CHAPTER 10: The Psychology of Creativity

CHAPTER 10: The Psychology of Creativity

Now that we’ve explored novel structure, its constituents, and its connection to the external world through research, we’ll explore its relationship to the novelsmith’s internal world. The author creates the novel within his psychic landscape, and to study this process, we must delve deeply into psychology. This is the creative process in detail, its mysticism. Since storytelling is, in its essence, myth, we will rely heavily on Jungian psychology.

One might view the creation of the novel as coming solely from two places: the external world and the novelsmith’s internal world, neither of which should be neglected when studying craft. The dual flow of information into the novel can be graphically depicted as in Figure 14:

Information Flow

Figure 14

We have a tendency to envision the external, physical world as “real” and the internal as imaginary, or “unreal.” Thus, we may neglect the imaginary in favor of the real. To get a good grasp of his creative process, the author must develop the tools to deal with his internal processes, which in large part go unnoticed. Initially, we will take a look at the external world and, to a certain extent, “discredit” it. It is not as “real” as you might think. Following this, we will explore the credibility of the other world, the internal, to provide a more balanced picture of the human landscape. The result may dispel your concrete belief in the literal world and elevate your estimation of the non-literal one.


In the opening chapter, we talked about novelsmithing as a process of both method and madness. So far, we’ve dealt only with method. We also talked about how storytelling comes down to us as an art thousands of years old, from ancient myth-making. For Western Civilization, the writing of stories on papyrus goes back to Homer in 750 BC, but the oldest surviving story ever written is the Epic of Gilgamesh, which was recorded on clay tablets around 2700 BC. The story was undoubtedly much older than the tablets discovered by archaeologists, because it was the result of an oral tradition in which stories were passed down from generation to generation. Apparently, storytelling is just a part of the human endeavor. To fully understand the nature of storytelling, we’ll have to understand a little more about our own psychology and how we create reality.

What we call the real world is a figment of our imagination. Nothing on earth or in the heavens is solid. Matter itself is composed of atoms, which are 99+% vacuum. Matter also has both particle and wave manifestations, and thus is ephemeral in its very nature. Quantum theory tells us that even the way matter is put together is uncertain, with particles having only a statistically probable presence. Physicists tell us that the world is built from our senses. The Nobel laureate Erwin Schroedinger put it this way:

…the stuff from which our world picture is built was yielded exclusively from the sense organs as organs of the mind, so that every man’s world picture is and always remains a construct of his mind and cannot be proved to have any other existence…60

Psychologists also tell us that the universe really exists only as we know it in our own minds. We “create” the universe with information received from our five senses. Even our most powerful sense, sight, gives us a false representation of the world. We believe we see an object, but in fact we only see light reflected from it. Our brains are accustomed to, and specifically built for, decoding the characteristics of light, and from it we create our vision of the world. The senses of touch and hearing also play a powerful role in our formulation of the world, smell and taste more minor ones. A close-knit relationship exists between what is “out there” and what “resides within” because the one holds the key to our understanding of the other. The key to decoding the universe is within ourselves. We inherit the key, or at least humanity’s vision of it.

This is only the first level of “false” reality. Tables, chairs, roads, cars, our entire culture, is a construct of the human mind. They are objects in the “real” world, but only serve our perception of what they are. They are a result of culture. An alien race of beings would have no idea of these objects’ use any more than if they were rocks on a beach. So, the fact that an object is a chair resides within us and not within the chair, yet we think of the lump of wood as a chair without question. Culture comes from within the human psyche and is projected onto the external world.

Books and writing are a further level of human creation. The words on a page only make sense to someone versed in their learning and practiced in their interpretation. In a very real sense, they only reorder what is already within us. They have no content other than to those who can read meaning into them. Even news stories taken from our own lives are mental constructs, human invention. They are not even summaries, but constructions pieced together from parts of a much richer experience. We learn to use story as the conduit of communication. Our lives contain no stories. Biography and history are the invention of the mind. History didn’t exist until the 5th century BC, when Herodotus wrote about the Persian invasion. All of these constructs result from the nature of human consciousness. We tend to live our lives and interpret our memories of them in terms of story. We single out the facts that fit into story based on what we interpret as significant. The introduction of these concepts is not meant to trivialize reality, but to call to your attention to how we construct “reality.”

Where does that leave us relative to the novel? We can see that our minds are not strangers to the “creation” process. When a reader picks up a novel, he already possesses all the skills necessary to imagine the world created within the book. He is now and always has been creating, imagining, the real world with data from the five senses. While reading a novel, though, the stimulus doesn’t come from the outside world. The reader’s imagination is stimulated by the author’s words. It bears restatement: When a reader picks up a novel, he enters a world in which he suffers total sensory deprivation. We know from deprivation experiments that without outside stimulus, the mind has a tendency to hallucinate,61 and since some part of the reader must reside within the fictional world, a world of total sensory deprivation, the potential for hallucination exists.

