Ever take Cues from Your Subconscious?

Hakone Open Air Museum
The Subconscious and You

My best writing comes to me when I’m not planning it.

The other times, I’m working at the craft, practicing my scales so that when the music happens I’m there to witness and record it as best as I can. Sometimes I don’t do well at the first attempt and my subconscious keeps throwing it at me till I get it right. A lot of my writing is built around similar themes– don’t quite know what they are yet, only that when the raw inner voice comes out and plays, my stories seem preoccupied with similar things.

It is as if I’m the chimpanzee being taught a puzzle in a lab. The humans at the other end are trying to stretch my capabilities, and measuring them, while at it.

This is easy to make peace with when I’m writing flash fiction. I’m reasonably confident these days of churning out five to six a week. Two or three of those might even be good.

Trouble appears when I write a longer piece– it is as if I’m a novice singer, running out of breath when belting out an aria. Some of them begin well, then falter, and take a dozen drafts to catch the high notes I want to hit, or rumble into those base notes I don’t want to lose.

Between passes at that story, days or weeks or months might pass, and there I am again, and the story might just hold together without crashing — like a house of multicolored cards held up in air just so. You see the masters doing it all the time, juggling so many cards in air and making such brilliant villas, mansions, palaces. It’s magic. I’m happy when I can hold together the bare bones of a hut, just so long as it stays in air, without bleeding color or losing balance.

The novel. The novel is a different beast– with it I feel like a dog in front of a mirror. I don’t know what I see, only that I see it. And I’m yet to see a dog juggle.

So many mixed metaphors in this post– but it reflects exactly how I feel these days trying to enter into my novel to begin on the third draft. This palace might crumble before it stands up– but at least I’m learning the art of juggling the bricks to keep the damn building floating in air. And it looks like I’m not alone– other writers compare writing to juggling as well:

“I always imagine it like a whole load of plates spinning, and you’ve got the plan, the research and the plot, and you’ve got to kind of keep them spinning and constantly moving between one and the other.”

The complete article about writing and the subconscious, here.

Who knows, maybe I’m meant only to write at shorter lengths. Not that that is easier to do (well).

I have to discover whether I’m meant for longer stories. The real bitch of it? The only road to discovery lies in writing at greater length.

What about you? What role does the subconscious play in your life, as a writer, reader, artist, gardener, mason, engineer, or whatever it is that you do? Do you ever take cues from your subconscious?


I love comments, and I always visit back. Blogging is all about being a part of a community, and communities are about communication! Tweet me up @damyantig !


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  1. writenlive

    I do write a lot of shorter pieces on my blog though I would really love to do a rambling, longish piece at least once in a while.
    The fragments of many stories are scattered here and there and when I revisit, they mostly stand the test of time. I am able to polish them up though most of the time I am unable to let go of my words.

  2. Rashmi Raj

    I have to agree with you there…no matter what I start writing, I always only end up writing what I has been at the back of my mind for sometime…Most ideas come to me when I am having a conversation with someone, or when I am driving…and even when I am given briefs with specific ideas, I almost always end up using them in my writing 🙂

    PS: I am glad I stumbled upon your blog here.

  3. C. W. Hime

    I see the plates you spin. Ideas hit me in quips of spontaneous dialogue. Without notice or effort I spit out loud a sentence or two. My wife has become very good at remembering these moments and I am getting better at writing them down. Rarely is it in relationship to a current project but comes from a story that I don’t know yet.
    Many of my stories are built from these one liners. It’s like seeing a crack in a block of stone. By pecking away at it, I find myself releasing something that is already there. I’m not published as of yet. Perhaps I need to use a bigger hammer and chisel. 🙂

    • Damyanti

      Keep doing whatever you’re doing. Writing what comes to you is not only important, I feel it is our sacred duty. Publishing will come, when it is time, I guess? A delicate hammer and chisel is what you need to keep– these treasures you uncover are fragile.

