Today’s guest blogger, Mary Mackey, is a gem in a treasure chest filled with innovative inspiration for writers.
Mary shares her unique perspective on accessing creative writing.
Your unconscious is packed with ideas, metaphors, visions, plots, dreams, colors, characters, emotions—in short, everything you need to write a great visionary novel. But how do you get to it? How do you step out of the social agreement we call “reality,” and dip into this incredibly rich resource?
You could go to sleep and try to mine your dreams, but even if you dreamed an entire novel, the moment you woke up, you would forget most of it within seconds, because you hadn’t processed the ideas into your long-term memory. Worse yet, when you dream, you are not in control, so you can’t do specific things like talk to one of your characters or work out a specific plot problem. Granted, some people manage lucid dreaming, but lucid dreaming is not a practical writing technique for a number of reasons. For example, you cannot always go to sleep when you need to.
Many years ago, I started looking for a technique that would allow me to be asleep and awake at the same time. What I came up with, after much trial and error, was a form of creative trance that allows me to delve into my unconscious whenever I want to, get the material I need for my poems and novels, bring that material up to my waking reality, remember it, and write it down.
Developing this technique wasn’t easy. Besides relying on my own imagination, I drew on many sources such as self-hypnosis, theta cycle sessions, neurophysiology, Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past, and the Surrealist technique of Automatic Writing. As you might expect, I had many failures, but in the end I came up with a deceptively simple technique, which has proved extremely effective. Since I taught myself how to use creative trance, I have written many novels, collections of poetry, and screenplays. Better yet, I have avoided writers’ block.
I’ve used my creative trance technique weekly, sometimes daily, for many years. As with all things that are visionary and out of the range of ordinary consciousness, it can’t be completely described in words, only experienced. So, since I cannot sit down with you and personally guide you through the process step by step, I am going to give you a chance to get a feel for it by taking you into the heart of my creative process as I worked on my most recent novel, The Village of Bones.
The Village of Bones is Visionary Fiction, but even in my novels which are not visionary (such as my bestseller A Grand Passion, the story of three generations of women involved in ballet), I created most of the original storyline in a voluntarily induced creative trance.
Unlike A Grand Passion, The Village of Bones presented a special problem. On one hand, it was meticulously researched historical fiction firmly based on archaeological evidence, yet at the same time, it was set in Prehistoric Europe in Goddess-worshiping cultures that were filled with myths, visions, and prophecies.
With this contradiction in mind, I put my phone in Airplane Mode, sat down in a comfortable chair, picked up a pen (I find computers get in the way), opened my notebook, closed my eyes, took several deep breaths, and counted backwards to ten, imagining as I did so that I was walking down a flight of stairs. By the time I got to the bottom, I was in a light trance. The word “light” is important. I was neither awake nor asleep. Instead, I was poised on the threshold between my conscious mind and my unconscious mind, ready to move in either direction.
On this particular day, I had some work planned. Sabalah, my main character, was in big trouble. She was caught in a storm, her boat had turned over, and she was drowning. As she struggled to stay afloat, she going to have a vision of the Sea Goddess that might or might not be a hallucination. There were no surviving statues of this particular Neolithic Sea Goddesses as far as I knew, so my task for this afternoon was to envision the Sea Goddess so I could describe her.
I started with the Goddess’ name which I had created the previous day: “Amonah, Amonah, Amonah,” I silently chanted. “Come to me.. A vague, shadowy form began to materialize behind my eyelids.
Before I go on, I want to be clear about what was happening. As I thought the word Amonah, I didn’t believe I was conjuring up a real spirit, channeling a mystical force, or having a religious experience. I believed, and still believe, that I was simply unlocking the resources of my own consciousness and my own imagination using the very practical tool of creative trance. I don’t claim to know where these visions come from, but I am convinced that under the right conditions, anyone can have them.
The form grew brighter and more distinct. I saw a woman walking toward me across the waves. Walking on water. Interesting. Since question/answer is the key to this technique, I settled down and began to ask myself questions.
“What color is her hair?” I asked myself. “Black, brown, blonde?” Suddenly the word “seaweed” came into my mind. Instantly, the woman’s hair turned green.
“What kind of jewelry is she wearing? Diamonds, topaz, garnets?” No, she’s wearing pearls, and something else, something reddish, something like . . . coral!
“What color are her eyes?” For a moment her eyes shifted back and forth between brown and green. Then, suddenly they glowed. “Skin color?” All colors. No colors. She’s a Goddess. She is all of us.
“What’s she wearing?” Not skinny jeans for sure. (Odd thoughts sometimes interrupt the flow of the trance). Long dress. Yes. She’s wearing a long dress. Wave-like. Blue of course like the sea.
“What does she smell like? Wind, salt, kelp?” Like flowers. She smells like flowers. “What kind of flowers?” Roses.
“How much does she weigh?” She weighs nothing. She’s a spirit.