We’ve all experienced this “creative” act before. When we look at a pattern in the grain of a rock, our minds tend to create an image, e.g., a man on horseback, or a ship at sea. This is projection. We project some image contained within us onto an external object. This is also, however, a creative act, perhaps thecreative act.

Psychologists use this ability with the irregular, random shape of the Rorschach inkblot to determine a patient’s mental state. This is a natural tendency of the human mind. We’re at it all the time, creating reality. Using this same technique, the mind can invent a complete story from only a few facts. Just as the mind “imagines” the external world using the stimulus of the senses, the reader, by starting with only the seed of an idea created by words on the page, dips into his own imagination to invent, to create, the world present in the novel. Every reader has a unique version of what he reads and creates a unique fictional world. That’s the reason some will like a certain novel and others detest it. This creates terrific problems when critiquing a work, a topic for discussion in Chapter 12.

A novel is little more than a “blueprint” for constructing a particular fictional world. This is the reason that good readers are as important as good writers. They have to know how to decode the words on the page and create the fictional dream within themselves. The novelsmith, he who writes the words, goes a step deeper into his own imagination than does a reader into his. The author doesn’t even have the stimulus of the words, but must suck the story from his own imagination. This is not an easy process. Writers suffer from distractions, writer’s block, and generally just grumble a lot.

Why is writing so difficult? What is this internal process? Why do some writers say that, while writing, they exist in a state of total terror? We might rephrase these questions: What is the nature of our imagination? From where do we retrieve the information that we put into a novel? What is the source of creativity? What is the material of the imagination?

We will answer these questions one by one, but first we need to build a little background concerning the human psyche.

The answers lie in the relationship between psychology and art. To understand this relationship, we’ll turn to Carl Jung. From him we’ll learn that this invented, fictional world is not so much a lie as it might first appear. Much of what follows has been also influenced by Jung’s Map of the Soul by Murray Stein, which is a brilliant summary of Jung’s thoughts on the subject.


Carl Jung was the father of what is known as analytical psychology, so called because its principles are derived from experimentation. Jung was a Swiss-born psychologist and psychiatrist, and a student and collaborator of Sigmund Freud for several years until they had a falling-out, after which Jung founded his own school in Zurich. Jung placed emphasis on “the will to live” whereas Freud placed it on “the sex drive.”


Jung’s view of the psyche begins with the ego, the consciousness that forms the center of self-awareness. The ego, what we refer to when we say, “I” or “me,” is the mirror in which the psyche sees itself. It is not the entire consciousness, but simply an agent of the psyche, a focus of consciousness, and the center of awareness. The ego is a part of a greater psychic entity, the self. The ego provides freewill, yet it is morally neutral. It feels as if it has existed forever.


The core of the ego doesn’t change over the life of the individual, but during childhood, culture creates a layer around its center called the “persona.” The persona constitutes that portion of the ego acceptable to the outside world. The persona is a societal mask that makes a favorable impression on others and conceals, hides, our more base instincts.

This seems to be a really good situation. As the child grows, his persona develops, and he learns how to deal with his culture and becomes a nice person by projecting his persona. But the development of the persona has consequences because the ego, self-centered as it is, isn’t so eager to give up these other qualities that aren’t so socially and culturally acceptable. These negative qualities aren’t just eliminated and have to go somewhere.


That rejected, suppressed part of the ego no longer forms a part of consciousness and becomes the ego’s shadow, which is immoral or at least disreputable within the culture. Rather ominously, the shadow retains elements of freewill and decision-making. Most of us are unaware of our shadow, so that it is not fully under control. Thus, this “bad-guy” shadow constitutes an opposite for the “good-guy” persona. As you can well imagine, the relationship between the persona and the shadow is the source of much internal conflict.

Remember that we are investigating the novelsmith’s psyche; however, this preliminary information may be of some help to the novelsmith in developing characters. It might help him round out a character that he can’t seem to get to come to life. But he should not overuse this knowledge. Make sure you don’t deconstruct your character with psychobabble.

Now, on with our investigation of the novelsmith’s source of creativity.


The shadow is not the entire unconscious. The unconscious is that part of the individual’s psyche that is unknown to the person and includes the vast bulk of the psychic world. During a child’s development, the conscious ego is subjected to disturbances from the external world. These “collisions” between the ego and the world can be positive, in that they stimulate ego development in the directions of stronger problem solving and autonomy, and the results remain in the conscious part of the psyche. But they also can be negative if the disturbances are too traumatizing.

