Have you ever forgotten a word you use every single day, and the more you try to think of it, the more it’s just out of your reach? Or forgotten the name of someone you know quite well, and for some reason that name seems to be hidden behind some sort of invisible wall that you just can’t break down? It would seem that the harder we try to think, the less our brain will allow us to tap into its massive array of data. How often have you forgotten that name, and then all of a sudden when you are doing something else and not thinking about it, it just comes to the forefront of your mind, lighting up like a beacon? As our conscious mind gets on with other things, our subconscious keeps working on the task by continuing the search, sifting through the archives of our mind until it finds what it is looking for.
It can be extremely daunting when we are faced with a white screen or blank piece of paper and know that we need to start writing; the more we think about it the more that page stays blank. How do we find a way to get started?
Creativity is linked to subconscious thought; when we subconsciously sift through all the junk beyond our rational consciousness we are able to tap into the wonderful imaginative treasure found deep in the caverns of our brain. Bearing this in mind, here are some ways to enable such exploration.
So how can we access this region of our brain without our non-judging subconscious suddenly becoming the critical conscious? John Cleese writes in his recent book ‘Creativity’ (2020), that we should avoid being self critical of the little ‘first’ ideas that we have when creating something. As adults we have a tendency to be too self-critical from the outset, and therefore either dismiss an idea as no good, or try to rationalise and mould the idea at first growth. Cleese writes that we should nurture and grow our creative ideas before trying to fit them into a box and rationalising them, or we risk ‘strangling’ them at root. There is something about new, naïve, creative ideas that are truly creative, but as we begin to rationalise, mould and adapt them, they become less creative and more formulaic.
I have several ways of helping students and clients tap into their subconscious, to bring out fresh ideas and buried treasures, even when they believe they are not creative. One is to take themselves away from the “academic” situation and do something else. This could be to go and put the washing on, wash the dishes, or go for a walk; something that requires very little thought, so that it will allow our mind to relax and wander.
One particularly successful device I use in the classroom is brainstorming whether an idea is factual or fictional. In this case brainstorming is the opposite to thinking hard about something. Instead, I tell my students to try emptying their minds of any thoughts at all, and just focus on ‘nothing’. If we are developing characters and story scenarios for instance, I fire simple questions about their character and the world they live in, and they write down the very first thing that comes into their heads, even if it seems silly or doesn’t really make sense.
It is important at this stage that there is no judging of the quality of what is written down. With my students, I give them only seconds to write down each answer, that way they are unable to really think about it, and so their subconscious comes into play a lot more. If we are using our subconscious then we are not rationalising and judging ourselves at this point. I find that the longer students pause to think about the question I have asked, the harder it is for them to think of an answer.
Once we have completed the brainstorming session, every student has developed a unique character with its own world and story. At this stage the material is still very raw and perhaps a little nonsensical, but this would then be the basis from which they can grow their character and story, eventually joining the dots and adding them up to create a 3 dimensional world with believable characters who possess genuine emotions.
So to tap into those hidden treasures, remember to dream, go for a walk in the park, let your mind wander, sleep on it; you’ll be surprised at how clearer things can appear the following morning. Set yourself tasks where you write without thinking about it, put the stress and anxiety of ‘thinking’ aside, and you will find that your subconscious brain will continue to work for you without the pressures and restraints of the critical conscious – that’s where fresh roots will grow and flourish.
Everybody has the capacity to be creative; it’s just a question of getting familiar with those subconscious areas of your mind.
Jilly Gardiner is a writer and a lecturer, and spent many years in TV broadcasting. She has a degree in Journalism, and a Master’s in Scriptwriting, and has taught at higher education institutions in the UK and the Middle East. Jilly’s short feature, Being Keegan, starring Stephen Graham, has won a number of international awards. She was a winner of the Windsor Drama Award (The Kenneth Branagh Award), and her work has been produced at theatres around the UK and Dubai. Jilly now teaches at Winchester University, Bucks and Restore, Oxford.