In a recent BBC documentary about the unconscious and its influence on the creation of art, the author Meg Rosoff argues that artists must allow their unconscious mind to fuel their work. She says, ‘Without a strong connection between the conscious and unconscious mind, you can’t make great art.’
But how do you do this?
Before 2005, my writing life existed purely within formal education. I had studied creative writing at diploma, BA and master’s level. I took part in workshops and classes in creative-writing theory. I learnt to analyse a piece of text, to identify strengths and weaknesses in it. I learnt to critique. My writing improved as a result. I learnt the value of precision, directness, clarity. I learnt how to edit. But something was lacking in my writing. I had learnt the craft but then found I had no subject to write about. I did not know what my interests were or how to discover them. I didn’t know how to access my unconscious. I wasn’t willing to make a mess. I wasn’t willing to lose control.
Then, in 2008, my partner and I gave up our jobs and our home and moved to New York.
New York changed the way I wrote.
New York is an art city, a city made up of extreme creative forces. You can see the power of human creativity in the form and structure of its buildings, in the voices and behaviour of the people on its streets, and in the art that’s created there. Its energy is infectious.
When I returned to the UK, New York was all I could think about. It entered my unconscious and stayed there. I dreamt about the city, day and night. It began to show up in my writing. This happened, for the most part, unconsciously. I went with it, allowing this drive to guide my reading and my writing until I realized what it was that I was doing, and then I began to research in earnest, consciously and with specific intention.
I began with the foundations of the city itself.
I read books about urban planning as a way to understand how New York was built. I was introduced to the urban planner Robert Moses. I wondered whether the building of a city could be thought of in the same way as the writing of a book. This made me decide to write the book in a non-traditional form, one that echoed the rhythm and voices of New York.
I read memoirs and biographies of artists and writers who had lived there, and this led me to the work of Robert Mapplethorpe, Edmund White, Walt Whitman, and Patti Smith. I began to see thematic connections between them, the clarity of view, for example, that Mapplethorpe and Moses shared, or the visionary voice shared by Smith and Whitman. I noticed another link between these people. The main thematic connection I noticed between them was desire, longing in one form or another, for people, for art, for creative energy, for the past, for the future. Desire was also the force that was guiding me, both a desire to create and a desire for New York City itself.
From then on, in my writing, I moved between two states: from unconscious exploration, where I wrote and wrote without thinking, to conscious evaluation of my work through reading, evaluating, and editing, and through planning further research, back and forth, again and again, until the book was finished.
By working in this way I discovered what I was interested in – the role of the artist in the landscape, for example, the link between sex and imagination, and the idea of thinking about the novel as a physical experience. I wouldn’t have discovered this without stepping out of my comfort zone and surrendering myself to the unfamiliar in both my conscious and unconscious mind.
Before I visited New York, and before I began to research Everyone is Watching, I hadn’t realized that it was acceptable to write about your passion, or that, essentially, this is what you should write about. But in order to discover what your passion is, you first have to do what Meg Rosoff says and surrender yourself to the unconscious.
My art teacher in secondary school always told me that my flaw as an artist was that I was never willing to make messy preparatory sketches. Instead, I always drew the final picture straight off. These drawings were usually accurate but they contained no life.
Now, most of my time as a writer is spent making a mess and then figuring out a way to put it all in order, to shape it, refine it. But the text needs to be messy first. For me, this is the only way to access the unconscious. You must look both inside and outside yourself to discover what your obsessions are. Don’t write ‘what you know’, write what you’re obsessed about. Art is about obsession. Find the extreme, find the other. Do this by letting go of control. By overcoming the censor your uniqueness as an artist will come through.