Collisions also occur between the ego and “objects” occupying the vast unconscious psychic space. Jung termed these unconscious objects, “complexes.” Complexes are psychic entities outside consciousness that cause ego disturbances from within the individual. They constitute the contents of the unconscious. These complexes are our inner demons. They come upon us from within and catch us by surprise. These complexes are what generate nightmares. Children intuitively detect and fear this internal psychic space.

This is shown diagrammatically in Figure 15:

Consciousness and the Unconscious

Figure 15

One might well imagine this hidden internal landscape to be, metaphorically, the Labyrinth of Greek myth. If we choose to encounter this part of ourselves, we must descend into the Labyrinth, as did Theseus, paying out Ariadne’s tread to help us find our way back. At the end of the Labyrinth, we’ll find the Minotaur, the half-man, half-animal part of ourselves we recognize as “the other.”

Each complex is dual, consisting of the pairing of an image produced by trauma, and an innate archetypal component closely related to it. Trauma is the creating force behind complexes. Prior to trauma, the archetypal object exists as an image and a motivating force, but does not have the anxiety-producing quality of the complex. Trauma provides the emotionally charged memory that becomes associated with the archetypal image, the two welding in the processes. The complex then becomes enriched by similar experiences. Complexes are so emotionally laden that they can erupt spontaneously into consciousness and take possession of the ego. We are rarely aware this is happening. The ego is deceived into believing it is acting autonomously.

The part of the complex caused by trauma is personal and composed of forgotten and repressed personal experience. This forms what Jung called the “personal unconscious.” The other part of the complex contains the primitive archetypal component and is termed the “collective unconscious.” Each complex is an image, and images are the essence of the psyche. Dreams are formed of these unconscious images and behave as a stranger in the sphere of consciousness. When activated, a complex makes us feel as though we are in the grip of an alien entity. As might be expected, the archetypal images of the mother and father are the giants of the unconscious.

Human beings are not blank slates when born. Archetypal components are inherited and not acquired. They belong to us by virtue of being human and are not derived from culture. Culture is derived from them. And this is really the operative statement for the novelsmith. These archetypal images are the cornerstone of our imaginative craft, along with, of course, the way they function within the psyche.


The deepest layer of the psyche is the collective unconscious. It is a combination of universally prevalent patterns and forces, “archetypes” and “instincts,” that constitute nature’s gift to each of us. Jung put it this way:

Man “possesses” many things which he has never acquired but has inherited from his ancestors. … he brings with him systems that are organized and ready to function in a specifically human way, and these he owes to millions of years of human development. Just as the migratory and nest-building instincts of birds were never learnt or acquired individually, man brings with him at birth the ground-plan of his nature, and not only of his individual nature but of his collective nature. These inherited systems correspond to the human situations that have existed since primeval times: youth and old age, birth and death, sons and daughters, father and mothers, mating, and so on. Only the individual consciousness experiences these things for the first time, but not the bodily system and the unconscious. For them they are only the habitual functioning of instinct that were preformed long ago.62

For a writer, the most important fact about the collective unconscious is the inherited archetypal images. They attract the psychic energy and are the origin of culture.

… the archetype appears in the form of a spirit in dreams or fantasy products, or even comports itself like a ghost. There is a mystical aura about its numinosity, and it has a corresponding effect upon the emotions. It mobilizes philosophical and religious convictions in the very people who deemed themselves miles above any such fit of weakness. Often it drives with unexampled passion and remorseless logic towards its goal and draws the subject under its spell, from which despite the most desperate resistance he is unable, and finally no longer even willing, to break free, because the experience brings with it a depth of fullness of meaning that was unthinkable before.63

These “fantasy products” are the material of the artistic imagination. Archetypal images are beyond direct human grasp and form a realm of the psyche. However, they are somewhat accessible. Standing before this realm of the collective unconscious is a “presence” called the “anima” in men and the “animus” in women. The anima/us provides access to the archetypal images. The anima/us is the mechanism that energizes the author’s imagination.


Just as the persona provides a protective bridge between the ego and the outside world, the anima/us bridges the ego and the collective unconscious. See figure 16.