  4. Nik

    Really interesting post and comments. It’s pretty rare that I do any planning when I write – what comes out comes out – so my subconscious is my main weapon! Often my short stories stem from one or more seemingly disconnected ideas that lurk in the recesses of my mind and suddenly click for no apparent reason. Even then I tend to have only a very vague notion up front of how the story will evolve – I just write and see where it takes me. Sometimes it’s way off the mark and I have to have a major edit or cull it completely, but more often than not I’m happy with where it ends up (or as happy as we crazy folk who like to write can be while striving for perfection!)

  5. sgrobins81

    Thank you for liking my blog. I like your blog–I’m jealous that you are able to travel so frequently. Liked your piece comparing KL and Singapore. My sister is in Singapore right now. I’ll make sure she takes a look! As a writer, though, this post especially spoke to me. It seems I always get ideas when I have no time to develop them because I’m overburdened with non-writing “musts.” I always wish I had a tape recorder in my brain so those constant streams of consciousness gems wouldn’t pass on through.

  6. ozengo

    Hi Damyanti,

    Thank you for visiting my blog.

    Your post on the role of the subconscious really resonated with me. I am very much a planning writer (neat plot outline in Scrivener, that sort of thing…). However, whenever I get stuck I need to let go of that controlled approach. Often the subconscious comes to the rescue: you wake up with a ready-made paragraph in your head, or have a flash of insight in the shower. Quite an amazing process, the brain on auto-pilot.

    Your comments about length also sound familiar. I am working on my first novel and developing a work of this scope and magnitude has been quite challenging. I read somewhere to focus on the story, rather than on sentences, especially while developing a first draft. I found that quite helpful. It means you’re juggling rafters, rather than bricks, to take up your metaphor.

    Thanks again and best wishes for your work!

  7. imaginenewdesigns12

    Thank you for liking “Wild Seeds.” The subconscious does play a role in my writing and artwork, but its influence is sporadic. It comes to me as sudden flashes of inspiration that let me know what to write or draw next. They come and go quickly and leave me guessing when they will come again.

    I agree that writing something lengthy like a novel or a book is challenging. It is difficult not only to keep the story going but also to have the time to write it, especially if you are working at another job to pay the bills or have a family to take care of.

  8. Caroline

    I’m a novel writer myself but it doesn’t each project doesn’t simply come fully formed. It pieces together, scene after scene (rarely in order!) until I have something tangible. The subconscious plays a great role in my work. I’ll be stuck on a chapter before bed and by morning I’m ready to write, bursting with idea. I also find driving works a treat as your mind is focused on the road but your suubconscious is working through my novel, fitting pieces together so by the time I get home I’m ready to write once more!
    Don’t be put of writing a novel because of its wordcount, if you break it down into smaller pieces then you can see it as lots of short stories stringed together 🙂


  9. Heather C Wright

    My subconscious plays a big role in my writing. When I get stuck on a story, one of the best ways to get unstuck is working on other things for a while and letting that story cook on the back burner in my brain. One day I’ll jsut suddenly think, “Oh! That’s how I can get past that!”

    I’m a discovery writer, so I tend to let my instincts and my characters guide the way, but I do spend a lot of time editing and revising after that original draft is done. I have the opposite problem with length. I can write novels (and more) without much trouble, but struggle with short stories and even novellas.

  10. Curtis Mekemson

    I’ve always found that my instincts are an important part of my decision making. I get in trouble if I do what seems rational but my instinct say no. The best of all possible worlds are where my instincts and rational mind agree with each other. –Curt

  11. jpennerzook

    My best writing comes when I allow concepts, images and fragments of ideas time to smolder––away from the conscious and the light of day. All at once, the subconscious offers up its treasures and words flow––usually in the pre-dawn hours.

  12. KDKH

    My most inspired writing comes from my subconscious. But then I have to return and edit. Maybe a lot. Maybe I shouldn’t….

  13. aj vosse

    Yes… the subconscious plays a vital role. I wake up with ideas. I go to bed with a problem (work or writing) and wake with the answer. I also find walking helps. When you walk for a few hours the lines seem to fall into place!! Good luck!!

