“Writing and the Unconscious: A Personal Exploration of Process and Content”

If dreams are the royal road to the unconscious mind as proposed by Freud, then what are the stories that we write? Perhaps winding, bramble-backed paths, that lead from the part of our mind that is secret from us, to the page. The psychodynamic theory that aids my practice as a clinical psychologist, offers a framework to make sense of what influences my writing. In this model, repressed thoughts, feelings and memories are hidden from conscious awareness. However, they may reveal themselves in coded form including through dreams. I consider that we reveal ourselves similarly through our prose, should we choose to pay attention.

In writing, as in dreams, there is both the manifest content (what the story appears to be about) and the latent content (symbolic meaning). In psychodynamic therapy, I focus both on process and content with a client to tap into an understanding of unconscious drivers of behaviour. Likewise, a focus on the process of how we write as well as the content of what we write can be revealing of the self.

Here is a fork in the road: do I continue to write in general terms, as though there is such thing as a global ‘we’ of writers, or do I personalise this piece with a focus on my own experience and examples? The fact that this presents as a dilemma to me, is one example of what process reveals about internal conflict.  If I unpick my discomfort at focusing on my own experiences in my writing, there is a familiar anxiety that to do so is narcissistic and tedious to others. When is a process a pattern? With a little reflection – a deliberate pause in fingers that seem to wish to continue typing away to avoid such questions – it becomes clear that this pattern occurs in my everyday life. For example, my discomfort at telling colleagues on a Monday morning what I have done at the weekend (‘self-centred’) or my reluctance to speak to a stranger at a writing event about my own work (‘who cares’). This self-talk and judgment can be considered as the anxiety which impacts on decision-making both within writing and the social world. But underneath that anxiety, is something more personal and profound. What do I think about myself, if to share aspects of my own experience is forbidden to me but not to others? These different rules for self and others is illuminating and painful; although I do not recognise this a common feature in daily life, on some level I must feel less worthy than others.

While I squirm at the self-indulgence of the above paragraph, I learn about myself through my reaction. The act of choosing to write about my personal experiences is in contrast to those internal voices and shame. In this way, it weakens my unhelpful pattern of shame at perceived self-indulgence at a micro-level. I do not have to obey my anxieties or the footprints of personal history.

Writers are sometimes asked to reflect on common themes in their work. On one level, these themes can be deliberate or apparent. However, I am interested to explore possible symbolic functions of these themes.  I have written multiple stories that involve food, pregnancy, loss or separation from a parent, and resilience of a child. These themes link in obvious ways to my pleasure in eating, prior research in and experience of pregnancy and childbirth, and work as a psychologist with clients who have suffered abuse and neglect from their parents.

If I consider the unconscious mind as communicating to the conscious mind via the safety of symbols, a more in-depth analysis of recurring themes beckons. Within the theme of pregnancy experiences, my short fiction has considered: infertility, multiple miscarriage, traumatic birth, a woman swallowing her husband who then becomes her much-wanted child, a vile man becoming pregnant, a reduction of multiple pregnancy that results in haunting, postnatal confusion, and a teenage mother’s experience changed by use of a time machine. From the realist to the bizarre, what is the driver for these multiple explorations of pregnancy and birth? Until I wrote this paragraph, I was not consciously aware just how much of my fiction linked to this theme, or reflected on how many angles I had taken to explore it. Clearly, there are emotions, memories and thoughts about pregnancy that my mind is wrestling with. If there were no painful feelings (which include guilt, shame, repressed memories and the like) then there would be no reason for aspects to be split off into the unconscious mind. In writing the ‘other’ through fiction, the unconscious provides a route for the conscious mind to explore and process what has been separated from awareness to some degree. I believe this is most notable for my stories which appear to ‘write themselves’, as though my ghost-fingers are typing directly from another (part of the) mind; which in a sense, they are.

In psychodynamic terms, dreams contain repressed parts of the self. If I step into the shoes of my characters, they experience pregnancy and impending parenthood in diverse ways, including as: an unachievable goal that others achieve easily, a painful loss, frightening, a way to become fulfilled and never alone, unwanted, loss that prevents focus on a living child who survived, something to go back in time to change to an ideal version when the real version is disappointing. As with dream-work, stepping back from characters, plot and context can reveal longings and complex, contradictory thoughts and feelings in a way that increases self-knowledge.