Personal and Anima/us Bridges

Figure 16

The persona faces outward, into the social world and assists with necessary external adaptations. Similarly, the anima/us faces inward, toward the inner realm and helps adapt to thoughts, feelings, images, and emotions confronting the ego from this internal source. In men, the anima tends to be a feminine presence and hypersensitive, dripping with sentimentality. In women, the animus tends to have the emotional energy of an opinionated bully. As Murray Stein puts it: “Men in the grip of the anima tend to withdraw into hurt feelings, and women in the grip of the animus tend to attack.”64

Although at first, it might seem a contradiction that men essentially have a feminine personality standing at the gate to their collective unconscious and women a masculine one, but it results from the processes of conception. When a boy is conceived, the masculine elements are liberated and feminine elements shut down to become the hidden anima. For a girl, the feminine elements are liberated and masculine elements shut down to become the hidden animus. However, the influence of the anima/us, particularly when it’s not integrated with the ego, is so profound that it can dominate the personality. As human beings, we tend to project everything that is not integrated and remains unconscious. As long as the anima/us is unconscious, it becomes a projected perception of the outside world.

In one of its most powerful manifestations, the anima/us is the ever-receding mirage of the eternal beloved. A man then chooses as his lover, the woman who best fits his own unconscious femininity, i.e., she who can receive the projection of the feminine presence standing before his collective unconscious. A woman chooses as her lover, the man who best fits her own unconscious masculinity.

Murray Stein describes the ideally developed person:

The conscious and unconscious parts of the psychic system work together in a balanced and harmonious interplay, and this takes place in part between the anima/us and the persona. Here the ego is not flooded by material from without or within but is rather facilitated and protected by these structures. … The persona is able to adapt to the demands of life and to manage stable relations with the surrounding social and natural worlds. Internally there is well managed and steady access to a wellspring of energy and creative inspiration. Outer and inner adaptations are adequate to the demands of life.65

The reason most of us rarely experience life like this is that we pay no attention to our inner development. We don’t teach the mechanics of how to do this in our schools and even ostracize those who seek help when overcome by internal turmoil. Most of us are primitive internally. We act as if we have no need to understand ourselves and blame our problems on the external world, when most psychological problems have internal causes. Too bad we don’t get a User’s Manual for the Psyche when we’re born.

Now here comes the most exciting part for the writer, and this is the reason we have labored over understanding all this Jungian psychology. For the novelsmith, this is the internal point of contact between the author and the material he is shaping, where the hammer strikes the metal: the interaction between the ego and the anima/us is essentially one of conflict and confrontation. If this is beginning to sound like the cauldron wherein the Premise is born, you are getting the message. The ego engages the anima/us in a process of head-to-head confrontation during which differences become differentiated and articulated.

The ancient Greeks had a term for this anima/us: the muse. The muse has come down to us as a personage that provides the novelsmith with his inspired material. At the beginning of The Odyssey, when Homer says, “Sing in me, Muse, and through me tell the story…” he is consciously calling to his anima. The anima/us, our muse, provides a guiding influence through the archetypal images that are within the collective unconscious and, therefore, beyond ourselves. Eventually, clarity is achieved in the conflict we have created, and therefore, the process, deeply steeped in conflict, becomes one of consciousness raising. The process has allowed the novelsmith to experience the profound heights and depths of one’s own mental universe and return transformed.


Perhaps we can now understand why fiction is so heavily dependent on conflict, and why the Premise, the DNA of storytelling, is the cornerstone of the novel. The characters in a novel are engaged in the same conflict/resolution process as that in which the ego and the anima/us are engaged. We can further understand why we require that a novel have meaning. We expect a work of fiction to do more than just help us escape our worldly dilemmas. We expect it to have importance and be meaningful. A story is a process of discovery-through-conflict, and that process must result in transcendence for the central character. He must be changed by the experience, thereby allowing the reader to also be changed.

A novel is a reflection of the life process, the conflict/resolution process in which the ego and anima/us engage. Creating a novel brings that process into the imagination where it can be experienced. This is the work of consciousness raising, and the reason Premise has a cosmic quality that adds spiritual depth to the work. The reason fiction exists at all is that it is the mechanism that gives expression to the conflict between the ego and the anima/us and allows it into consciousness. All stories have meaning and are morally directed, either consciously or unconsciously, because the ego-anima/us conflict is morally based.

Not only is this the reason Premise works, but it also explains why the Premise is so difficult to grasp in our own work and see in others’. It constitutes the novel’s unconscious, the unseen structure underlying its basic motivation.