    My first writing exercise was a novel… it turned into a 120K plus effort and now I think of it as part one of the story I must still complete one day. I love doing short stories (between 1500 and 12000 words) as you can quickly finish off one while still busy with others. 😉

  14. belindacrane

    Our imagination is as extensive as the air we breathe. We just need to find out how to capture a little bit & contain it & feel it & write it 🙂

  15. Mary Aalgaard

    I subconscious is strong and important, and you’re right, you have to exercise the muscle to make it appear. I like your musical analogies. I’m also a musician. And, that part is so true. You practice and practice, you try new songs and styles, and sometimes, when all the stars line up, and you’re in top form, the chords you strike are so beautiful that they evoke strong emotion. Our writing can do the same.

  16. hya21

    I’m not aiming to write a novel anytime soon, but my blog posts are always fairly short ones since the story I’m telling can be done in just over 500 words. Maybe with time and practice the number will increase and if it does – well that might mean that I’m evolving (or getting better). Depending on how I’ll look at it.

  17. Courtney Turner (@mauijungalow)

    Aloha Damyanti! I haven’t been on you blog in quite a while, but I want to say thank you for support during the A to Z Challenge, starting 2 years ago. Your piece is so poignant. I don’t know if I could write a novel either, but as I see more and more writers online, I am always inspired by their stories, and yours. Sometimes my best writing comes when I am washing dishes and mulling over a topic!

  18. Anindya Basu

    I always weave stories – long , short , sad, happy and keep on sharing them in my mind and heart with an unknown faceless audience – if they like it I open up wordpress – if they dont I never .

  19. Skipper

    I get story ideas from dreams on a regular basis. That’s great because I never have a shortage of ideas. And I add to them by using online prompts to write flash fiction, so I don’t have to use my original ideas.

    However, recently I have discovered a problem. Often, I want to work on my newest story idea, instead of finishing other ones that have been started. Going forward, I’m going to have to resolve that issue, if my writing journey is to continue.

  20. literarylad

    I don’t know about the sub-conscious, but I do need space and time to think. When life is at it’s most hectic, with all sorts of issues pressing on my mind; that’s when I struggle for ideas.

  21. Julia Lund

    For me, it’s not plate spinning but weaving. So many strands and threads and patterns – but only ten fingers. Two hands. And when I become too conscious, all I can see are tangles and knots and impossibilities. So thank goodness for magic.

  22. macjam47

    Very inspiring post. Never look a gift muse in the mouth. When those great ideas pop up and surprise you, make the most of them.

    • Damyanti

      I never get ideas, only images and words. I try to hold on to them. I’ve learned the hard way to hold on to those random words that bubble up.

  23. Dennis Langley

    This sounds very familiar. My current WIP started as a flash fiction piece that expanded into novel length. I have learned to rely on my subconscious for getiing into and out of trouble…writing wise. 🙂

  24. Peter Nena

    Thoughts come to me randomly, unplanned and unawares. Like scanty raindrops. I just string them together. Collect them into a pool, you might say. Sometimes I do not know what I am writing about. Then somebody reads and says “you’ve got a message there” and I look at him/her blankly, thinking, “Really?”. Sometimes I am determined to say something but I do not know how. So I push it out of my mind for a while. But it comes back someday in bits, jagged, unfitting pieces. I just look for a means to stick them together.
    For me writing is a process that requires extreme patience and endurance. I have been told that a real writer just gets up and writes, does not wait for the idea to build. But for me, if I think about a story constantly, I will never write it. The ideas do not form coherently. So I need distractions, my daily job is the best I have. Sometimes movies and reading other books help, walking too, playing.
    But the idea, once it’s in my head, always comes back, strong, powerful, coherent.

  25. ianscyberspace

    Not sure about the sub-conscious but maybe that’s what it is? For me a theme intrudes in my usual day routines or night dreams and comes with such urgency I can’t wait to finish the day activities on in the case of a dream wake up so I can write it all down. Then it becomes a compelling urge to write. I write slowly tasting each word of the story as it unfolds and constantly revising. Then when that exercise is finished I file it. Revisiting after several days to tinker with the wording until I’m satisfied I feel drained. Then when published I return to read it once in a while to critically analyse my work and see where I could have made it a better story. If it’s poetry I’m never satisfied with the result even after many revisions and eventual publishing.

