An Encounter with the Unconscious Mind

Today I’m going to write about something odd that happened last week. My hunch is that many writers have had the same experience.

Wednesday morning I suddenly woke up, wide awake and raring to go, at the ridiculously early hour of 5 AM. I lay there for about 15 minutes trying to go back to sleep and finally gave up.

What woke me up were ideas about a writing project. I don’t mean that I was facing a deadline. The project that woke me up is due in January, for heaven’s sake.

I’d been thinking about that project for several weeks. Apparently my unconscious mind (where a lot of my writing takes place) finally decided enough of this and insisted that I download the ideas for the project from my brain onto my computer. 

Here’s what’s really interesting. (Crazy is probably a better word.) I have another project – an urgent one due this month – that I’ve been pushing to finish. Get it done, get it done, get it done.

Unconscious Mind wouldn’t let me work on the looming project that morning (or the next day, when I finally finished writing up my ideas for January). It was easier to stick  with the January project than to waste time arguing with my unconscious.

If you’re a writer, you probably have these encounters with the psyche all the time. And if you’re a poet or a fiction writer, you’re positively haunted.

The first step, of course, is to start believing that part of your mind really does all its thinking in a secret place hidden from your awareness..

Here’s a story I used to tell my college students. It’s from Vance Packard’s Hidden Persuaders, a book that was a bestseller in the 1950s. In a market study, consumers were given three packages of laundry detergent and asked to record the results.

The consumers’ comments showed that Detergent #1, in a light-blue box, didn’t thoroughly clean the clothing. Detergent #2, in a bright-yellow box, did a better job but faded the colors. Detergent #3, in a yellow-and-blue box, did an excellent job.

Here’s the rub: It was the same detergent. Only the colors on the box were different.

Strange and wonderful are the workings of our brains!


Most people are slow to discover the amazing powers of the unconscious mind. One reason is that most of us did our first writing in school – under duress – at the direction of an English teacher with a red pen. That partnership with the unconscious doesn’t begin until you give yourself permission to write for pleasure, exploring the things that interest you.

And that’s a shame, because so many would-be writers never arrive at that wonderful place where the adventures begin.



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