I delivered the following talk about the role of the unconscious in my writing at Johns Hopkins on February 4, 2013. I began my presentation by reading parts of two works of fiction. The first was “Ziggurat,” a version of which was published in the New Yorker in 2009. Here is a link: http://www.newyorker.com/fiction/features/2009/06/29/090629fi_fiction_oconnor
The second was an unpublished excerpt from my novel-in-progress, HUMAN EVENTS. Here is the first paragraph:
“A drizzle grays the air when Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings visit the Museum of Miscegenation. They approach the columned and domed marble edifice (which Thomas Jefferson cannot help but notice is in the Palladian style) along an avenue of plane trees, all-but-invisible droplets drifting between bare branches tipped with the tiny lettuces of just-bursting buds. The drizzle coats the square cobbles like breath upon a mirror, and Sally Hemings, wearing leather-soled shoes, finds the footing so slippery she has to cling to Thomas Jefferson’s arm until they are inside the museum.”
MUSE AND MYSTERY
I am going to talk about the role of the unconscious in my writing, and in my writing career. But I should probably start by telling you two things.
The first is that I am the son of a psychoanalyst. People have often asked me if my father psychoanalyzed me when I was a kid—a possibility that would have horrified him, I suspect, as much as it does me. While I never lay on a couch and told my father my troubles, I did grow up in a house where it was a truism that people rarely said or did what they thought they were saying or doing, and that my real self—especially in regard to my fears and desires—was and would always be something of a mystery to me. I grew up thinking less that I was the captain of my self than a passenger, or even a stowaway.
I remember being utterly fascinated, when I was eleven or twelve, by the idea of an unconscious mind. I was struck, in particular, by how complex judgments—whether a kid I had just met could be trusted, for example, or the solutions to riddles or “brain teasers”—could just pop into my head without my having given them one single instant of conscious thought. It was clear to me that such judgments could not have come into being without the rational consideration of much evidence and many possibilities—but if this consideration hadn’t happened in my conscious mind, where did it happen? I was similarly curious about even my most ordinary thoughts, memories, and fantasies. Why was it that one memory would come into my head rather than another? Or how was it that my thoughts were framed in a particular set of words? Clearly some mechanism of selection and construction was at work here, but I had no access to it. And then, of course, as a newly minted adolescent, subject to bouts of blushing shame, shyness, and a multitude of anxieties, my own emotions often felt far more like an affliction than an expression of my being. In those days, I tended to think of my consciousness as a room into which thoughts and feelings arrived through something like a mail slot in a door that—no matter how much I wanted to—I would never be able to open.
The second thing you need to know is that, as the dutiful son of a Freudian, I had a well-developed Oedipal need to replace my father’s authority and ideas with my own. The result is that I am not a Freudian, not a student of psychoanalysis, and that when I talk about the unconscious, I am going to be doing so very much as an amateur. Mainly I’ll be talking about my own private mythology—that is: about a way of making sense of the world that does not necessarily reflect the way the world actually is. It occurs to me, in fact, that what I have to say partakes so much of the mythological that in many instances you would not misunderstand me if, for the word “unconscious,” you were to substitute “muse.”
Having just disavowed my paternal heritage, I will now quote my father, who, himself, said he was quoting Freud. “Little decisions,” my father told me more than once, “can be made by the conscious mind, but for the really big things, you have to let the unconscious do the work.”
You can see the sense of this remark if you think about falling in love. We all know—perhaps to our chagrin—that we cannot decide to fall in love. We can draw up long lists of virtues, and construct entirely rational arguments as to why it would make sense to fall in love with a particular person—but all such efforts are sadly pointless. Love comes, or it doesn’t. And there is nothing we can do to make it come—or, sometimes, to make it go away.
In a similar way, writing just came to me. I never truly chose to be a writer. Rather, after much uncertainty and considerable guilt, I finally understood that I had never really had any other choice.
I vividly remember the moment I first felt I wanted to write books. I was in third grade, staying up way past my bedtime, reading a novel that I couldn’t put down. The book, of course, had a person’s name on the cover—possibly it was Robert Heinlein. I knew that that the names on the covers of books referred to the people who had written them, but before that night I had never really thought about what the labor of writing actually entailed. And then, in an instant, that whole labor came clear to me: As a writer, I would live in worlds I delighted to imagine, and then, through words, I would transfer the people and events of those worlds, along with my delight, into the minds of my readers. From that instant on, writing possessed an irresistible allure for me. Of course, I still wanted to be an astronaut or a deep sea diver, but the desire to write was more potent and, in the end, had a great deal more staying power. I had, in effect, fallen in love, though it would take a great deal of time for me to truly recognize my love and accept it.
Over the couple of decades that followed, I decided many times that I would not be a writer. The first girl I loved loved me partly for my writing. But, encouraged by her mother, she also thought writing was something I would grow out of as I matured and, in particular, as I came to understand my obligation to provide a reliable living for my future family. I was inclined to agree with her. Who was I to think that I had the talent to succeed at such a risky venture? And even if I did, what made me think that I had the right to indulge so selfish a pleasure, not just because of the deprivations my indulgence might inflict upon my innocent and deserving wife and children, but because the lush and highly fanciful writing that interested me most seemed so trivial and effete—or, to use the operative word of that moment in history—“irrelevant”?