    • Damyanti

      “If it’s poetry I’m never satisfied with the result even after many revisions and eventual publishing.”

      That’s with my fiction. I can never love a piece I’ve written.

  26. specimenx17

    I really enjoyed how you composed this post, there’s a certain melody to it… moreover, I can relate to your struggles: I have a novel idea but not even the first draft yet, and being drawn to long fiction makes me keep examining and digesting those fiction elements. all the while, just like you, I’m known for the ability to express anything in short form – the idea of summarizing someone’s life in a text message is far less daunting than producing something long. but something in me (maybe my subconscious?) tells me it is probably a matter of practice… please keep sharing your experience, being ahead of me you are kind of a role-model =).

    • Damyanti

      Not sure I can be a role-model– and I think fiction is a spiritual journey– no one is ahead or behind, we’re all on out own paths. :). Wishing you all the best with your novel. Keep on keeping at it. 🙂

  27. Epimetheus

    Maybe the only road to discovery isn’t greater length. Have you checked out Amazon Singles? You could sell short stories of 5,000 words or more. Unfortunately for me, my specialty seems to top out at 2,000, but maybe I could string a few together.

    • Damyanti

      I don’t know really why I started writing a novel– it just kept on growing and changing and I let it. It’s been a learning process, and I’ve possibly written about 250,000 new words so far– so that’s a bit of a head-start towards my million-word goal (I believe it takes a million words of practice before anyone can write any good fiction). I just realized I have 150,000 in published an unpublished short stories. And I have tons of notebooks filled with words. So by the time I reach my million-word goal, maybe I’ll know whether I’m good at novels. maybe I won’t. I’m not that worried about publishing and selling– I send out stuff for publication more as part of a process than with any real longing or intent. 🙂

  28. Gene Brode, Jr.

    I completely agree with your first line. And your music analogies/metaphors are perfect. My all-time favorite form is the short story, followed by flash fiction. I try so hard at short stories and start out from my sub- or unconscious, but they get mangled in the revision process. Most I never finish or get stuck on. But last night I wrote a 500 word piece for a competition and it just fell together in one sitting. I wonder if writing the whole thing all at once made the difference, or the fact that my family was asleep, or half a dozen other factors. But this I know: the character had been living in my subconscious for some months and I wasn’t sure about the arc or the circumstances. Then last night he died of heart failure on the operating table while dreaming of his passion–the symphony. It was beautiful! The words flowed easily, the concepts came naturally. I couldn’t be happier (unless the revision process is just as good)!

    Last thought–I’d like to follow your blog on WordPress but I don’t see a follow button.

    • Damyanti

      Yes, pieces written at a sitting without any interruption are the best flash fiction. It is as if you enter a meditative state and if you can manage to stop thinking and just let yourself sink in, you come out with a story. I do have a normal follow link on my blog, on the top bar. And if you want notifications of new posts via email, I have a link on the right sidebar. Thank you for wanting to follow me– my blog exists for my blog family, and I try to follow back everyone who follows me, other than spambots 🙂

  29. darkenwulfbytes

    2 things here. Whatever you’re not ready for or unsure of, the subconscious goes to work and releases it later. We choose to listen or not. And 2. Blogging teaches us to put a whole lot of writing into a shortened form and on the flip side screws us up in trying to write fiction. I can blog but can I return to writing…yech!

    • Damyanti

      I blog and write fiction often on the same day. It all depends– some days fiction is easy, and some days it is like pulling out your own teeth with a pair of pincers and no anesthetic. I try to tell myself that I’ll show up on all days, the good and the bad– that way, I’m sure to catch something on a good day. 🙂

  30. Peaches Ledwidge

    Your writing is deep, kind of a “soul searching” type, if you get what I’m trying to say.

    Even when I preplan what I want to write, the story plot and characters do not always make that possible.

