It is my habit to go to bed with a purpose.
To sleep, being one.
But before I sleep, I make a concentrated effort to focus on two principles that have — later — put more words on paper than I often do sitting in front of a keyboard.
First, I clear my mind of whatever remains from the day, writing or otherwise.
I mean, I consciously clear the cache. Nothing new to those who practice yoga and Zen meditation. I assume this — yoga is not for me.
In those times when stubborn mind-eating ideas and stresses and others forms of daytime hangers-on don’t get out at first warning, I imagine a physical entity.
It can be anything, but I put work into it, the more realistic the process, the more focused, the more of the day’s trash gets collected and tossed.
A great yellow bulldozer. A pig-tailed girl collecting flowers of thoughts. A suspended keg of powder, aim, fire — it explodes with uproar and violence within the confines of my skull.
The physical entity I use changes, on purpose. Because to create a new cleansing entity is to create, and that’s what I’m warming the brain to do.
Whether it’s a long-handled push broom in front of a janitor’s liver-spotted hands, or picking up a nest of cobras with a Y-shaped stick to throw them into a bin, anything that dumps the day’s thoughts over a cliff, shoves them into a corner, or vaporizes them completely is the goal.
Once clear and with a recent flash of creation of that physical entity sending some blood where I need it, I give my mind a two-fold task.
My brain is a childish thing, so I keep it simple — and repeat as needed.
- Step one: clean up the toys.
- Step two: create one conscious and one subconscious goal, each of limited scope.
Directing the Conscious
The conscious goal is always precise.
Often, it is what I’ll call a problem. Could be a problem in a poem, a novel, a story, and the problem can range from plot developments to something extremely small, a single detail of dress or habit in one minor character.
There are always problems, or if you prefer “positive thinking” you can call them areas of improvement.
I’ve found it best to not pick something for the conscious mind to whittle at if it is something I have already failed to resolve while fully awake. “What is the symbolic undertone?” might be such a problem, and sometimes I’ll chase that rabbit.
Usually it’s a bust when I do.
Though not always — we sleep at least once per day, so chasing the wily jackrabbits can be worth the gamble a few nights a week.
But the conscious goal is often best when thought of as visual, a description.
At the edge of reasonable scope for this nightly exercise is a character sketch: visualizing every aspect of a man, woman, horse, object.
Better is a single piece of that broad territory.
I’ll often try to tackle just one parcel of clothing, one habit, one physical feature; the man’s nose — but not his entire face, and certainly not the entire body.
For those of us with eyesight, the first thought of this kind is usually a visual one.
But the senses are five, and the best of what the mind can do and process and — as a writer, convey — is often not the visual. It is the tag and supplement to the visual components that make for better reading, and better writing.
Let’s say I find I’m thinking of a man with a new revolver. I’ll probably zoom to the pistol and skip the nose and suspenders, because there’s a reason my brain picked what to look at, and I let it take the lead — this is conscious, but there’s a big load of gray area in that gray matter of ours.
A gun, then.
Now to narrow it down even more. What is its construction? It is a revolver — but which kind?
Exactly which kind?
How does each piece of a Remington Model 1867 rolling block pistol look, and how does its action work, precisely? There are of course times I do not know, or not enough to continue — and for details such as these, I file the item into daytime research, and move on.
If I reach a wall not worth climbing, I can go back to the man and look at his canteen, his suspenders, his belt buckle. Or I can chose a pistol I know more about without research, and run with that.
But presuming I know such a revolver as this 1867 Remington well, perhaps from personal handling, I continue.
A picture is a thousand words, and most of the thousand are visual — that is the nature of a picture.
Yet vision it is not the nature of reality.
From the picture, extract the thousand words offered to the other senses, if the picture were alive.
The smell — a new arrival of a firearm in the late 1800s may still carry the scent of its packaging or mode of delivery (train, coach, rider). There is the wood of it, the oil, the powder and components thereof, the types of metals used in construction and in percussion caps or shell casings, of the oils in the palm once handled; it may smell of grease.
The sound — firing a round, of course, but more interesting in such a gun is that which makes it different from all others, or from certain others. The sound of the gun may be one such, but always, it is the clicks and creaks, the snicks and squeaks, the particulars of a break-action or the snap of the hammer. How does it sound in the process of cleaning? Charging? Firing? Reloading? Cocking?
These sounds are subtle, but they vary widely, and different models can be identified in the dark by one who knows a certain pistol well. Your character would, or with this example being new, he or she would, in time, know the sounds, because to know the sound is to know readiness and condition of the firearm.
The feel — attributes of any weapon will include the heft, the balance and weight, the size and shape of the grip, the sight profile, the action of the hammer and assembly, a falling block, the breech, the cylinder, the tube, springs and levers and the pounds of trigger pull. The length of the barrel, the weight of the load, the shape of the butt-stock or handling grip, all of these and the chambering will be felt in recoil. The finish and touch will be of different temperatures and textures, and these themselves may change in conditions — in sunlight or shade or weather of different kinds.
The taste — perhaps this is not the sense one considers first or best in examining a firearm. And yet there are tastes, if you choose to consider them — it does not require a catalogue of information to make an impression upon the reader. One detail can bring a paragraph to life.
Biting a paper cartridge to reload a muzzle, that’s a taste to remember, and a smell, too. Acrid, pungent, a lingering on the tongue. Firing black powder, wind against your character, may sting the eyes and fill the nose, but there is a taste to sulfur, charcoal, nitrates (saltpeter, a word that begs to be used and explored). In all smoke there is flavor.
This is the conscious discovery and review. It can be anything, but touch and dissect and imagine, layer and filter and look for the colors and textures, but I at least find more wealth in the other senses, for even if nothing from them is used in draft, these may influence what physical, visual characteristics are described.
Capturing the Subconscious
Now, all this time thinking on a defined topic, the subconscious goal has been primed and left to sniff about for something to do.
Its charter I throw loosely in a direction, or often, at nothing — or nothing in particular.
Nothing particular, because the girl will have missed a flower of thought, an idea from the day will have escaped the bulldozer; one cobra will have slinked deep into the grass. An idea will have escaped the cleansing.
The subconscious can roam wide and far. It has no boundaries, and is encouraged to run where it will.
It may come back with a rabbit in its teeth, with nothing… and it may drag the better part of a novel right to the door.
There is nothing I place on the subconscious to do, aside from to answer when called. It is also welcome to knock and enter, even at the expense of the conscious task. For the subconscious is where beauty is born.
From it novels turn at right angles, a line to a poem throws itself out to be scribbled to paper — what harm in rising from bed, when such inspiration strikes?
And whether the conscious knows it or not, it is linked to the subconscious, and the two interact frequently when the mind is clear, and sleep approaches, the boundaries of dream and wakefulness crossing and twining.
The subconscious is at times an editor, barging through to note a better detail, a flaw in what has been considered, or to dissolve the item considered as useless for the conscious to be considering.
That is how I go to bed, and it is where the best of what I’ve done has come from, much to the displeasure of the body wanting rest.
For when lightning strikes, do not sleep, place that trap at the beginning, the alarm that will rouse you if the pan washes out and shows good color.
Awake, arises, and throw it on paper or the screen.
At night, the soft breath of inspiration can be lost more easily than it can be found.