Consciously unconscious

When a writer is on her game, when she has found a creative groove, she writes at two levels.

At the conscious level, she weaves the stories of her various characters and environments into a literary carpet of amazing delicacy. She understands the work won’t be flawless when she’s done, but she knows and is comfortable in the belief that she can surgically pull the extraneous threads later.

This is a beautiful thing. But an even more dazzling spectacle is happening at the unconscious level.

This is the level at which the writer’s subconscious creates delicate near-invisible tendrils of connections between characters and themselves, their surroundings and other characters. It is at this level that amazing nuance and metaphor is added to a story. Without the harsh distractions of planning and plotting (both very important, mind you), the subconscious is free to perform magic that we may not recognize or appreciate until much later in the creative process.

One way you witness this is when you realize that conscious concerns you had before sitting down to write have been miraculously addressed, as though story-writing elves snuck onto our computers overnight.

Interestingly, this is one reason why it’s important to have other people read your stuff. They will see things you cannot. In some cases, it is because of what they bring to the table—their personal biases and experiences. But more importantly, it is because they aren’t encumbered by your blinders.

Other readers see your work more clearly because they are untainted with what comes before and after, whether on the page or in your head.

I witnessed and shared this personally in two reading group sessions where my fellow writers created incredible metaphors that deeply informed their lead characters. Yet, when pressed directly as to whether they were conscious of those decisions, both were the most shocked people in the room.

Both demurred that the incidences were quite accidental, but whereas I might agree that they were unintentional, I don’t believe they were in any way accidental.

We make choices for a reason (or several) even when we don’t know what those reasons are. The truth is our truth no matter how ignorant we may remain to what that truth is. We cannot help but splay that truth across our pages.

To some extent, I think creative harmony lay in not caring what those reasons are. For if we try to dissect them, I fear we run the risk of killing them. It is enough, I think, to let our subconscious guide us while we work consciously.

Let the magic within you happen. Your work will be the better for it.

I never intended to take a photo of someone urinating in a Washington, DC alley way, but am tickled I did...especially as he realizes he's been caught

I never intended to take a photo of someone urinating in a Washington, DC alley way, but am tickled I did… especially as he realizes he’s been caught

Unpacking baggage – Part One

Have you ever been in an argument with someone and realized that you’re not really arguing about the topic at hand? Reacted emotionally to an event or a person’s actions but not understood why?

We are the baggage we carry. We see everything in our universe through the lens adjustments of past events.

This can lead to problems—toothpaste in the sink upsets me not because there is toothpaste in the sink but because it is merely the latest in a string of actions that prove my feelings aren’t important to you—but it doesn’t have to. I can well up on the subway watching a young person being kind to a senior citizen. That ocular moisture isn’t about them; it’s about my life with my grandmother.

What’s true for you is also true for the characters you create. Long before they showed up on a page in your screenplay or novel, each of your characters led a life. And that life shapes—or should shape—every response and reaction your character has throughout the screenplay.

You’ll hear people—particularly actors—talk about back story. What is this character’s back story? But to me, baggage is a much more appropriate term because I think it speaks so much more to their motivations in life.

Stephanie and Margaret both come from middle-class white homes in the suburbs. They are the same age, are both actors, went to identical schools, have working dads, stay-at-home moms, and two younger siblings—one male, one female—in college. They have the same back story. What about baggage?

Stephanie’s family believe that if you can achieve, you can over-achieve. Success is everything. And while they support her acting career, they really don’t get it. Her brother is studying medicine. Her sister, law. Stephanie was expected to lead by example.

Margaret’s family believe that if you can achieve, you can over-achieve. Success is everything, but it comes from within, not from without. They support her acting career, and even if some of them don’t get it, they’re happy for her. Her engineer brother and biochemist sister come to all of her shows.

In your screenplay, Stephanie and Margaret are on their way to an audition. Both carry coffees through a crowded Starbucks and spectacularly collide, coffees spewing everywhere. How will each react?

Baggage deepens a character. It makes them more real and more sympathetic to the reader or viewer. It subconsciously informs their decisions and their word choice, ideally without dialogue that is completely on the nose (e.g., “Agh, this is like that time in Kapuskasing with my dad!”).

Baggage is indispensable to subtext.

If your character is well-written, the audience should be able to identify his or her baggage and be pretty close to what you were thinking. Although, if they come up with something completely different, they may be pointing out something in you of which you were not aware, which can also be exciting.

As writers, we find it hard enough coming up with the events within our story. For some, the idea of coming up with events and interactions before our story may seem to be extraneous work for no benefit. Without baggage, though, you run the risk that all of your work will have been for nought.

And let’s face it. A story is a journey, and when have you ever gone on a journey without at least a little baggage?

Part Two: Knowing your character’s baggage isn’t enough, in and of itself. You also have to make sure you weave that baggage into the page.

The essentials of my baggage in Costa Rica.