Writing and the Unconscious (08.01.11)

I spent many years as a college professor and advisor, and one of the bigger parts of my job was talking to students who lined up outside my office door.  I’d look up from a stack of composition papers, and someone would be standing in my doorway.  Behind her would be another student, and another.

It didn’t matter whether it was during my scheduled office hours or not, and it became hard to grade papers anywhere but home. But over time I realized that sitting down and talking with a professor was what my students needed, and listening to what they had to say was the most important part of my job. 

Writing students didn’t come to see a professor to clear up points of fact or problems they didn’t understand.  They wanted to talk about big decisions in their lives—whether or not to become doctors or lawyers, whether or not to marry, whether or not to have children, whether or not to go deeply in debt to finish their education, and so on.  My colleagues, being PhDs and specialists, did not advise on these matters.

As an MFA and a generalist, I didn’t hesitate a minute.  Here’s what I told them: If you want to keep writing, don’t go to med or law school, don’t get married, don’t have children, don’t go into debt to pay for college.  My students would nod, smile, and thank me for my advice, but explain that writing was only one of their hopes and dreams for their lives. They wanted to become doctors or lawyers who finished college, married, and gave their parents grandchildren. Even though many of them already considered themselves to be writers, they had other priorities.

Sure enough, several years later, I’d get e-mails talking about spouses, children, life as an ICU physician or a junior partner, and their struggles to pay off their college loans. “You told me I would be working seventy hours a week,” one of them said.  “I didn’t believe you.  I would love to be working just seventy hours a week.”

Hiatus: Several weeks ago I called an entry “Truth, Beauty, and Justice,” and then wrote something that had little to do with any of those things, except in a vague cosmic sense.  What had happened was I couldn’t think of a title, so I wrote down those words as a space filler until I could see where the piece was going.  Then I sent it in without deciding what it was about and putting a relevant title on it. 

I did get at least one seeker of truth, beauty, and justice to read it.  So if next week’s blog is titled “I was Jennifer Aniston’s High School Hookup,” and it doesn’t have anything to do with Jennifer Aniston or hooking up, you’ll know that the Dream of Thingsmarketing division has adopted the technique. So a shout-out to Laurent Marbacher for advancing the commercial juggernaut that is MFA in a Box.

Okay.  Where the unconscious comes into this discussion is that none of these students facing life decisions were going to make them consciously.  Marrying somebody was an unconscious decision.  Taking out an unserviceable student loan was an unconscious decision.  Having kids, often as not, was an alcohol-fueled accident.  Going to a particular grad school, with a particular set of destiny-setting mentors, was a matter of an admission committee’s caprice.

So I came to believe that writers need to have a working understanding of their own unconscious if they are going to give their craft the time and resources that it demands. 

Students of psychoanalysis, who don’t believe in accidents—even alcohol-fueled ones—come easily to the idea that our unconscious seldom wants what we want. The unconscious is good at coming up with distractions that keep us from our avowed goals.  Such distractions keep us from wondering if what the unconscious wants is really worthy of our time. 

The unconscious is clever, but it’s not particularly noble. Writing, being both noble and a path to awareness, is the unconscious’s natural enemy.

Hence my advice.  And some of my students who became writers later in life found that they usually had to undo unconscious decisions to get to the point where they could become writers and artists.  Marriages were broken, positions resigned, children ignored or estranged, and loans left unpaid, even after education loans were exempted from bankruptcy laws. That doesn’t mean that some of them didn’t stay in successful marriages and careers. But a crucial difference for those writers is that their spouses and children and jobs augmented their artistic energy rather than demanded it.  In other words, the successful artists had a willing support group that included colleagues and family.

As a college professor, I learned that some students were like black holes—they could suck up all the energy that you could give them and more.  What is interesting to me now is that a high percentage of those same students became successful writers and artists. It sounds a little creepy, but they were feeding the beast and part of my job was to help them feed it.

The difference between being an authorial genius and a royal pain in the ass is tangible success at writing.  My advice to young writers to stay single and free of a professional career was not so much for their benefit as it was for the people they might marry, their kids, or their colleagues.

In Carl Jung’s The Spirit in Man, Art, and Literature, he states that artists can’t have a normal life because they’re grappling with the unconscious and that takes all the energy that their normal human relationships would require.  Later in his long career, he changed his mind on artists, and said that having an artistic sensibility was the one way not be submerged by unconscious forces and go through life both trapped in and oblivious to fate.  He considered that a bad thing, but he also considered it the condition of the vast majority of humanity.

It was the condition of plenty of my colleagues, at least the ones who had given up on being artists. Most of them avoided talking to students about anything but their specialty. One of them told me that when a student wanted to talk about life issues, he would reach for his pistol. But he had given up in his struggle to become conscious by that time.

I found that taking students seriously and listening to them, even as I knew they were going to ignore my response, was worthwhile.  I was communicating to them that writing was a commitment that would compete with their other commitments, and that it was okay to make the hard choices between them. My words no doubt came back to them later in life, when they had discovered that if they did one thing they couldn’t do another, and that the unconscious occupies territory that rightfully belongs to those who write.


{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Jaye Viner August 2, 2011 at 9:09 am

I was once a student seeking advice in the doorways of cramped university offices. I can’t recall one bit of advice that was given. But the act of the conversation made all the difference.

Joan L. Cannon August 2, 2011 at 9:24 am

I had to be over 80 and widowed before I could understand what you’ve said here. It’s hard to start so far behind, but better than not starting at all–and I have (for good or ill) an incredibly satisfying and happy life for my unconscious to dig into. Oh, I know–artists have to suffer to be any good…
let’s hope that what little suffering I’ve done up till now will be almost enough.

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