The fact that every author has an anima/us may very well be the reason women can write good male characters and men can write good female characters. The image of the other sex is already buried within us. The reason we can develop such a variety of characters is that the anima/us is so complex. A comment by Jung illustrates the diversity of a man’s anima:

…the anima is bipolar and can therefore appear positive one moment and negative the next; now young, now old; now mother, now maiden; now a good fairy, now a witch; now a saint, now a whore. Besides this ambivalence, the anima also has “occult” connections with “mysteries,” with the world of darkness in general, and for that reason she often has a religious tinge. …as a rule she is more or less immortal, because [she resides] outside time.66

Murray Stein describes the animus:

…a woman with an “animus problem” is also overcome by her unconscious, typically by emotionally charged thoughts and opinions which control her more than she controls them. … These autonomous ideas and opinions end up disturbing her adaptation to the world because they are delivered with the emotional energy of a bully. Often they wreak havoc on her relationship, because the people near her must build self-protective shields around themselves when they are with her. They feel on the defensive and uncomfortable in her presence. Hard as she may want to be receptive and intimate, she cannot because her ego is subject to these invasions of disruptive energies that transform her into anything but a kinder, gentler person she would like to be. Instead, she is abrasive and gripped by unconscious strivings for power and control.67

These then are the central figures, the internal ghosts, that reek havoc in our lives. And it is through them that the novelsmith must receive his creative impulses. Let’s take the study of the archetype one step further, and then we will have pretty much exhausted the subject as it applies to the author. Another branch of Jungian psychology comes into play.


Archetypal psychology, as an outgrowth of Jungian theory, is affiliated with the arts and culture.68 As archetypal psychologists view it, the archetype, as a part of the collective unconscious, is accessible to the imagination and presents itself as an image. The image is not viewed as a mental construct, but as the basic unit of the psyche; therefore, it is irreducible. Archetypes are the fundamental patterns of existence. These archetypal images come and go of their own will and are transcendent to the world of sense. Archetypes are viewed as the primary forms that govern the psyche, and thus, archetypal psychology is linked with culture and the imagination, rather than the medical and empirical psychologies of Freud and Jung. According to James Hillman, the originator of archetypal psychology:

The primary, and irreducible, language of these archetypal patterns is the metaphorical discourse of myths. These therefore can be understood as the most fundamental patterns of human existence.69

This is of crucial importance to the novelsmith because to glimpse an imagined reality, which is exactly what he does during the creation of stories that are all actually myths, requires methods and perceptual faculties different from those used to see the sensual world. The writer must become sensitive to the imagined realities emanating from the collective unconscious and develop the skills to handle them. These skills come with practice, and we do it by paying close attention to the psychology of our characters. We learn to read their motivations and put them on the printed page.

With this new knowledge of the novelsmith’s toolbox, mythology takes on a much heavier significance. These stories, which have come down to us through the millennia, have been on the anvil many times, being heated, scraped and pounded until they have merged repeatedly and separated again and again from the reality that spawned them until they became amalgams and alloys. They form “composite” stories we hear so much about that have become the story of Abraham and Isaac, that of Oedipus, and King David. They tell us something profound about human existence. As Thornton Wilder put it:

…myth-making is one of the means whereby the generalized truths of human knowledge finds expression and particularly the disavowed impulses of the mind escape the ‘censor’ of acquired social control and find their way into indirect confession. Myths constitute the dreaming subconscious soul of the race telling its story.70

We can see then that the process of novelsmithing is not so much one of fabricating a false reality, as it is one of discovering a mythology, one that may be highly personal and at the same time of universal significance. The personal nature of it comes from the fact that the complexes of the personal unconscious are formed through trauma colliding with an archetype. As we stated earlier, “trauma provides the emotionally charged memory that becomes associated with the archetypal image, the two welding in the processes.”

We can also see why the novelsmith will frequently take on the neuroses of his characters. It is because he is experiencing the trauma, one might even say creating the trauma. The novelsmith can’t escape it because it occurs inside him, and he is not simply witnessing an external event.

We don’t have a set of instructions that tell us how to develop these inspirational skills; however, we can note that dreams and states near sleep seem to put us particularly close to the source of inspiration, this collective unconscious. Thus, we come to the psychic state known as liminality.


Without a set of instructions for courting and dealing with inspiration, it might be thought that the best the novelsmith can do is to put himself in a position to experience it and wait for it to happen. He sits down before his word processor, takes a sip of coffee, places his hands on the keyboard, and waits. However, his muse, his anima, may have turned her back on him.

If this happens, he can go a little further still toward getting her attention through a concept called “liminality.” The word “liminal” means “threshold,” “entrance.” Liminality is the threshold of conscious awareness, the twilight zone between the waking and sleeping states, the conscious and the unconscious. Another characteristic of this state is that our identity is held in suspension. We are no longer fixed in our perception of others or ourselves. This is an ideal state for the novelsmith because he is then free to assume another identity and perceive the world in ways he could never imagine otherwise.