This was the late ‘sixties and early ‘seventies—the era of civil rights and anti-war protests. From a purely rational and moral point of view, it was impossible for me to consider writing anything that wouldn’t somehow help to end the multiple injustices I saw all around me. I still feel this way, in fact. The problem was—and is—that the sort of writing I had fallen most passionately in love with had only the most indirect relationship to the real world, and thus to the effort of rectifying all of those terrible injustices. Even worse, one of the things I loved most about writing was language itself, but not language as a mechanism for understanding and affecting the world, language as music, rhythm, texture, and often as a nonsensical assemblage of nuances, associations, contradictions, and inter-reverberations.
I had no choice in this particular love. It chose me. Or, rather, it was me, and I only found out about it when it slipped through the letter slot and took over my life. So, although I never actually wanted to get over this love, I thought I could channel it—save its most trivial aspects for my private moments. Meanwhile, I would be responsible: morally, politically, and financially. So, when I graduated from college, as all my friends were going off to responsible futures in medicine, law, or book publishing, I worked at ABC News. I was a desk assistant—a menial job that had launched many careers in TV journalism.
Everyone assumed that my ambition was to become a news writer, producer, editor or even an on-air correspondent. And that’s what I thought I should want to do. But the fact was, I just couldn’t. No matter how hard I tried, I found TV journalism boring, trivial, phony, and corrupt (but that’s a topic for another day). Also, since I was working the night shift, I often had hours with no pressing work to do, and so, sitting at a desk in front of three monitors constantly broadcasting the major networks, I wrote the first story I would ever publish. Just about the only times I felt truly engaged and alive on that job were when I had that story rolling off the spool of my typewriter.
After a year at ABC, I decided that I would be responsible in a way that seemed more in accordance with my natural inclinations: I would become an English professor, and work at my “real” writing in my spare time. But this was only another decision that didn’t stick. While I loved literature, I was bored by scholarship, and deeply irritated by scholarly writing. I also discovered that the whole idea that I might write fiction and poetry while building a career as an English professor was embarrassingly naïve. If I were to have any hope of getting an academic job and then tenure, I would have to devote myself so exclusively to scholarship that I wouldn’t have a minute for my “real” writing—at least not for years.
Around the time I got my MA in English, I published the story I had written at ABC News in the Partisan Review—and so, with this stamp of approval, I gave myself over wholly to that calling that had first taken hold of me when I was eight years old. This doesn’t mean that I didn’t sometimes try to talk myself out of my ambitions. I had other jobs that would have been, especially around the time my first child was born, much better careers from a moral and financial point of view—but my four a.m. self-interrogations on this matter were rarely more than empty ritual. My decision had been made—though it would be something of an overstatement to say that I—the conscious entity that I think of as myself—actually made the decision.
While my unconscious desires—and, no doubt, fears—were playing a stealth role in the evolution of my writing career, they were playing an even more significant and, for the most part, equally covert role in my writing. As the son of a Freudian, I took it for granted, of course, that the unconscious influenced and was reflected in my writing, but I had no idea how comprehensively and coherently until I was putting together my first collection of short fiction, Rescue.
I didn’t want that book to be just a batch of stories; I wanted the stories to add up to something more, to build toward some sort of collective statement, insight, or effect. So one afternoon, I decided to read over all the stories I had written and see if, in fact, they had anything in common. To my utter astonishment, I found that, in every single one of them, the protagonist was already dead at the beginning of the story or died at the end. I had had no idea that this was the case as I was writing these stories. The discovery threw me into a low-grade panic: How could I possibly be so morbid? Did this apparently congenital pessimism condemn me to a short and miserable life?
On a closer reading, however, I discovered three other things about my protagonists: 1.) They were almost all in love. 2.) They all were trying to do some sort of good, generally as an expression of their love. 3.) They were mostly failing, often as a result of their own imperfect nature.
As soon as I made these discoveries, something else came clear to me. The death in my stories was not exactly death. Rather, death was the ultimate symbol for and manifestation of the indifference of fate. What my stories were really about was the effort of my characters to resist irresistible fate through the assertion of an ideal—an ideal that was not only beyond their capacity to completely fulfill, but most likely ill-conceived in the first place. This meant (at least I hope it did!) that my stories were not nearly so grim, that they were, in fact, celebrations of the miraculous existence of idealism—and of love, too—even in the face of total negation. Or, to put it another way, my stories were all taking up that age-old debate regarding whether good intentions had moral value independent of their consequences, or lack thereof… And I should probably admit that the tentative answer implied by many of my stories was that they did.
