The Super-conscious Mind
Just as Tolkien used the entire mythos of Middle-earth to assist him in processing what he had witnessed in the First World War and in his life overall, many writers use their writing as a kind of therapy or way of addressing deep, partly-glimpsed concerns about the world.
I’m not suggesting that anyone’s writing is necessarily a form of psychoanalysis. My own view is that, as well as an ‘unconscious mind’, we have a higher level of mental function which I’ll term a ‘super-conscious mind’, which deals with reality through the medium of imagination. Instead of analytically examining reality, this level of ‘thinking’ uses aesthetics to interact with it. Writers (and other artists) project imaginative ‘wishes’ out into the world with this part of the mind, capturing their ideas with words or other media. The result is stories, or other forms of art. Art tends to be a kind of synthesis, then, between this level of operation in an individual and the hard, real experiences of that individual. A painting, for example, is a mixture (usually) of what a person ‘sees’ and what that person ‘believes’. Fiction is the same: we use words, we describe things that we have seen or felt, but we modify them, resulting in a hybrid form of reality, a ‘sub-creation’.
This gets even more complex when part of the experience that writers weave into their works are the writings or ideas of others. We include things in stories based on other stories that we have read. Great writing usually results from a writer taking common experience, including the experience of other fiction, and giving it a whole new dimension using his or her unique imagination. Shakespeare, for example, wrote most of his plays based on other people’s plays, in days before copyright was a common concept. But the Bard’s work is hardly derivative: rather it is totally transformed by a powerful super-conscious mind, blending those other works and real-life experience into something fresh and new. The plays from which Shakespeare drew seem dry and dead in comparison. The same could be said of works by any great author: material from Life, including the stories and images and ideas of others, has been revivified and re-created.
In ‘filling in the gaps’ in the world in this way, many writers fall into the trap of mere wish-fulfilment and fantasy-projection: their work is clearly highly derivative and in some cases an avoidance of the hard world around them, a retreat into a dangerously escapist dream-reality where Life can be made softer and more comfortable with ‘wishes’. The greatest fiction is instead a kind of baptism - it takes the world at its darkest and worst, and weaves into its fabric a different vision of things which transforms our experience as readers so that we emerge from the story and look at the ‘real world’ with new eyes. Tolkien called it Recovery; for him, Escape was ideally not into a wish-fulfilling fantasy but into a larger world which embraced and contained the so-called physical world in which he lived. (Having said that, though, you can see in Tolkien’s work his struggle with the theme of whether or not sub-creation was valid and worthy, or actually a sin - but that’s another story.)
Even when the author’s vision is a dark one, as in a Tragedy or Irony, the outer world is still touched and made different by it.
In terms, then, of your stories: perhaps you are on the verge of taking your story-telling to a whole new level by working out what vision, or what operations of the super-conscious, are at work when you are writing. What are you trying to add to or change about ordinary experience using aesthetics so that a reader will come away with his or her own perceptions of the world transformed?
Worth thinking about.
For more, see the book How Stories Really Work.