conscious vs unconscious creativity

Conscious vs. Subconscious Creativity: Which Is More Important to an Author?

Conscious vs. Unconscious CreativityI’ve always been intrigued by the left-brain/right-brain theory—the idea that creative thought stems from the right hemisphere of the brain, while logical thought flows from the left hemisphere. Growing up, I always considered myself a right-brainer, due to my imaginative ramblings. But, the older I get, the more my left-brain (logical, sequential, rational, analytical, objective) tendencies seem to be taking over and, as a result, the more my creative processes become subjective to the “thinking” side of my brain versus the “instinctual” side.

How to Create Conscious Creativity

I’m a rabid organizer: I outline my stories in such depth that the outline could almost be considered my first draft; I run my characters through an intricate “interview process”; and I edit methodically, piece by piece, sentence by sentence. I feel very strongly that this method is the best I could possibly utilize for myself. I am not someone who can sit down at the computer with a half-formed idea, type the first sentence, and then wing my way to the closing chapter. I have to know where I’m going and how I’m getting there. And I feel that my stories are much the better for my following this method.

How to Create Subconscious “Dreaming” Creativity

A few Christmases ago, someone gave me Robert Olen Butler’s book From Where You Dream: The Process of Writing Fiction (affiliate link), and last month I finally got around to reading it. I squirmed a little through the introduction and the first chapter. When Butler wrote things like “Please get out of the habit of saying that you’ve got an idea for a short story. Art does not come from ideas. Art does not come from the mind. Art comes from the place where you dream. Art comes from your unconscious; it comes from the white-hot center of you,” I rolled my eyes and thought, Oh boy, here comes the useless touchy-feely stuff. But as I read further, some of Butler’s ideas intrigued me.

In Chapter 5: “A Writer Prepares,” Butler talked about “dreamstorming” your story, about letting images and characters well up from your unconscious. He recommended that writers collect hundreds of these little idea snippets before sitting down to write. As it turns out, this is already exactly what I do.

After their initial conception, most of my stories sit around in the back of my mind for years. I don’t often deliberately “dreamstorm” them as Butler suggests, but ideas will well up out of nowhere and add themselves to the mental panorama I am forming for a given story. When, finally, I am ready to write, I’ll sit down and organize all these random scenes into a brief and sketchy outline.

Why Subconscious Creativity Is the Best Kind

Now, here’s the interesting part: the best parts of my stories are almost always the subconscious parts—the scenes I’ve dreamt up out of nowhere.

Butler’s theory does allow for “thinking” in the second draft, in the rewriting. It’s just the original concepts that must be unconscious. He even allows for outlining to the extent that he organizes his collection of scenes and images into a cohesive and linear whole. He’s not a stream-of-conscious proponent, which was one of things I feared when I started the book. He just demands that the idea (although he wouldn’t use that term) flow from the unconscious without initially being checked or directed by the writer’s conscious, thinking mind. Taken in small part and non-exclusively, it’s a brilliant approach.

In Koine Greek, it is impossible to say “I think,” because no active form of the verb exists. Instead, one is forced to say, “The thought occurred to me.” As Sharlee Foster, one of my earliest writing mentors, put it:

We ourselves do not think, but rather thoughts are given to us.

Although all stories need the eventual guidance of an objective and analytic design plan, most authors find that their greatest and most original ideas must be filtered through the labyrinth of  unconscious creativity.

I don’t agree with all of Butler’s opinions (especially his adamant claim that anything created “consciously” is hackneyed dreck), but his book presented an enormously vital and valid point. The best of writing—indeed, the best of all art—is a gift. Most artists would be the first to admit that their genius is beyond even them. It comes from someplace outside the conscious realm… it comes from where we dream. Once we recognize and accept that fact, we are then able to take advantage of the tremendous opportunity of harnessing our unconscious minds. The two sides of our creativity—the conscious and the subconscious—working in harmony, the one pulsing and pounding ahead, the other slowing and refining, are capable of producing great things.

Tell me your opinion: Which you think it is more powerful–conscious or subconscious creativity?

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland is the award-winning and internationally-published author of the acclaimed writing guides Outlining Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel, and Creating Character Arcs. A native of western Nebraska, she writes historical and fantasy novels and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.


  1. I think the very best reading is when you think to yourself, I know exactly what she’s talking about. Thanks for the great post!

  2. I call them my mind minions. At unexpected and often inconvenient moments, they feed me ideas. My mind minions dwell in the deep, dark, dank recesses of my mind. I cannot access their domain, their dungeon of delights. I can only hope they will open the gate and toss me a morsel.

