Writing and the Unconscious

My blog of two days ago, on writing as venting, led me to think further about the writing process as I experience it. The question for today is not why I write—I talked about that two days ago—but how I write.

As I’ve mentioned several times over the last year, I write in two modes, as a creator and as a craftsman. Today I want to reflect on how I create.

My characters, my stories, even my vocabulary and tone come from my unconscious. I learned early in life to tap into that secret part of my mind. As a young man, I was intrigued with the Sufis and their way of seeing life. What we call meditation is major element in Sufi practice. They taught me how to quiet my mind to a wordless, image-free state. Once in that place, the soul is open to direct communication with the deity.

After Vietnam, my soul was overloaded with unspeakable memories. At first, simply to survive, I banished the images from my conscious mind. But they came back to haunt me as flashbacks, irrational rages, nightmares, and panic attacks. I learned that I had to unleash them, face them head-on, find out how to live with them. I used the techniques the Sufis had taught me to bring them into my conscious memory. Little by little, I learned to control my emotions.

I know now that when a story or character or situation or scene arises in my imagination and demands that I write it down, it’s coming from my unconscious. So when I sit down to write, I let my soul slip into the meditative state. Sometimes, it’s like watching a movie and writing down what I see; sometimes it’s responding to a character who insists that I bring him or her into existence; sometimes it’s observing a scene play out in my imagination and letting the deepest recesses of my mind tell me how it ends.

The grisly memories from Vietnam and later never go away. They are with me always. Their presence explains why so much of my writing is about war and combat. Hence Friendly Casualties, The Trion Syndrome, and Last of the Annamese. Writing my memories into stories puts me in charge—I control them instead of them controlling me. Unburdening myself by telling what happened, even in fictionalized form, eases my soul.

Perfect peace will never be mine. The recollections are too hideous for that. But telling the world what really happened offers me another satisfaction. In writing, I find fulfillment.

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