Years ago I learned how weird the creative mind is. Subconscious thought needs to be given a great deal of leeway in the artistic process. One of the first real short stories I wrote (real meaning that it wasn’t written as an assignment for a creative writing of English class) was called “The Rapist.”
I’d been reading a lot of Russian literature, particularly Dostoevsky, Chekhov and Gogol along with European existentialism and theater of the absurd. I was 21 at the time and had taken a semester off from college because my major — anthropology — meant I wasn’t getting enough opportunity to read what I wanted (which was fiction — existential fiction in particular). I also wanted to see what would happen if I just got up every morning and wrote with no purpose and no planning.
At first I wrote pathetically pedantic plays with characters espousing idiotic philosophical notions about mortality, God, and religion. What I really wanted to do, though, was try my hand at short stories — completely improvisational, off-the-wall fiction that was improbable, unpredictable, and ridiculous. I also wanted to fully escape the notion of symbolism, theme, or intention.
So, eventually, I wrote this 24-page, single-spaced story called “The Rapist.” As I recall, I first typed the title at the top of the page, then I started with a sentence and just kept going. The story evolved into a kind of near-future thing filled with turn of the century Russian identity references. This guy in his late twenties befriends a young girl one night walking empty streets. He takes her back to his cube. Everyone lived in cubes. And they sleep together. The girl is a young teenager, maybe 14 or so. She is innocent and childlike and needs to be protected and taken care of. He means well in the beginning, but his desire gets the best of him.
After the first draft, I felt like there was a lot missing from the story. Indeed, this was a world in which only two people existed. Who were they? Where did they come from? What did they do? How, especially, did this guy earn a living?
It came to me in the middle of the night after a discussion with my girl friend about Freud and Sartre. The guy would be a psychiatrist and he would have these sort of Socratic dialogs with the young girl before and, then, after he had made love to her, and the dialogs would be different after sex. All along as I pondered through this weird little story, I also truly did not like the title. The Rapist? It was there to draw a reader in. It was there, too, I figured, because the idea of statutory rape always seemed to me strange. I lost my virginity when I was 14. My girl friend at the time was 15. I figured the title was plenty provocative enough all the way around. And I hoped that at least my housemates would get a kick out of such provocation. But still…the rapist?
When the story was more or less the way I wanted it to be (except the title), I gave it to friends and they didn’t really say much. But I also gave it to my mother to read. My mother in those days was the age I am now — so full of piss and vinegar, an in-your-face feminist sociologist with lots to say about how men were the reason human history was so violent and chaotic. She read the story and loved it (what would any writer do without a mom?). I told her I thought the story needed a new title. She said, “Are you kidding? This is the best title you could possibly give this story. It’s perfect!”She was effusive and adamant to boot. I was a bit taken aback. “Really? You don’t think it’s a bit much?” She took off her glasses and rubbed here eyes. “You don’t see it, do you?” I shook my head. “The Rapist?” I shook my head again. “Put the two words together,” she said and then waited.
A little electric jolt shot through me. The Rapist = Therapist? “What?”
My mom was a Mary Daley reading feminist who had spent two decades in the care of psychiatrists. Why would she not see this? It was Feminism 101. But what about me? I honestly had no clue about gender puns. The story I’d written came out of nowhere. It seemed so off the wall and abnormal. It seemed at times like it was coming from somewhere else. The easier it was to write, the more bizarre it got.
I’d determined that I would write something with no intention and with no plan or meaning, and I’d come up with a very specific and culturally defining story about a therapist who seduces a girl and then tries to deal with the question of shame…and whether he should feel love for her. “The Rapist” indeed.
Out of that strange interlude 33 years ago I learned to always let my sub-conscious mind have a major say in my work. There’s a balance, of course, and the truth is that “The Rapist” is written in a pedestrian style that makes me cringe whenever I look at it (it also has an extremely timid sex scene built into it).
This balance between the conscious and unconscious is always taking place in my fiction. Writing stories is an endless exercise in self-discovery. I have two novels that will be published over the next year that wrestle with the interfaces between sex and love and whether life has any truly profound intrinsic meaning (yup, still at play with Russian and existential issues…sorry…any writer who isn’t is a fool and a waste of time for you, the reader).
Both of these novels are fueled by the insanity of growing up and becoming an adult/parent/male/husband from 1980 through 2010. That was a really fucked up thirty years in a lot of ways for all of us. What the hell did we think we were doing? Ouch. It still hurts just to think about it. But there was so much more going on under the surface for all of us. These two novels (and a really weird aborted one full of truly twisted male sexual fantasy) developed from 2000 to 2010 as I personally grew to understand who I was and was not and how terribly stupid I was about love and sex and the question of the meaning of life.
