over all aspects of a film’s production: writing, directing, casting, producing, and promotion. This contrasts with the division of labor generally involved in studio productions. (For a humorous yet loving take on the joys and trials of being an auteur, watch the film Day For Night by one of the original auteurs, the wonderful Francois Truffaut). The analogy with self-publishing is clear. As a literary auteur, I could not draw on the resources of a “studio,” i.e., a publishing house—I had to do almost everything myself. Although I found self-publishing rewarding (I even became something of a font geek), I did not anticipate how the experience would transform my relationship with my novels—and change me as a person.
While I was writing, my involvement with my books was detailed, prolonged, and intimate: I took Swarm through 21 major drafts and at least a hundred minor editing passes. But, as I moved through the publishing process, the sense of deep connection with the text that accompanies such intensive writing and editing diminished. Although this is a normal consequence of publication and the need to finalize the text, self-publishing only accentuates it. Each phase of book design, printing, distribution, and marketing seemed to take me farther from my intimate relationship with my text. Now, when I read through my published books, I experience them as having been created by someone simultaneously myself and not myself, a doppelganger whose strangeness is only intensified by his familiarity.
How can I explain this? What does it mean for me as a writer and a person?
When I was an undergraduate, my creative writing professor—the wonderful Diane Middlebrook—taught me that writing involved two conflicting mindsets: that of a creator and that of an editor. Both are essential to producing anything of value, but we cannot create and edit simultaneously—the critical focus of editing suppresses the creative mind. I took her advice to heart, and over the years, my writing process has come to alternate between the two mindsets. I start my workday by editing my recent writing, adopting an editor’s critical and objective attitude. I’ll even discard ideas and whole passages I feel miss the mark. After I’ve worked through the text for a while, new ideas start to intrude on my awareness, and my creative mind takes over. I stop editing—that is essential—and find myself writing furiously, often losing all sense of time or my surroundings. Paradoxically, it seems as though editing has primed my creative mind.
This is not unusual—most writers I have spoken with use a similar process—but I believe it has an interesting psychological and cognitive basis. For most of my life, I complimented (and financially supported) my artistic pursuits with a career in Artificial Intelligence and Cognitive Science. These disciplines helped me to develop a theoretical understanding of why this approach works and explains my strange reaction to my published work. Raw creativity, the generation of unexpected ideas, has its roots in the unconscious mind—what is often called the “creative unconscious.” Editing, with its concern with rules of grammar, style, and punctuation, requires the narrow, critical focus of the conscious mind. To use a computational analogy, the conscious mind is like a single-processor, rule-driven computer, executing one step at a time. In contrast, the creative unconscious resembles a distributed computational network, non-deterministically making connections throughout the brain, often combining different, seemingly incompatible modes of thought such as sense, memory, dreams, and physical experience.
At its best, the creative unconscious surprises us with new conceptions, metaphors, and insights. But, the raw productions of the unconscious mind—even when inventive and beautiful—require the discipline of the editorial mind to transform them into grammatical, readable, well-structured prose. Both mindsets are essential, but they cannot operate simultaneously.
However, as is often the case with contemplating the workings of our minds, there is a fascinating kink in this analysis. Because the creative unconscious is just that—unconscious—it requires a channel through which its productions enter our awareness and be expressed through writing, painting, music, or some other medium. This channel is the conscious mind. It cannot function as a channel for our creativity if we are busy editing, upgrading computer software, talking on the phone, or being otherwise distracted. This is because—to follow the single-processor computer analogy—the conscious mind can only do one thing at a time. When I begin my workday by editing, it leads me to a sharp focus on the text and “feeds” my words to the unconscious. As the unconscious becomes fully engaged with the text, it eventually takes over my attention. I stop editing and let my conscious mind become the channel for the creative unconscious. Although mutually incompatible, our editing and creative minds are also strongly interdependent. Despite the tension between them, one cannot exist without the other. Managing this interdependency is the challenge that faces any artist—especially the auteur.