The question then becomes: how to access information beyond this threshold, how to entice it across by entering a state of liminality. Jungian psychologists have studied liminality and how to move within this often-terrifying terrain. Jungian psychology views the gods of ancient Greece as archetypes within our psychological makeup. These gods constitute the archetypes on which our very culture is based. For example, Hippocrates, the father of medicine, was said to be a son of Asklepios, the god of healing. All physicians of today owe the existence of the physician and their craft to his archetypal influence. In ancient Greece, he had many healing centers, some concentrating on medicine and surgical practices, and others devoted to what could only be termed psychotherapy centers, where the priests of Asklepios cured patients by reading their dreams. Some other archetypes are: Zeus, the father archetype, Hera, the mother archetype, and Ares, the god of war. Many other exist, but we are interested in locating a god who can help us enter the state of liminality.

The Greek god Hermes is he who transgresses boundaries. He negotiates the boundary between consciousness and the unconscious and is the light-hearted bringer of sleep and dreams. As guide of souls in the Underworld (a place where all souls of the dead go and not to be confused with hell), Hermes also stands at the boundary between life and death, where life meets death and the two fuse. His mother, the goddess Maia, was associated with Heaven and Night. Everything around Hermes becomes ghostly. In the ancient Greek, Hermes is aggeloς, angel, messenger of the gods. He is also the protector of travelers. And in the sense that a novel is a journey into another world, Hermes is ever with the writer.

The creative act itself is a process of pulling material from both the personal and collective unconscious and depositing it in the author’s consciousness. The fictional world has mythological characteristics and is close to the dream state ruled by Hermes. And, as one would expect, he is in constant companionship with the muses.71 Hermes sits at this interface, along with the muses, dips his bucket into the cauldron of the unconscious, and dumps it into our consciousness, as shown in Figure 17.

The Author’s Liminal State

Figure 17

The primary characteristic of this mental state is a shift of the novelsmith’s inner ground. His foundation is no longer firm, and he can be easily influenced, pushed and blown about by the winds of the unconscious. The author’s sense of identity is suspended, and he becomes more susceptible to putting on another’s persona and is able to speak with another’s voice. While in liminality, the author is much more emotionally sensitive and open to input from both the personal and collective unconscious. He is up against the inner space inhabited by the “others,” the anima/us.

The novelsmith then has three personifications of the entity that rules over the creative process: (1) the anima/us, (2) the muses, and (3) Hermes. Studying each of these further on your own may well provide you with further assistance in developing your creative process. In the next section, we’ll further define what it feels like for the novelsmith to be in this state of liminality and receiving inspiration from the collective and personal unconscious.


At the beginning of this chapter, we talked about the information flowing into the novel as being from two sources: the world external to the author and that of his own internal world. The information flowing into the author from his internal world, while creating a novel, also involves processes that have a dual nature and can be segregated into two categories, as shown in Figure 18. The first is composed of those processes that spring from the author’s intention, in that the author is in control of the incoming, consciously chosen, material; and the second is composed of those inspirational processes that force themselves upon him, rendering him somewhat helpless under their influence. Inspiration occurs mostly while in a state of liminality. While the author writes, he has little control over the material as it springs forth from his imagination because he has given up himself to his work.

Flow of Information into the Novel

Figure 18

All novels exist as works that come from both processes, no novel being solely the result of pure intention or inspiration. Jung says of the inspired work:

These works positively force themselves on the author; his hand is seized, his pen writes things that his mind contemplates with amazement. …the artist is not identical with the process of creation; he is aware that he is subordinate to his work or stands outside it, as though he were a second person; or as though a person other than himself had fallen within the magic circle of an alien will.72

This is the part of a novel that springs from the collective unconscious and is naturally archetypal. Jung describes the archetype as it occurs in literature:

The primordial image, or archetype, is a figure—be it a daemon, a human being, or a process—that constantly recurs in the course of history and appears wherever creative fantasy is freely expressed. Essentially, therefore, it is a mythological figure. When we examine these images more closely, we find that they give form to countless typical experiences of our ancestors… In each of these images there is a little piece of human psychology and human fate, a remnant of the joys and sorrows that have been repeated countless times in our ancestral history, and on the average follow ever the same course. It is like a deeply graven river-bed in the psyche, in which the waters of life, instead of flowing along as before a broad but shallow stream, suddenly swell into a mighty river…

The moment when this mythological situation reappears is always characterized by a peculiar emotional intensity; it is as though chords in us were struck that had never resounded before, or as though forces whose existence we never suspected were unloosed… At such moments we are no longer individuals, but the race; the voice of all mankind resounds in us.73

The archetype will have this influence not only on the novelsmith while creating his novel while in the state of liminality, but also on the reader as he recreates the fictional world in his own mind. Remember that the reader has suspended disbelief, in a sense given up a part of himself, and passed over into a state that also resembles liminality and is also susceptible to the overwhelming influence of the archetype.

