By Lelia Green
Do you use writing as a means of accessing your unconscious knowledge and understanding? The electric experience of things falling into place is a well-recorded outcome of ‘writing to find out what you want to say.’ E. L. Doctorow is credited with saying that writing a novel is “like driving at night. You never see further than your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way” (no formal reference identifiable, but see Quotation Celebration). There is a sense of allowing the unfolding journey to deliver you to your destination, and experiencing the energy rush when you arrive. It’s a matter of relinquishing control and being open to the unexpected.
Australian novelist Helen Milton Bastow described an equivalent revelation. A fiction writer, Bastow had avoided researching Indigenous stories about the places of her childhood in case they overly influenced her own story telling. One day, however, she was on an eco-trail in the Coorong, South Australia, when she happened upon an information display about the local Indigenous dreamtime:
I realised that the way in which I had imagined The Coorong in Chapter Two of my novel was significantly related to aspects of the Ngarringjeri Dreaming story of Ngurunderi. I had unconsciously used two of the most important motifs of the Dreaming for The Coorong to describe the place of my dream: the central figure of a “black man”, or “Ngurunderi”, and the “Milky Way”, the “resting place of Ngurunderi”. The realisation of this unconscious connection was a powerful moment, which I felt in my body, as an emotional shock – or a combination of awe and relief. (Bastow 2003)
I experienced exactly that electricity, that energy, in writing a currently-unpublished fiction book. My lead character was the son of a British migrant who had been part of the forced migration of poor children from the UK to Australia in the 1930s. I was looking for a classic English surname that had overtones of artisan guilds. I toyed with ‘Archer’, but discarded it because I have friends with that name. I moved on to think of names with a B. In the end, my lead character identified himself to me as Nathaniel Baker.
About three years later, I finally got down to writing the novel. Imagine my surprise to find a key plot point turning on a photo of Nathaniel’s father and a dozen other youngsters in an institutional setting. The contemporaneous title given to that photo was ‘Baker’s Dozen’. Was the title a reference to thirteen people, all of whom were victims? Or was it a reference to Baker as an oppressor of twelve other children? At that time I couldn’t believe how neatly the name had fitted the plot: or the plot had fitted the name. I took a long walk to try to accommodate the jolt of energy I’d felt, and tried to untangle how the unknown unknowns of an emerging plot in written fiction had resulted in this outcome. In the end, I accepted it as serendipity.
So what are we to make of writing ‘to find out what we want to say?’ The conditions are not always favourable, but they do seem to include, in my experience:
- being focussed for some time,
- investing periods of concentration and attention, but
- allowing an internal, less-conscious process to take over, as part of an
- intense engagement with a bigger picture, that
- enables the minutiae of detail to fall subconsciously into place
- revealing itself as it does so.
What’s your experience of letting a story make its own way forward? Are there processes like this that you’ve used to uncover unknown unknowns in other situations?
Bastow, H. (2003). Dialogues with a body called the research journal, TEXT, 7, 1, April. (Online): http://www.textjournal.com.au/april03/bastow.htm
Biography: Lelia Green PhD is Professor of Communications in the School of Arts and Humanities at Edith Cowan University in Perth, Western Australia. Her research expertise centres on the risks and opportunities associated with young people’s digital media use, including the digital lives of younger children aged eight years and under. She is sole-author of two books Technoculture: from alphabet to cybersex (2002), and The Internet (2010), and is a co-editor of Digitising Early Childhood (2019), Narratives in Research and Interventions on Cyberbullying among Young People (2019) and the Routledge Companion to Digital Media and Children (forthcoming). She is also the author of two unpublished novels.
This blog post belongs to a series on unknown unknowns as part of a collaboration between the Australian National University and Defence Science and Technology.
Published blog posts in the series:
Accountability and adapting to surprises by Patricia Hirl Longstaff
How can we know unknown unknowns by Michael Smithson
What do you know? And how is it relevant to unknown unknowns? by Matthew Welsh
Managing innovation dilemmas: Info-gap theory by Yakov Ben-Haim
Scheduled blog posts in the series:
November 5: Looking in the right places to identify “unknown unknowns” in projects by Tyson R. Browning
November 19: Blackboxing unknown unknowns through vulnerability analysis by Joseph Guillaume
December 3: Yin-yang thinking – A solution to dealing with unknown unknowns? by Christiane Prange and Alicia Hennig