Amy MacKinnon on the conscious work of day, and the subconscious work of night

-1The Debutantes welcome Amy MacKinnon, author of Tethered, which the New York Times called a “hypnotic debut.” In Tethered, reclusive undertaker Clara Marsh discovers a neglected little girl playing in the funeral parlor, desperate for a friend. When a detective starts questioning Clara about a body she prepared three years ago — an unidentified girl found murdered in a nearby strip of woods — Clara must choose between her steadfast but lonely existence, and the perils of binding one’s life to another. Tethered, a Borders Original Voices pick, has sold to ten foreign publishers and is now available in paperback.

Amy, congratulations on your debut’s well-deserved success, and thank you for stopping by.

Night and Day

Recently I had the honor of reading with the great Jill McCorkle at Massachusetts’ own Newtonville Books. I felt like a baby taking her first steps alongside a marathon sprinter. Did you know five of her eight books have been chosen as New York Times notables? It’s true. And she’s not simply brilliant. No, because she’s unfailingly gracious, kind and funny, she inspires great friendships too. In the audience to hear Jill were the likes of Amy Hempel, Bret Anthony Johnston, Sven Birkerts, and Megan Marshall. I was in awe. To be honest, I would have preferred to sit among the listeners and absorb all the genius she chose to share.

After Jill and I each had our turn at the podium, it was time for questions. One woman asked Jill how she came upon the theme of footwear for her latest short story collection, Going Away Shoes. Her response was so profound, I nearly left my spot and grabbed pen and paper to write it down. To paraphrase, she said, “Listen to your subconscious, it’s smarter than you.”

She’s absolutely right of course.

By day, we writers sit with our characters, divine their lives, try to layer in clever plot points and obstacles, detailed settings. There’s intention when we choose their jobs (cop? doctor? undertaker!) and friends (cops? florists? none!). We labor at it. We really do. Hour upon hour is spent at our computers trying to somehow make words coalesce on the page into a fitting story. It’s work.

But it’s at night when we rest our conscious minds to give way to the subconscious that the creative writing begins. During our nocturnal wanderings, the subconscious reviews all that we’ve written during the day and then begins to insinuate details we’ve gathered over a lifetime, ones we’d long ago forgotten in the deepest recesses of our hearts and minds. The subconscious establishes themes by dropping words or actions or metaphors into our stories that are then woven throughout our books. What’s fantastical is we writers don’t often notice until it’s time to revise. Pure magic.

With my own novel, Tethered, I always had the first line and the last, but had no idea what came in-between. I knew it was a story about an undertaker who didn’t believe in God annnd … that was it. Not until I was a good part of the way through did I understand the major theme of the book was the struggle between what our heads reason to be true and what our hearts know is the truth. The reassuring part is that by day, while I may have felt hopelessly lost, despondent even, my subconscious always had a clear path out of the shadow lands.

If there’s any doubt, proof can be found in the first few sentences. When Clara, my undertaker, describes the carotid artery as being tethered between the heart and head, she’s signaling what the story will reveal about her own life’s struggles, her push-pull between reason and faith. Those first lines were always there, they never changed, and they repeated themselves in many different ways throughout the book. It’s enormous comfort to realize that while I do the work by day, my subconscious conjures the ethereal by night.

Amy MacKinnon, author of TetheredNow that I’m writing my next novel, and yes, having those moments of feeling adrift, fretting over this plot point and that character, I can follow the advice of Jill McCorkle and trust in my subconscious to lead the way.

The difference this time is night and day. –Amy MacKinnon

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8 thoughts on “Amy MacKinnon on the conscious work of day, and the subconscious work of night

  1. Tethered is a gorgeous book — suspenseful, taut, vivid, visceral.

    I keep a pen & notepad by my bed, because often I wake at 3 a.m. with an interesting phrase, plot twist, or line of dialogue in my head. If I don’t write it down, I forget it.

  2. Writing really is a strange mix of exerting control and letting go. Some days I need to exert more control. Other times, I need to let the subconscious take over a little more. And I often find it hard to balance the two needs. You definitely captured that conflict here, Amy. Thanks for the great post. And may our paths cross again in the future.

  3. Thank you, Emily. And I can’t wait for THE WHOLE WORLD. Cambridge, England is about the best setting for a suspenseful novel.

    Alicia, smart writers keep pen & paper on the nightstand, don’t they? Wish I were smart, but I’m too lazy in the middle of the night. Did you do that with ALL COME HOME?

    Hi, Q, I’m sure our paths will cross again. Maybe when I buy my ticket to the movie premier of THE SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK!

  4. I love the way you’ve described the subconscious almost as a partner in what can be a lonely and sometimes frustrating process. With the book I’m writing now, I took a leap of faith and hinted at a big plot point without knowing what it would be. It finally came to me (a gift from my subconscious?) a few months in. So thanks for this wonderful, affirming post!

  5. Omigosh I could hug you for this post. Thank you for reminding me that we don’t always know what our books are really about at the beginning. How do I keep forgetting? Believing that we can know our characters & their story immediately is like thinking we can know a person really well after a bit of small talk at a cocktail party. These things evolve over time.

    Thank you 🙂

  6. Thanks for sharing with the Debs. I do agree that the downtime is some of the best “work” time. I often go to sleep thinking about a plot or character issue and awake with the answer.

  7. Sarah, I love how you summed up in one sentence what took me an essay: the subconscious is our partner!

    Trish, your Tweet last week about a reminding yourself that a finished novel is not a first draft helped inspire me. Thank you!

    Joelle, isn’t it so affirming when that happens? That’s when you know you’re on the path.

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