We’re taking an excursion outside the culture in which we grew up in order to explore what it has to say about how our imaginations actually work.
Why? Because we want to move up the ladder from having fiction pour out of us in an uncontrolled way — and possibly hinder our careers as writers — to a point at which we understand what is going on when we write stories, and can manage that operation so as to ensure greater and more consistent success as writers.
Modern culture suggests — whether scientifically supported or not — that ‘fiction’ is something that arises from our subconscious, with the corollary that this means it is largely out of our control. Many writers come to believe that stories ‘just happen’. That means that success as an author ‘just happens’ too, depending on whether that uncontrolled flow is liked by enough readers or not.
Medieval thinkers thought otherwise. Predating any notion of ‘the unconscious’, St Thomas Aquinas, writing in the 13th century, conceived of human beings as a compound of body and mind — the terms ‘body’ and ‘mind’ were not understood back then in the way that we think of them now. The mediaeval concept was more along the lines of co-dependence: in other words, things arose in parts of our souls or minds and interacted with other parts of our mind/souls in quite different ways to modern thinking.
You can skip all of this section on mediaeval thought if you feel it doesn’t help — but the product of the excursion into other cultural frameworks is supposed to be a different perspective upon the workings of your own imagination as a writer.
In Britain in the Middle Ages many people would have had experience of severe trauma. Primitive technology and medicine meant that illness and famine were common; life expectancy was not high. The recurring Black Death in 1348–49 killed about a third of the population. The deposition of Richard II, the Wars of the Roses, the ‘Hundred Years War’ with France, campaigns against Scotland and Ireland, and the Crusades and so forth meant that political unrest and warfare were constant realities. Mediaeval spiritual beliefs played a part in individuals’ reactions to such experiences. Medieval writing contains many references to magical and marvellous objects, the universal hope for health and happiness and a different kind of hope; divine protection and eternal life was offered by Christianity, in which suffering was also a means of refining the soul. Much of what we consider might belong to the 'unconscious' today was very much exposed and part of life back then, with the result that a different imaginative landscape starts to take shape.
If there was a continuum between the body and the mind as theologians suggested, physical responses to mental trauma were to be expected; experiences such as auditory and visual hallucinations were not regarded as unusual in a world where the demonic and the divine interacted in the spirit world. Dark experiences were, in other words, not regarded as ‘disease’ but as part of an interactive tapestry of both dark and light and all the colours of the spectrum between.
So instead of having a suppressed, swirling ocean of subconscious imagery and story ideas which gradually emerges to the surface in an enigmatic way — the modern conception of how fiction arises — we can begin to see an interactive landscape in which what we perceive is processed by different parts of our minds all of which are accessible to us at all times.
Here's an exercise that may help to illustrate what I mean:
Close your eyes for about ten seconds. Try to keep track of every image, every thought or half-thought, every tremor of your own imagination. You’ll probably see fleeting figures, vague half-memories, shadows of yesterdays, as though several cinemas are playing different 3D films at the same time; you might feel curiosity, anxiety, small glimpses of other emotions peeping through; you might detect frail connections between some or all of these things. Part of you will probably think 'Why am I closing my eyes for ten seconds?' This is your mind at work, not viewed as a binary division between ‘conscious’ and ‘unconscious’, but as a perpetual interplay between different parts.
When you decide to ‘sit down and write something’, if you think along the lines of this different model it becomes not so much a matter of trying to access a suppressed subconscious zone as 'turning down the lights' a little in the external room around you so that you can more clearly see the ‘film’ or ‘films’ that have been playing ‘in your head’ all along. My own theory of dreams, of which I have written elsewhere, consists of the notion that we are actually ‘dreaming’ all the time but that sleep permits us to see more clearly the images, figures and adventures that are otherwise blotted out by the brightness of daily living.
You might have been surprised by what ten seconds of observation revealed about the level of activity occurring in your mind.
What does this mean for us as authors? What is the result of this little tour outside our own culture for the Author Prospectus we are compiling?
Well, part of it is that instead of believing that we are the effect of forces outside our awareness and must either wait for or simply accept what bubbles up from our subconscious, we can start to switch the external lights off, see what has been playing in our own ‘home cinema’ all along, and indulge in a process of selection with particular aims in mind.
I’m reminded of the story that C. S. Lewis tells of how his children’s story The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe was compiled:
The Lion [the Witch and the Wardrobe] all began with a picture of a Faun carrying an umbrella and some parcels in a snowy wood. The picture had been in my mind since I was about 16. Then one day when I was about 40, I said to myself: ‘Let’s try to make a story about it.’
It was ten years later, though, when the thing came together:
…suddenly Aslan came bounding into it. I think I had been having a good many dreams about lions at that time…
Try another short exercise for yourself. Close your eyes for ten seconds again and imagine a story featuring an animal. Don’t worry about anything like a ‘plot’, just harvest the images, emotions and connections which you can see and note them down. Now, from the notes that you made you can select four things:
1. A sequence — does it seem that the images, events or scenes you glimpsed fall into a natural order?
2. Depth — is there a hint of underlying levels in what you saw? Was anything there clearly metaphorical or allegorical? Could it be made to possess an underlying meaning?
3. Moral choice — was there any suggestion of choices, even if simple ones?
4. Meaning — how did the whole ‘mini-story’ feel? Was it meaningful, or could it be made so?
By undertaking these steps, we are moving away from a modern model of subconscious prompts towards and very different approach in which we, the creative authors, are in control.