    My constant companion is a voice recorder used to capture the ideas my mind minions unpredictably push into my conscious thoughts. I transcribe those recordings into my ideas documents, which have grown to several hundred thousand words, and from there I apply them to my current project or save them for future use.

    Using the raw materials of my mind minions’ ideas, I build magnificent worlds, fascinating characters, and intricate plots. My conscious efforts to use these ideas frequently encounter voids where something more is needed. At those times, you will find me blankly staring into the distance as I stand before the gate, wishing, wanting, willing my mind minions to nourish me, to provide me another morsel, another crumb to deepen my world or my characters, to give me more substance for the story so I can fill the void, cross, and continue the journey.

    Yes, my subconscious is the source of my greatest creativity, but it is my conscious thoughts that are responsible for making the best use of that wealth.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      “Mind minions” – I like that a lot! I’ve been known to scribble my minions’ thoughts on my arms if I don’t have any other way to record them.

  3. This is what I’ve always called percolating. I find that when I’m “stumped” on a story, I have to usually set it aside for a bit and percolate.

  4. I have trouble thinking of myself as “creative”, but my family and friends would laugh if I told them that. I design clothes, I paint, I write, I create recipes….I’m known as a VERY creative person; it’s the golden word everyone uses to describe me. But I always feel like I’m just copying an idea from someone else and adding a few changes, twisting it to be “mine.” I don’t know if it’s even possible for me to come up with something from my unconsciousness – something completely mine.

    It’s something that’s bothered me for awhile, especially in the area of writing. Am I original enough to write a good story? How does one “tap into” the secret creative genius inside? I don’t hear it. The logical part of my brain works at taking stories I like – the ones that kept me up (secretly!) until 12am at 10 years old – and unravels them so I can knit them back together in a new garment of my own making….but the color of the yarn always stays the same. I don’t know how to be completely creative. Every once in awhile I get a glimmer of an original idea….like a name you’re trying to remember, and it’s just out of reach, but it doesn’t happen often.


    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      I like to say that originality is a myth. There’s nothing new under the sun. Or, as Willa Cather aptly put it, “There are only two or three human stories, and they go on repeating themselves as fiercely as if they never happened.”

      Putting our unique spin on something is what creativity is all about. We’re all just re-cobbling together our collective life experiences, including all the stories we read or watched. Honestly, I wouldn’t worry about this at all. Just embrace the joy of being able to tweak an old idea into something that’s new simply because *you* touched it.

  5. Frances Kay Hill says

    I know when I am writing I get notions about things and I wonder where they come from. They are usually something that works well in the story so the idea my subconscious is giving me a gift is a lovely way to think about it.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      The subconscious is an immensely powerful tool. It awes me sometimes how story elements come together perfectly – when I had no idea even where the story was headed.

      • Yes! That’s exactly what I was searching for when I googled this. My subconscious was scaring me by being far more intelligent than my conscious brain. Things my unconscious brain suggested early in the plot then turn out to be the crucial thing needed later, and it’s almost as if my subconscious knows where the story is heading even when I don’t, and provides all the bits I need. I’ve also edited my text thinking I really must make sure I’ve got some subtext in that scene, and then discovered that my subconscious brain had already written it, even though I hadn’t realised when putting it down.

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

          That’s not a scary thing – that’s an awesome thing! We’d all be in trouble if our stories could only be as smart as our conscious brains. :p

        • Brandi Griffith says

          I know that feeling! People wonder all the time at where I come up with such complex ideas; and yet, I’m thinking “Uh, well, you know…I don’t know. It doesn’t seem to be me at all!”

  6. I love talking about this stuff! Elizabeth Gilbert said in her TED Talk that the ancients said we “have” a genius, not that we “are” one, and that ideas come from outside of us. I call it my writer brain or the “hindbrain” and every story percolates or composts before bubbling up into awareness. I’m so fascinated with the creative process and loved this post. I’ll check out the book just for that reason. 🙂

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Loved that presentation! She offered a lot of interesting thoughts on the source and mechanics of inspiration.

    • Brandi Griffith says

      My brother and I refer to the phenomenon as “when the pen starts writing for you”. 🙂

  7. I am definitely a subconscious creator. I don’t know how to operate any other way.

    The closest thing I come to plotting is letting my characters play in my head, and I watch them like I’m at a movie. I never know what’s going to happen, what they’re going to say, what awesome little thing is going to come up.

    The story I’m caught up in right now is not a new one. It’s been done ad nauseum throughout the ages. A lost civilization, a lost king, a villainous empire out to keep the lost king from reclaiming his throne. There’s nothing new in it. Except what my subconscious brings via how I see the world.