The influence of the archetype would then seem to be responsible for the unfathomable reception of books such as Richard Bach’s Jonathan Livingston Seagull and Waller’s Bridges of Madison County. In these works, word craft isn’t so much the key to success as is the craft of honing the inspired material. What the author should keep in mind, however, is that the most powerful part of the novel will undoubtedly come from within the deep recesses of his own psyche while in a state of liminality.


You should now be able to understand the reasons that I wanted to lower your estimation of the information that flows into your novel from the outside world and to bolster your opinion of what comes from within you. Of the two worlds, the internal is even the more credible, because culture flows from the non-literal into the literal world. The internal is the most “real” because our perception of the external comes from, and maybe is even created by, the internal.

APPLICATION: How do I apply this to novelsmithing?

Okay then. This state of liminality is beginning to sound like the answer to the writer’s dream of not only understanding the creative process but also of finding a way into it and controlling it. This is true to a surprising extent, and some methods of accessing it appear in many books on creative writing. “Free association” is a technique of scribbling down random thoughts, and it is used by many writers to unhook the imagination from the intellect and let it free-wheel. Of course, psychiatrists have used this since Freud invented psychotherapy. A few of these techniques are discussed in Janet Burroway’s Writing Fiction.74They are good as far as they go, but let’s investigate a couple of more direct methods of getting there.

The key, of course, is that liminality occurs close to the sleep state. So, we have two events where we are actually in a state of liminality: just before we go to sleep and just after we wake. Therefore, the best chance you have of being creative is to break out the notebook after you get into bed and again directly upon waking.

The first step is to scribble away until you get sleepy; however, you can carry this a step further. After you turn out the light, continue to concentrate on your story. If you have an inspiration, you can turn on the light, write it down, and turn off the light again. Don’t consciously quit thinking about your novel. You probably won’t get much out of this technique at first, but remember that developing this into a productive exercise is a process, and keep at it. This is where some of your most creative work will happen. Just as you’re entering sleep, that state of liminality, if you can still focus on your novel, ideas will really start to blossom. On a personal note, I’ve spent as much as two hours turning the light on and off to get the inspiration down on paper and trying again to get to sleep. If you have a sleeping partner, this will drive them crazy, so it isn’t for everyone.

The less trouble-prone option is to write directly upon waking. The trick here is to remember that the first thoughts you should allow into your mind must concern your novel. The human mind is a lot like a computer. The first thing you do with a computer in the morning is boot it. This loads the operating system into memory and allows it to function. During the waking process, we similarly activate the information we need to function during the day. We boot our brains. If, instead of showering, getting dressed, eating breakfast, and sorting out the day’s activities, you immediately start thinking about your novel and planning the activities of your characters, you should find that writing will be relatively easy and ideas should flow freely.

I have performed both of these activities for several years, and found that thinking about my novel just before going to sleep primes me for even more creative work the next morning. At times when not bothered by outside distraction, I have worked continuously for as much as twenty-one hours. Once one of these marathon writing sessions is over, however, the following day or so can be rather uneventful on the writing front. I generally recover quickly.

The main point I want to make is this. Reaching and maintaining contact with Hermes’ world of liminality is an art and an athletic feat all unto itself. The writer must experience that world, realize that it exists inside them, and learn to gain access to it. Going and coming easily takes practice. The writer has to train himself just as does a long distance runner. If you stop for a while, you lose your conditioning, and even if you gain access, your progress will be slow again at first. You won’t have the stamina. It is a special state, and to gain access to it consistently requires special skills and continued practice.


At the risk of being accused of going off the beaten path, I’ll relate the extremes to which I’ve gone to achieve the writing state. In December 1991, just before the Persian Gulf War, I decided to devote a month to a novel I’d been writing for the last few years. I had a rough draft, but the manuscript needed a concerted effort to make it into a full-fledged novel. I took the entire month off from my job and isolated myself at home. Since I was living alone at the time, this was relatively easy, and really not so unusual for a writer. But what I did next was a little unconventional.

I unplugged my TV and stereo, and covered all the clocks in my apartment. I vowed to leave my apartment only for food. I also vowed to think of nothing but the novel. When I went to bed at night, the last thing I thought about as sleep enveloped me was my novel. When I woke the next morning, the first thing I thought about, and the only thing I let myself think about, was my novel. I sat at my word processor from morning to night. I kept the curtains closed.