  31. Netta

    I’m a writer who worked for a small newspaper for a while and did mostly profiles. they could never understand why I couldn’t just bang out a story after an interview. To interview well I had to feel and connect with the person and to write well I felt I had to stop being myself for a while and become the subject in order to create a picture of who they are. It was extremely exhausting but my subject were always happy with the articles.
    My writing comes from within a lot of it is just me noting down what the voice inside my head or heart is saying, the words they use aren’t mine and I see a clear difference between my writing and the writing of unseen authors who follow me around.
    Crazy as it sounds, if they weren’t pestering me to write all the time Id just run a business and make lots of money instead.
    Good article.

    • Damyanti

      Haha, I guess I’m brave then. I know I write flash better than short stories, and short stories better than novel(s). But all that might change. I don’t care, as long as I’m telling stories. 🙂

  32. subconsciousdialogues

    As someone running a blog pretty much focused on it, all the time. The majority of ideas I have lying about are either from dreams or just ideas that came out of nowhere. For many things, such as characters, I try to create them based on what feels “right”, down to the name. My best writing (or the most enjoyable?) has been when it feels like my subconscious is ‘backing’ (?) me as I write.

  33. thenssthen

    I know little of how the subconscious works (or how it’s spelt, at times) but I have always felt it with me. I have always understood that a lot goes on when I’m not fully aware. I used to be keen on analysing the frequent dreams I used to have, but nowadays I leave it for my brain to pick through. I feel that my subconscious uses dreams to figure out what the hell goes on when I’m awake.

    It is similar for my writing. Sometimes I write about a certain issue, but upon reflection I discover that I’d also written about something else that I hadn’t even been aware of at the time. Its definitely something to think about.

  34. dweezer19

    There is a soecial part of my mind that waits for an image to spark the flame for poetry. It seems to always be there, sort of bubbling, whispering…feed me, listen to me, drink me…

    • Damyanti

      Sounds exactly like a part of me too– a voice and consciousness that never quite goes away, even when I’m listening to a conversation about lipstick, or getting a tooth extracted 🙂

  35. Inger D. Kenobi

    I do. Often from dreams, from random thoughts, and from ideas that seem to come out of nowhere. I guess that ‘nowhere’ place is the subconscious. Margaret Atwood once said that she writes the stories that speaks the loudest. Where do they speak from? From the subconscious, would be my guess. The logical, rational mind can only get me so far. It’s a balance act.

    • Damyanti

      I try to sink into the subconscious when I’m writing fiction, and try to stay in the logical side when I’m editing. It’s hard, but practice makes it better.

    • Damyanti

      🙂 Happy to know I’m not alone. I can’t find your blog from your name– because you haven’t left your blog address. Would have loved to read your post.

      • Gretchen Grey-Hatton

        Thank you for the comment Damyanti! Mine is gretchengreyhatton.com. I’d love for you to read it 🙂 I’m also going to poke around in your Singapore and Malaysia writing tab today. My hubby lived there for a while and I’ve visited a couple of times. Should be fun to read your thoughts about it. Have a lovely day!

        • Damyanti

          Yes that Singapore and Malaysia post gets a whole lot of hits, so I made it a page of its own. 🙂 Will go over to your page now.

  36. lightravellerkate

    For me its very much being a channel of creation.ideas,, charcters and places filter through dreams and meditation and if I allow it, they come to life in new and enjoyable ways.I read an article recently on how Peter Carey writes. He said when he started a story he had no idea where it would take him and isnt that the joy of writing fiction? Thanks for this great post

  37. davidprosser

    I could never have sat down at 9.00 am and said I’d write until 5.00 pm. My writing had to be spontaneous and I always carried a pad. If it wasn’t convenient to write things down- say at a funeral then I’d have to hope I remembered the idea until later.
    I stopped writing over 2 years ago and my subconscious made that decision for me. Despite trying a couple of times since then I’ve been unsuccessful so it must be I’m not ready yet, either that or my subconscious has become a critic of my former work and is saving the public further suffering.
    xxx Huge Hugs xxx.

    • Damyanti

      I can and do write some days from 9 to 5. Can’t say all of it is fiction, or all of it is good, or that I write the same amount each day. Trying to be present, is all. And when I can’t write, I edit. And when I can’t do that either, I read, swim, or take a walk. I’m not sure why you stopped writing, but I know from following your blog that reading you is pleasant, and not a suffering.