For a long time, I sat there asking specific questions and waiting for answers most of which came in the form of wordless images. For some reason, I never could figure out how tall She was. My unconscious wouldn’t give that one up. But by now the Sea Goddess Amonah looked real to me. I could see Her distinctly right down to the coral rings on Her toes.
Slowly I began to count backwards from ten to one, moving out of the trance as I climbed back up the stairs toward waking consciousness. On every step, I paused and made myself visualize Amonah again, and I commanded myself: “Remember. Remember.”
This final command to “remember,” is perhaps the most important part of a creative trance. If I couldn’t carry a complete image of Amonah back into the waking world, I’d have to start all over again.
When I got to ten, I opened my eyes just wide enough to see my notebook. Grabbing my pen before the last bits of trance faded away, I quickly wrote everything down paying no attention to grammar, spelling, or logic. I even wrote down the silly bit about the skinny jeans.
The result was not something I could use immediately. What you get out of your own unconscious is raw material. After creativity comes craft. Over the course of the next year, I polished this description of Amonah. I worked wide-awake, using all the techniques of novel-writing that I had learned over the years. I read the passage out loud over and over again. Searched for better words. Took out commas and put them in again. Here is the result:
A woman emerged from the wall of crashing waves and walked across the sea toward Sabalah. Sabalah abruptly stopped crying and stared at the woman, stunned. This was impossible! . . .The woman kept walking, stepping over the waves as if they were furrows in a field of wheat. Her flowing dress was blue as a summer sea; her hair long and green, twined with seaweed and pearls. Her skin was dark and light at the same time, her eyes so bright, they glowed like the last flash of the sun when it falls into the sea at midsummer. . . A sweet scent suddenly filled the air like the perfume of roses blown across water.
“Don’t be afraid,” the woman said. “I am Amonah, Goddess of the Sea,” and water is my path. I can walk above or beneath it as I wish.
Sitting down beside Sabalah, Amonah let Her feet dangle in the water. They were bare except for toe rings of rose-colored coral. She must have weighed nothing, because the end of the mast didn’t tilt the way it would have it a flesh-and-blood human being had sat there.
The Village of Bones was formed from scores of similar visions, as were all the poems I wrote that year, and even part of one of the screenplays which I co-wrote with director Renée de Palma.
Using creative trance is a gentle, pleasant way to create the raw materials for a work of fiction. It is not like meditation because your goal is not transcendence. It is not like many forms of self-hypnosis because you are not trying to lose weight, stop smoking, or change your behavior in any way. It is not like prayer, because you are not seeking a closer relationship with God. Creative trance is a tool, a key if you will, that lets you unlock the riches you already have stored in your own unconscious.
Yet its power should not be underestimated. So let me leave you with a warning: If you decide to go deeply into your own unconscious, you have to be ready to deal with what you find there. Creative trance is not therapy. If you are upset, unhappy, depressed, or anxious, wait until you have a calm mind and specific writing goals and can set firm limits on what you will accept from your unconscious.
When you are in a creative trance, you should always be in control. If your Goddess appears before you with a hairdo made of snakes, you should be able to instantly turn those vipers into cobwebs and seaweed. Nothing you experience should harm you, scare you, or make you uncomfortable for more than a few seconds. A creative trance should be enjoyable from start to finish.
In The Village of Bones, the Goddess Earth gives Her people six commandments. The First Commandment is: “Live together in love and harmony.” The Sixth is: “Enjoy yourselves, for your joy is pleasing to Her.”
Syllabi for courses in Women’s Visionary Fiction, Women’s Visionary Poetry, and Women’s Visionary Film can be found on Mary Mackey’s Educators Page.
Mary Mackey, Ph.D. is a New York Time best-selling author who writes novels, poetry, and film scripts. A Professor Emeritus of English at California State University, Sacramento, she is the author of fourteen novels and eight collections of poetry including The Jaguars That Prowl Our Dreams, winner of the 2019 Erich Hoffer Award for Best Book Published by a Small Press and a 2018 Women’s Spirituality Book Award; and Sugar Zone, winner of the 2012 PEN Oakland Josephine Miles Award.
Garrison Keillor featured her poetry four times on The Writer’s Almanac. Her novels have made The New York Times and San Francisco Chronicle Bestseller Lists and been translated into twelve languages.
Her visionary novel The Village of Bones: Sabalah’s Tale is a prequel to the three novels in her best-selling Earthsong Series (The Year the Horses Came, The Horses at the Gate, and The Fires of Spring).
Mary welcomes your questions and comments at www.marymackey.com where, you can sample her work, read her interview series People Who Make Books Happen, learn more tricks for avoiding Writers Block, and sign up to get the latest news about her fiction and poetry.
Mary’s literary papers are archived at the Sophia Smith Special Collections Library at Smith College in Northampton, MA.
Mary Mackey, Kate Farrell, and Lisa Alpine will give a talk about story telling on February 10, 6:30 pm PST at Writers Forum.
Note from Marlene: The creative trance that Mary describes might also be accessible with meditation. Katie Holmes, data scientist & chief editor for OutwitTrade has compiled stories on the benefits of meditation.