I allowed myself a single step outside in the morning to get the paper, since we were preparing for war in the Persian Gulf. Every morning I checked the headlines, then put it in the trash. No further word form the outside world was to creep into my isolation. I used my insomnia as an asset. When I woke, I wrote until I wanted to sleep. Then I slept. Daytime, nighttime, writing, sleep. It was all intertwined and unstructured. I didn’t know if this would work. Could I write continuously for a month? Was it humanly possible? Would I go insane?

Yes, it worked. Yes, I wrote for a month, 24/7, without interruption. My single excursion to the supermarket was surreal. I found myself overly happy and emotionally volatile. Back home, it took no more than an hour to drop back into my writing mental state. My one contact with the external world was with the telephone. I did receive calls, but I initiated none on my own. I kept conversations short. Every time the phone rang, I nearly jumped out of my skin. Not only was the experiment a success, but it seemed to warp me in the right way. Since then, I’ve had no difficulty whatsoever with writer’s block.


Now that we understand something about the creative state, we are also in a position to understand what goes wrong with it. Writer’s block comes from losing contact with the liminal state of Hermes’ world. Hermes has taken a hike, and to solve the problem, we need to find a way to coax him back.

Writer’s block can be cured, and here I’ll restate what I’ve said before. Since the writing “trance” is so close to the sleep state, the novelsmith suffering from writer’s block should start thinking about his novel immediately upon waking, and even before getting out of bed. This loads the material in much the same way a computer boots. In that fresh state, the author’s novel is put right up against the sleep state.

But the author can take that additional step in seeking a cure. Reviewing one’s work late at night just before sleep also places it close to the dream state and better prepares one for immediate retrieval in the morning. If this all starts to sound as if you have to devote your entire existence to your writing, you’re starting to get the right idea.

If you are blessed with insomnia, this gives you more time to write and at precisely the right time. I define insomnia as unusual awareness within the sleep state. You are still in Hermes’ realm, so use him. These periods can be enormously creative. Don’t fight insomnia. Use it.


In dealing with the deep reaches of our nature, we take certain risks. Generally, we encounter the unconscious during periods of crisis. This part of the psyche sleeps in its pale, complacent realm, but during crisis, it wakes, bringing with it all the elements of conflict. It then readies for the consciousness-raising, transcendent experience. That is the nature of the unconscious, and this is precisely the realm to which the author requests access. The result can be emotional instability. You can lose contact with reality. Frequently, the novelsmith is said by those around him to take on the neuroses of his characters. Family members complain about his irritability, moodiness.

Even worse, all this focus on the inner self can cause you to step into an unusual state of existence. In short, our lives can come to parallel those of myth, and when that happens, it wreaks havoc. We live out a Greek tragedy. As Murray Stein says in an essay titled Hephaistos, A Pattern of Introversion:

Besides giving voice to the depth of experience and relating separate pieces of experience into a configuration, the connection of personal experience to myth can produce or consolidate a psychological inflation (assimilation of the ego by the unconscious, often archetypal, content). The individual is unconsciously living a myth rather than a life. More accurately, an unconscious content is living him, rather than he it.75

A few years ago, a friend of mine, a non-writer, decided to become a mystery writer. After a few months of planning a novel, she abruptly quit. “My perception of people was changing,” she said, “and not for the better.” Everyone who writes should be aware of the dangers.


In her book The Writing Life, Annie Dillard puts the author’s feelings toward her own work in perspective:

Another luxury for an idle imagination is the writer’s own feeling about the work. There is neither a proportional relationship, nor an inverse one, between a writer’s estimation of a work in progress and its actual quality. The feeling that the work is magnificent, and the feeling that it is abominable, are both mosquitoes to be repelled, ignored, or killed, but not indulged.

A little later in the same work she says again:

This writing that you do, that so thrills you, that so rocks and exhilarates you, as if you were dancing next to the band, is barely audible to anyone else.

Authors fall in love with their work. A friend of mine has termed this the “author’s glow.” The author’s love for his own work can lead to a critical misjudging of it. Inspiration sweeps over us like an ocean wave, but all that gets to the page is little bits of life’s debris like sifted sand. We have to learn to express inspiration in words that trigger a similar emotional experience in the reader. This is the novelsmith’s burden.


(a) Start a journal to log the time of the day you write, for how long, and your emotional state at the time, your degree of happiness. (b) Note in your journal any emotional states that correspond to those of your characters. (c) Note in your journal any unusual (for you) emotional states or ways of intellectualizing situations. (d) Note in your journal any deviations in your usual way of interacting with people. (e) Note in your journal where ideas seem to come from, paying particular attention to those that seem to come out of nowhere.

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