It is clearly betrayal, indeed bodily insubordination, these hands that type “writhing” when my brain means “writing.” Even so, getting fingers-to-keys has gotten easier through the years, and the best writing advice I’ve ever received was modeled for me in the heat of the moment, two decades ago:
“I need to let my subconscious work on it.”
Your lips to God’s ears, I choked to myself.
I had been asked—told—to produce a position paper defending—no, promoting—purchases of perimeter properties by a public college. It was a complex policy under siege, wrought with internal and external political trouble, and the policy makers had not taken good notes.
The paper was needed the next day for a face-off between the college president and the state chancellor of higher education. The latter was known to me as an engorged bureaucratic tick burrowed into the hide of a show dog, merely for the sake of keeping the lead dog (college) in line with the rest of the litter (system).
So I had the fervor to write, but not the information. And I was terrified to fail.
Enter the college’s primary academic officer, a woman of a certain age who was an accomplished writer, professor, and administrator. And who (intentionally) had never learned to type. She wasn’t thrilled to be doing this, but she had the goods.
I sat with her for at least half a day, listening, furiously taking notes, trying to herd thoughts into an outline, understand some chronology, derive some flow—to envision what form the paper would take.
And I felt like an idiot. Nothing was making sense to me, and my questions were annoying to her, interruptions. I couldn’t seem to get out of my own way. And then, finally, to hear,
“I need to let my subconscious work on it.”
‘WHAT?’ my inner voice screamed. “How the hell does she know her subconscious will even SHOW UP?” My blood drained and my face went gray. Panic apparent.
“I’ve learned to trust my subconscious,” she said. “I need some dinner and a good night’s sleep. Meet me at 7 tomorrow morning.”
We had nothing. I needed to skulk off campus without running in to the president and his inescapable, “How’s it going?”
If anyone got a good night’s sleep that night, it wasn’t me. I transcribed and organized and made checklists and notes, and ruminated, but it just wasn’t coming together. I was working tight, putting in the time, hammering on the page, and all I was producing was more anxiety.
The next morning I found the VP her usual bright-eyed and unflappable self, in stark contrast to my torqued soul. I sat down at her computer (a pretense—she had someone turn it on each day) and flipped in my floppy disk (get the era?). She was chatty, told me about her dinner (“a steak so rare a good veterinarian could bring it around,”) and gradually, I realized, she was starting to write. I caught up, she spoke, I typed. It wasn’t a clean dictation, but we shortened and shifted and rearranged and, with less effort than I had expended the night before, the piece ended up in good shape. We marked it “draft,” I held my breath, and it sufficed for the meeting.
At the time I felt like a rat in a maze. Over time I realized what a privilege it was for me to have been invited into her process. Invited? I was a tool. But the lessons I learned stuck around, twenty-some years later.
I understood that sometimes writing needed to simmer, but my more deeply held belief was that simmering was simply procrastination. Simmering, therefore, made me anxious. Anxiety paralyzed me, so I didn’t really trust that simmering. So when I first heard, “I need to let my subconscious work on this,” in my experience, that would lead nowhere.
But in this case, something was different. Three somethings—expectation, preparation, and intention:
Expectation. The VP gave her subconscious the wheel and expected results. Simmering is a means, but the subconscious is an entity. I now find it is easier to hand something off to an entity, a partner, than to expect something from a process. No nonsense, no wishing, no hand wringing, the VP gave her subconscious the assignment and bought her conscious mind a steak.
Preparation. That long day before, while I was furiously taking notes, the VP was whiteboarding—out loud and for her own sake—mapping the facts, the logic, the emotional case, and the opposing arguments. As frantic as I was to try to capture it all and try to give it form, I need not have written a word. It may not have been linear or even circular, but everything she would ask her subconscious to resolve had been laid out. The files were open, the connections noted.
My writing tight—letting the deadline consume me, trying to compress the research, processing, and drafting—produced typing, not writing.
Preparation warrants facts, but also curiosity and supposition. It may not all fit, there may not be an order, stuff just needs to be.
Intention. Our intention was told to us—create a case that none but God could argue with. Our readers were known (state bureaucrat), our deadline imminent. Today, in practice, I will gather facts and make notes on ideas and connections. I may even do a bit of free writing, a little drafting. Then, when I feel I have assembled everything I think my subconscious could need, I will pronounce the day done (I almost always sleep on it) and turn to purpose and the reader, thinking, “I need this piece to ___________.” Or “I want the reader to understand __________.” That intention or framing seems important, as does the timing. “Tomorrow.”
And most times, when ass again meets chair, the words will flow much better.