  38. Dalo 2013

    Wonderful post Damyanti, there is something very powerful with the subconscious. I can sit down and try to work through a problem or try to push creativity, but nothing ever really flows when I try to force it because things just are not finished ‘cooking’ yet so I wait & wait until my subconscious works through the kinks and then when all comes together it is exciting. When my subconscious speaks, no matter what I am doing I will stop and take time to listen and then hopefully flow 🙂

    Running my own business I found out how important it is not to be a 9-5 worker in the traditional sense as many of my best ideas and thoughts happen either way earlier or later. I think most successful/happy people have the trait of listening to their subconscious when it begins to speak no matter when…and that trying to force action/creativity when it is not there is just a waste of time. If it is not happening, do something you enjoy doing and let the subconscious figure it all out for you is my motto 🙂 Cheers ~

    • Damyanti

      Thanks for stopping by, and the comment. Yes, the more I listen to my subconscious, the better I get at resolving things, both in my real life, and my fiction.

  39. Susan Scott

    Great post Damyanti thank you. The unconscious (distinct from the subconscious) is pretty rich fertile soil and for me a source of inspiration I reckon. Though I remember a writer noting that writing was 99% perspiration and 1% inspiration. I like the previous comment about being present when inspiration arrives.

  40. brittabottle

    I completely understand this. I struggle with this daily, as a college student. I’ve not ventured into the realm of novel writing for quite some time (though I would like to again sometime), but when I was younger, I used to start so many stories and never finish them. Now, as a student, I struggle to write my papers in a timely manner because it’s those moments that I have to write that I really don’t want to. Like you said, I do my best writing when I’m not planning to.
    I think writing is hardest for those people that are truly passionate about it.

    • Damyanti

      Alex, That’s the hardest part– the only way to find out is trying. Thanks for dropping by every so often despite your AZ schedule.

  41. Jacqui Murray

    I call my subconscious ‘my muse’–that’s as close as I get. She does interfere at times. It’s a nice diversion from my usual logical approach to life.

    • Damyanti

      My approach to life is anything but logical, but I try hard to stay focused, and use some reason. Like someone said recently– you’re all heart, can you try and use your brains once in a while? Easier said than done, of course.

  42. Dan Antion

    I don’t write very long pieces but sometimes the ideas come from somewhere unplanned or at least unexpected. Something happens that triggers a thought and off my mind goes. I’m sure you’re capable of handling longer works. Just keep poking at the subconscious 🙂

    • Damyanti

      Dan, who knows– maybe my subconscious cells don’t have stamina needed for longer pieces. We’ll see. I love what your subconscious + conscious leads to on your blog.

  43. Carrie Rubin

    My subconscious gives me ideas. Usually when I’m walking or exercising, or when I’m in the shower or lying awake at night. I’m often thinking of something else, but then something about my book pings in my brain, and an idea is formed. Of course, if I don’t write it down, it’s gone forever…

  44. wwannwrites

    To answer your question, sometimes. This morning, on the other hand, my dream was too weird to even contemplate writing a story about it, though I had a fleeting idea for a moment, but let it go, because it was just too weird for me.

  45. jowensauthor

    Reblogged this on Jeanne Owens, author and commented:
    My muse has been trying to get my attention lately, sending me a few flashes of story ideas here and there. And I have been intending to start trying to work on them. I just haven’t gotten around to it yet. My muse is probably getting frustrated with me again.

  46. Lawrence Grodecki

    I wonder about those metaphors. Sometimes it seems like the ego is trying to sneak them in to impress? When I wrote my novel I found enough sneakers to give Nike a run for their money, but overall I just found Mark Twain’s advice to be the best, which is to simply tell the story, so just do it! That’s what I did. 🙂

    PS- Please pardon any “run-on” sentences, but don’t ignore them.

    • Damyanti

      It’s more like laziness, I think. My brain sends me metaphors when it wants to shortcut into something. I thought for a moment to try and edit the mixed ones out of this, and then I was like, what the heck, this isn’t my fiction– this is my blog, and I can be a little self indulgent (once in a while) if I want 😀