Vintage Writing Instruction

A podcast of classic articles on writing fiction.
Posted 10/18/2023

Episode 38: The Use of the Subconscious Mind in Fiction

By D. G. Baird

Originally published in a 1920 issue of "Writer's Monthly", and thus is in the public domain.

"It wrote itself." "Some of my stories just come to me in their entirety, and these are always my best." "I always let the germ idea incubate for a time before making any effort to write the story."

How often we see these statements in reading of the experiences of writers. And how we wish that we were similarly gifted; that our stories would write themselves or just come to us in their entirety, or even that we could place a few well-chosen germs in the incubator and go about our business for a time and then one day sit down before the old Underwood and open the hatchery and find a full-grown masterpiece! Most of us would be willing to wait a time and times and half a time after tucking away the precious germ if we might then have the pleasure of watching a story write itself.

But seriously, is this a special gift? Were those who used to preach that a writer is born, not made, right in their doctrine?

Yes, and no. Yes, if we mean that some have this ability more highly developed than others—just as some have more highly developed physical bodies than others; no, if we mean that there is no hope for those to whom these experiences do not come of themselves.

We now know that any normal person may develop a strong physical body. Annette Kellerman, "The Diving Venus," was once a cripple. And psychology would have us know that what we have been wont to call "inspiration" might more appropriately be called "expiration," as it is but the outward manifestation of the working of the subconscious mind.

As we all have subconscious minds—just as we all have physical bodies—it would seem reasonable to suppose, then, that our ability to receive stories through the medium of "inspiration," or to incubate ideas successfully, depends entirely upon our ability to control this faculty. And this has proved to be the case.

Let us see, then, if we can find a way to master this power which seems to be latent in each of us. In doing so, I claim no credit for the scientific truths which I shall state—they may be found in any good work on psychology—and I beg pardon in advance if I seem dogmatic, as the limitations of this article will not permit a full discussion of every statement that I shall make.

To begin: These hypotheses have been quite conclusively proved by many tests during the last several years:

  1. The mind is dual, conscious and subconscious.
  2. The subconscious mind is a perfect memory machine; it never forgets.
  3. The subconscious mind cannot reason inductively, but reasons deductively with absolute precision.
  4. The subconscious mind is always active; it never rests nor sleeps.
  5. The subconscious mind is controlled by suggestion.

Behold, then, what this obedient and most efficient servant may be made do for one. As a writer, one has a story-germ in mind—he has conceived a certain situation, but has not worked out the story itself. Given a situation, the matter of working out a story is almost wholly one of deduction. But with the majority of us, deductive reasoning is a laborious process and one in which we fall into many errors. Now just look back at our third hypothesis and you will see that the subconscious mind reasons deductively with absolute precision. Then why not give to it the task of working out the details of the story?

But how can this be done? Look back at our fifth hypothesis and you will find that the subconscious mind is controlled by suggestion. It will carry out any positive suggestion that is given to it. Remember also that it is always active—it works while you sleep!

All this being true, then one need only say to his subconscious mind: "Now, Mr. Subconscious Mind, such and such a situation I have conceived. You will take this idea and work out a story for me. Please have it ready by nine o'clock tomorrow morning, as I wish to begin writing it at that time." And, presto! at the appointed hour you sit down before your typewriter and proceed at once to dash off a contribution to literature, and later when the applause arises you modestly inform us that "the story just wrote itself."

All of this would be mighty nice if there were no difficulties to be surmounted in the use of this remarkable talent. It so happens, however, that there are real difficulties in the way.

The first difficulty to be considered is that of giving the suggestions that we hope will control the subconscious mind. Remember that the conscious mind—the reason—also offers suggestions, and should these suggestions be opposed to the ones that you are trying to enforce, there very naturally will be a conflict between the two, with the result that both will be neutralized and no result will follow. Suggestions, to be effective, must be positive—the more positive the better— and one can hardly offer a positive suggestion when at the same time he 1s thinking to himself, "I haven't much faith in this business, but I'll try it, anyway," or when his mind is on something, foreign to the suggestion.

The second difficulty is that of elevating the result of this subliminal activity above the threshold of the subconscious; that is, in bringing into the conscious mind the story that the subconscious mind has so obligingly worked out. The subconscious mind is always at work, and could we tap it at will we would find that it has undreamed-of treasures, but to most of us who have never developed the faculty it is a locked vault. How, then, may we overcome these difficulties? In the first place, practice offering positive suggestions to yourself, determining with all your power of will that the suggestions shall be carried out. Probably the best time to do this is on retiring at night. Try to go to sleep with your mind firmly centered on the suggestion which you wish to convey to your subconscious mind. Keep out all foreign thoughts, and by all means try to believe that your suggestion is going to be carried out. A good plan is to try to see the words of your suggestion passing before your eyes in letters of fire. You will find that the positiveness of your suggestions will improve quite rapidly, and your faith in the subconscious will grow strong with practice.

Suggestions may also be offered at any time during the waking hours, but the time suggested above is the most propitious, as the conscious mind is passing into a state of passivity and the subconscious is left free to work while you sleep.

To overcome the second difficulty, practice concentration in every way you can. Anything that one learns to do unconsciously— playing the piano, using the touch-system in typing, or the like— increases the control of the subconscious. Hard study or deliberate concentration on any subject is helpful. I have known women to practice such exercises as counting peas as they shelled and dropped them into the pan. This sounds ridiculous, perhaps, but it is good practice in concentration, nevertheless. In the matter of writing, one should act as if he were positive that the suggestion would be carried out. For instance, you have repeatedly offered the suggestion that your subconscious mind work out a certain situation for you. When you are ready to write the story, sit down at the typewriter in perfect confidence and begin writing it. You will probably be surprised to find that the story "just comes to you."

How long will it take you to develop control of your subconscious mind? If I were a physical director, writing an article on the development of the body, could I say just how long it would take each reader to become strong and robust physically by carrying out my directions? Certainly not. The utilization of the subconscious faculty all depends upon one's natural ability, previous training in study and concentration, and willingness to try.

Finally, let me repeat the truism that nothing is gained in this world without effort. Thomas Edison is called a genius, and he deserves the title, but Thomas Edison is said to concentrate so intensely when working on an invention that his wife has to feed him with a spoon. And he doesn’t even know that she is doing so! He has been known to concentrate for days and nights at a time.

Practice concentration, offer positive suggestions to the subconscious mind that it is going to perform a certain task, make yourself believe that it is obeying you, act upon your belief, and you will find that your subconscious mind is the most obedient and efficient of aids in writing.