Over the years, I’ve learned specific techniques for harnessing my creative unconscious. The unconscious mind works continuously beneath our awareness, constantly making associations and finding patterns. It operates even when we are focused on other tasks, even when we are asleep and dreaming. We cannot force it to address specific problems or goals, but we can prime it with questions, visual images, text snippets, and so on, then be patient as it does its work.
For example, Mother Rat was inspired by my discovery of a packrat nest in the garage of my new house. Although she fled when I discovered her nest (thankfully, there were no babies), I was fascinated by the care and detail in her home’s construction. She’d built a neat hollow of plant matter, filled it with shining objects stolen from the garage, and protected it behind a ring of cactus branches. But, as wonderful as it was, I did not rush to turn it into a narrative. Instead, I let the experience churn in my unconscious mind for several months until it took form and demanded release into a new spiral of writing and editing.
Similarly, Swarm Metamorphosis was inspired by a litter of five kittens my wife and I had adopted and raised from a week old. The cats did everything together, almost as if they shared a single mind. Eventually, I had a dream in which they joined bodies to become a single, uncontrollable, great cat. Although compelling, the dream’s imagery did not become a story until it had simmered in my unconscious for months. Then, I hit on the idea of moving the narrative into a setting where shape-changing among gods, humans, and animals was an accepted literary device—the world of ancient Greek myth and the Bronze Age of Homer.
This tension, the simultaneous incompatibility and interdependence of creation (the creative unconscious) and editing (the rational, conscious mind), explains the changed perceptions of my work I experienced during self-publishing. After publication, the text remained my own and followed the contours of my original creative vision. But it had been filtered through judgments that made it suitable for publication—and less personal. This accounts for the sense of “othering” (to borrow a phrase from sociology) I experienced toward my work. It remains as unique to me as my fingerprints, but I now see it from a distance—and with clarity—born of its integration into social, cultural, and literary norms.
This is most evident in my characters. Since releasing my books, I encounter them with a strange mix of intimacy and otherness, like discovering new depths in old friendships. It is as if they have continued their lives, interactions, and growth independently in the depths of my creative unconscious. They enter my awareness unpredictably but assertively—like spirit guides, enriching and deepening my life. In many ways, they speak to me from a self that is truer than the carefully edited persona I’ve learned to present to the world. The characters I imagined now seem to be revealing—perhaps even creating—me.
I believe that all writers experience some form of this, but the demands and constraints of the auteur—taking a book from conception through writing, design, publication, and marketing—have intensified it. They have shaped me as an artist—and a person—in ways simply passing a book on to a publisher would not. I have learned that managing the interdependence between the creative unconscious and the rational, critical mind is not only the foundation of artistry but also of a fully realized life—a life lived as a work of art.
Homer began The Iliad and The Odyssey by invoking his Muse to “sing through him.” The author of these great epics (or community of itinerant bards, as literary historians now believe) entrusted the act of creation to the Muse. Despite the Goddess’ unpredictability and fickleness, Homer allowed his creative unconscious to sing through her while he used his skill and discipline to forge his song into the dactylic hexameter ancient Greek epic poetry demanded. Homer lived the hard life of the itinerant poet, singing for his supper for each new patron. In a sense, he lived the life of the auteur. The Muse rewarded his trust with two literary masterpieces.
I often find the opening lines of the Odyssey echoing in my mind, like a prayer to my own Muse—my creative unconscious—to guide me along the tangled, challenging life of the auteur.
“Sing to me of the man, Muse, the man of twists and turns driven time and again off course . . .”The Odyssey, Translation Robert Fagles
If this essay has raised your interest in my writing, I hope you will read How Mother Rat Invented the World, and Swarm Metamorphosis: Circe and the Great Cat. And when you do, I would appreciate a review on Amazon, Goodreads, or your favorite book site.