    When I feel like I’m missing some crucial piece I don’t sit there and try to find. I sit back and wait for it to find me. Which it always does, and it always makes the story richer and better.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      I see my stories as movies in my head as (I think most authors do in this modern visual age). Whenever I’m stuck, the first thing I do is sit back and let the movie reel run, complete with soundtrack, through my head. A solution to the problem almost always presents itself.

  8. Interesting. I do a type of ‘dreamstorming’ though I think of it more like watching a mental video. Mostly nonverbal. Then I put it on a plotting speadsheet and fiddle with it.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      When I first started making up stories when I was a kid, I would call them “my movies,” and they’d play in my head just like what you’re saying here.

  9. Hmm. Are we really supposed to vote on which is more important? That’s a lot of pressure! lol It probably depends on your approach. I keep a “Dream/Daydream” journal from which I get many of my ideas, including my current WiP. It’s a habit I got into back in the 80’s when I was a pre-teen/teen writer. However, when foolishly abandoned creative writing in favor of over-rated “real jobs” (and paid almost no attention to my journal), it took me a long while to remember *how* to dream like that. I compensated by using a “what if” line of thinking to build on ~gasp~ IDEAS. I’ve used it to get through scenes I’ve been stuck on, too. Now, I have two tools in my box, and together they keep me from succumbing to writer’s block.

    On another note, I use meditative day dreaming to visualize my character interactions and story worlds, too. I invested in a digital voice recorder for this purpose because different parts of the brain are engaged for speaking and writing… and additional different brain parts are fired up when in a meditative state. Sometimes you literally can’t capture in writing what you are experiencing or seeing with your mind’s eye.

  10. I think a mix is good. There are things that just pop up out of thin air (i have a few actual dreams that followed plotlines and have given me a seed of a real story idea). There are things that you just happen upon (music jars things loose for me in most cases). But then you’ve got to go looking to flesh it out. Or you have to actually sit down and play the ‘what if’ brainstorm game to take a halfway good idea and see if you can’t make it something great. I’ve been trying that for the past week or so, purposefully coming up with ideas (on the realization that I don’t have all that many good ones I can turn into something). It’s hard.

    But at the end of the day, when I pick up a book, I’m not worried about whether the author grew the idea for it out of a dream or if they consciously sat down and said “I”m going to think up a story idea.”. And even if I cared about how it came about, I wouldn’t be able to tell anyways. It’s on the author’s side of things and its up to them to figure out what works best.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      I don’t think we can escape mixing them. Our brains need both halves to solve problems – which is the root of creativity. So it’s great when we get all sectors running at maximum capacity!

  11. Brandi Griffith says

    The creative process is an intriguing mystery. I don’t think any two authors could define it the same way, but we all experience close to the same phenomenon. What a wonderful thing it is, this thing we call writing.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Kinda like life! 😀 We’re all in the same soup, but the flavor is a little different for each of us.

  12. I used to be very imaginative when I was young. I could see and form images of creatures, people, places, and scenes just by looking at random things. I really had a hard time sleeping early (and on schedule) as a child and would stay up late till 12 am for seeing a lion in our room (made out of a curtain, a night light and shadows of other surrounding things). But then puberty came and the world finally revealed its true colors to me and I was devastated.

    Until now I’m having a hard time fitting in and still have this disappointment in me that my world is different from the real one. I also find it easy to talk to people when trivial things are the chief topic, but when it comes to talking about random things that I esteem magical and incredible, it fends people away. As a result I inclined myself more into logic and reason.

    Before, my ideas astound people, but now I find them becoming rather stale and predictable. I realized they are too logical and rational and less to no creativity. I conjecture that when we try too hard to be creative and unique, that’s when we really lose it because there’s no genuineness and everything is forced. And when we lean more toward logic and reason, it becomes contrived and dull.

    I have found this to be true whenever I am drawing. When I imagine beforehand and try to plan out everything already, the process is arduous and usually I’m not able to finish it at all. But when I just let my hand flow and follow the advice of other artists ‘to draw what you see and not what you think’, everything comes smoothly and you won’t even realize you’re already done and you’ll be surprised (and satisfied!) with the results. I think the subconscious does this, and it’s an amazing experience.

    Right now I’m practing to ‘summon’ my subconscious more until it finally becomes a habit hopefully. Thank you for this illuminating post! God bless!


  1. […] Authors find that their greatest and most original ideas must be filtered through the labyrinth of unconscious creativity. (RT @KMWeiland: Conscious vs. Subconscious Creativity: Which Is More Important to an Author?  […]

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