We can learn about ourselves by reflecting on what we choose to avoid. While I was writing the above paragraph, I was drawn to discuss pregnancy and birth, with a clear gut reaction to not discuss the repeating theme of difficult parent-child relationships across most of my work. The motif of the resilient child requires there to be a need for self-sufficiency in the child, borne from some level of neglect of her needs. Although the child thrives in adversity, most of my work resounds with some degree of sadness and loss. Here I am as my writer self – thriving, surviving, throwing out large numbers of flash fiction pieces and competition listings to evidence my ‘resiliency’. Perhaps I feed on feedback and submission acceptances to throw more sand into a bucket that has a hole in the bottom and can never be filled. And there I have my other themes emerging – food, parental relationships, emotional neglect, resiliency. If I want to know what my unconscious mind most wishes to work on, I need to pay attention to any strong urge to avoid.  Seemingly unrelated themes are in fact all part of the same web.

The drive to write a particular character with their reactions and take on the world comes from somewhere within us. Competing emotional and cognitive influences that I may not be aware of at the time of writing include longings, anger, jealousy, revenge, desire. In psychodynamic theory, healthy longings are those basic human needs that are frequently repressed (unconsciously) or suppressed (consciously) including the need for love, support, recognition and boundaries. I have learnt from my family, culture, media, that I should not have or express some of these needs. Our stories can be an implicit way of signalling our needs, or rewriting a time that our needs weren’t met.   A recent flash of mine dealt with the rage of a mother who has been told her child is terminally ill. She enacts her rage in a magical way, taking some cancer cells from her child and planting them into the doctor’s pancreas. My conscious choice to highlight rage as part of grief came from my therapeutic work. However, my bursting into tears while reading the story aloud later informed me that this piece also tapped into unexpressed and ‘disallowed’ anger at experiences my children with special needs (and I) have had to endure.

To bypass the censoring parts of the mind, and to keep strategies safe and manageable, it is useful to tiptoe in and out before anxiety gets high enough to block access. Prompts are a wonderful way to access parts of the mind that are usually closed off. I believe the mind takes what is presented in neutral prompts as non-threatening, thus opening doors that would be shut to a prompt such as ‘write about your worst experience’. But of course, the mind can only write based on what is already there, so the internal world is represented in some form within the text. A list of unassuming words in a prompt list gave life to a flash about a young girl selling her internal organs for hits on YouTube. The piece feels raw and painful to re-read, which did not match my experience of writing at the time. It erupted into being in ten minutes flat, which I take as a sign that something within me was ready to emerge, and the prompt words gave ‘permission’ to write what was there through a character very different to myself.

I make lists of words that entice me with no thought to how they may fit together. So I may like the sound and shape of ‘smooth’, ‘vanilla’, ‘cliff-edge’ and ‘hum’. I group them together on a page and then stop. Or I think of a title that is vague but alluring such as ‘The Number of Left Turns in a Maze.’ Then I leave that page of the notebook alone overnight, for a week, for two months. When I come back to it, my unconscious mind more often than not will allow writing to flow in a way that it would not have if I had tried to write immediately. It has been busy the whole time without my knowing. And it is using what it knows and has been hiding from me to do so.

There was a recent call for flash non-fiction with the topic ‘Place’. On the notes page of my phone I have the title ‘All the Places That Ever Bruised Me.’ I don’t want to fully know what it is about, or what may emerge, let alone actually write it. Not yet. But I’m leaving the title there until I feel ready to face it. In psychotherapy, I am careful to consider the readiness and safety of a client to engage with what lies beneath. I aim to do the same with myself.

So here is the final draft of this essay. In terms of process, it looks very different to the first, which was peppered with ‘we’. There was no conscious awareness or reasoning for this choice of language at the time of first draft. On the surface, this appears to be positive, inclusive language. But it functions as a way for me to step back from my own experience, to avoid ownership, and prevents me from accepting that I may have something to share that is of interest and relevance to others.  I altered a section that told ‘you’ how to use techniques that ‘you’ may find useful. The teacher part of me that wants to be useful and in an expert role to feel validated. Rather, I have chosen this course; I have shared my own experience and reflections with a hope that they provide a useful mirror for some readers’ longings and interest to understand themselves.

As writing is a function of the mind, it is naturally shaped by our own experiences, beliefs, desires, emotions. Not all of these are consciously available to us. I believe that when I write from the unconscious, I can create moving pieces of work that resonate with readers, but it can also be personally enlightening and powerful to pay attention to what emerges and wonder why.

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About Stephanie Hutton

Stephanie Hutton is a writer and clinical psychologist in Staffordshire, UK. Publications include Gravel, Atticus Review, and New Flash Fiction Review. Her novella Three Sisters of Stone was shortlisted for the Bath Novella-in-Flash Award and is published by Ellipsis Zine.