In short, these two novels — Beautiful Morning Blues and Ex:Urbia — came about as advanced and refined balancing acts between the conscious and the unconscious. Beautiful Morning Blues was so overwhelming that I wound up in the hospital and nearly died. And writing the first draft of Ex:Urbia so turned my sense of inadequacy and desperation about true love inside out, glowing on my skin, that I nearly lost the love of my life.
Make no mistake about it, writing can get kind of dangerous. Letting the subconscious play some with words and meaning in the conscious world is just plain spooky. The closer one comes to producing metaphors and mythologies that get at the truth of being human in the 21st century, the closer one comes to the legitimacy of insanities, addictions, and nightmares. And yet, if we don’t come close to these things, how is it that we learn to rise above them and fully embrace the majesty and grace of real love and real meaning?
This is my take anyway on what literature is about. As I learn to market my first novel, Beyond the Will of God, which is, at least in someways, about the reality of fantasy and the power of music and the creative mind, I am struck by how little people want to think about the nexus between their conscious and unconscious minds. What happened to people’s awareness about how essential it is to face the beast within that governs so much, that is before words?
To me that beast is both sobering and amazing. The word I use for it is Subuncular. That’s a cross between sub/unconscious and avuncular. It’s there, we need to trust it, but it’s so deep and so hard to see. And yet…
I leave you with this new little oddity I’ve beein dealing with of late:
I began my fourth novel, working title: Dawn of the Summertons, in January, the day after I hung up my spurs so dusty and worn out from a 30 year career as an environmental consultant. It’s a story about a family. I started out as I now know to do: deciding on point of view and narrative voice. As all writers understand, “head hopping” through multiple points of view is not good for the reader. You need to know what your voice is going to be. At first I wanted the story to be told by little Bess, the youngest of three siblings. But children’s voices are to my mind a cheap way to embrace the reader. Besides, I want this story to tell what it’s like to be an adult in this world — a parent, spouse, lover, and sharpened soul in this modern world of media and myth.
After a bit of trial and error, I fastened on using a straight third person voice. But I was also sloppy enough (I like sloppy) to slide in omniscient observations of each family member’s thoughts. I got through the first third of the story (just under 60,00 words) in just three months. And then I hit a block.
It wasn’t like I had writer’s block, exactly, not in the classic sense, anyway. What happened was that every time I got to work on this one scene I would become profoundly sleepy. It didn’t matter how much coffee I had. It didn’t matter how much sleep I got the night before. I would just become overwhelmingly tired. In the past three weeks it got so bad that I would literally fall asleep while I typed every day. I’ve written about 5,000 very sleepy words in the past four months.
What the hell was wrong with me? Not only was I falling asleep trying to work on my novel, but all my other fiction began to seem confusing and meaningless. Today was no different. I tried working on the same scene and just oozed into dreamland. I stopped that, went downstairs, made a monstrous cup of coffee. Drank it down. Listened to loud Led Zeppelin and went to work editing stories that I’m going to be publishing soon in a collection called Implosions of America. But the words I was looking at made no sense. I decided to lie down.
I am not sure why today I figured things out. But my head hit the pillow and within a minute I realized — truly, out of no where — that I needed to go back upstairs to my office and write something from the older brother’s point of view when he is a 50+ year old man looking back on his life. I fought this idea for a good 15 minutes, lying there in the heat of an early August morning with a fan blowing over my exposed legs. “What’s the point? I am not writing in the first person here. That’s not the plan!”
And yet…by a little past noon I was back at my desk and I was writing in Lester’s voice fifty years in the future. His words came out of me like full spectrum waters lit in browns and grays and then glowing slightly with a rainbow shine, then silver and gold, and back to brown and gray. I wrote for two hours straight, Lester’s wizened voice just pouring out of me, explaining his view of why men are so desperate in their love and why life is so, so hard for all of us.
I stopped when I realized that I needed his sisters’ voices to chime in too, and his mothers. I’m still not sure whether Reggie, the father, should have a shot at talking to the reader, but I know once again that the subuncular needs to have some room to express itself. I’m giving it all the rest of the day and know when I wake up tomorrow morning more will come and I won’t feel tired and everything will make sense again.
That’s probably the hardest thing about being a writer. You can talk to as many people as you want about writing and publishing. Whatever. You can pay for a shrink. You can push and push and push. But sometimes the only therapy you need is balancing on that nexus between what you think you want to do and what you need to do.
When you first start out its usually pretty easy. You don’t know what you’re doing. Your subuncular self is able to take over because the ego is an idiot. As you grow and develop, though, as you gain a bit of control and mastery over language, it’s easy to forget that interface between two minds. It’s also natural that one wouldn’t want to perch on that balancing point where the conscious and the unconscious meet. Like I say, it’s spooky. Staying close to what is spooky is pretty uncomfortable.
And yet that’s where stories worth telling live. At least that’s the way it seems to me.
So, back to the beginning of Dawn of the Summertons. I’m just glad we will be saving money on coffee now. Although, I will kind of miss my late morning naps.