I don’t want to oversimplify. Obviously a great deal more was going on in my stories than these themes, nor were all of my stories equally focused on them. Nevertheless, one of the things that convinced me that these themes were of fundamental significance in my writing was that, as I considered them, I realized they all concerned issues I cared about profoundly, and had struggled with my whole life, even if I had never fully articulated or connected them before. In the light of this struggle, then, and of the fact that these themes were so clearly articulated in my stories, I only found it all the more astounding that I had never given any of them one instant of consideration as I was writing—which meant that all of this complex and—to me, at least—very significant thinking had gone on beneath my awareness, which is to say: entirely without the participation of the hub of consciousness I called myself.
Again: I don’t want to oversimplify. As I hope shall soon become clear, my writing is always the result of a dialogue between my conscious and unconscious minds, and the role conscious thought plays, both in the inspiration and in every stage of the execution of my stories is absolutely critical—a point illustrated by the fact that, as soon as I became aware of the themes I had been exploring in my work, I began consciously writing other stories in the same mode, a couple of which turned out to be the very best in my book—or so I felt at the time. And then Rescue was followed by two nonfiction books, both of which were intended to make political arguments I was fully conscious of before writing the books, and that, in fact, inspired them. Also, insofar as writing these books required the piecing together of facts, documents, and statistics, and a constant and resolute attention to the realities I was trying to render, my conscious mind probably played the dominant role in their composition.
All that being said, it is also true that when, some years after I had finished these two books, I considered them in conjunction with Rescue, I discovered—again to my complete surprise—that they both told the story of an idealist who had tried to do the right thing and failed. In the case of Will My Name Be Shouted Out?, my memoir about teaching creative writing in the public schools, I was the one who was trying and failing, and in Orphan Trains, a history of an early child welfare effort, the man making that effort—Charles Loring Brace—was the striving failure. These books, like all of my other stories, were also about many other issues and followed many other courses of action, but even so, the power and endurance of this unconscious obsession of mine was undeniable—to the point that, as some of you may already have noticed, both the Minotaur, who desperately wants to find that he has not eaten the new girl, and Thomas Jefferson, that slaveholding idealist of freedom, are both protagonists cut from a decidedly familiar mold.
I am extremely happy for many reasons that I wrote both of my nonfiction books, but it is nevertheless true that the decade I devoted to nonfiction, seriously impaired my ability to write fiction. After I finished Orphan Trains, I went back to a novel I had started even before Will My Name Be Shouted Out? I worked on it for several years, but just couldn’t give it life. The story was well conceived, the prose was polished and clear, but the book had no magic, no soul. It was like that poor person with whom even the longest list of virtues and the most compelling rational arguments can’t make us fall in love.
Finally one summer, my family and I were going on a holiday, during which we would be traveling from place to place. I didn’t see how I could possibly work on my novel with so many interruptions, so I decided that, instead of fiction, I would write fourteen lines of poetry every morning. I also decided that whatever I wrote would be utter nonsense, somewhat in the style of Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons, or of Frank O’Hara at his least restrained, as in, say, “Second Avenue.”
This experiment turned out to be astoundingly successful. I wrote a great deal more than fourteen lines a day, and felt that it was the most vivid, fresh and original work I had done in many years, and perhaps ever. It will probably come as no surprise, however, that my poems were not utter nonsense, that as wild as the language and the imaginative leaps may have been, I found myself once again exploring a fairly coherent body of themes.
I was so happy with this writing technique that, when I got home, I decided to try it out on fiction. I made it a habit to start writing first thing in the morning, before breakfast, when my mind was still groggy, and still partially in dream mode. I also tried not to give one thought to what I was going to write until the instant my fingers touched the keys of my computer. And lastly, I tried constantly to make things difficult for myself. At each turning point in a sentence, I would reject the most natural follow-through and try to come up with some surprising alternative that I hoped would ultimately also seem natural, as well as true, if not in the sentence I was writing, then as a result of the sentences that would follow. Both of the pieces I have just read were written in exactly this way, as were all of the stories, fanciful or realistic, in Here Comes Another Lesson, and all of the fiction I have written since.
With “Ziggurat,” for example, I really did have no idea what I was going to write when I sat at my computer. I simply put my fingers on the keys and typed the first phrase that came into my head: “The new girl sat at the computer in the corner…” What was she doing at that computer? I had no idea, but I decided to see what would happen if she was playing computer games. I chose the names Ziggurat, Panic! and U-Turn only because I thought they were each funny in a different way, but clearly “Ziggurat” immediately began to germinate in the back of my mind. The phrase “new girl” suggested, of course, that my protagonist had just started at a new school, and so would most likely be sitting in a corner of, say, the computer lab. But this possibility felt more like a door closing on my imagination than a door opening. So instead I wrote, “This was in the pine-paneled section of the Labyrinth…” The Labyrinth came as a total surprise to me. It too had a natural implication: the Minotaur. But this one I decided to go with, because it instantly opened up a whole series of conflicts, weird contrasts, and comical (if also horrible) possibilities that I thought I could build a story out of.
My mind was not nearly so blank when I sat down to write the episode I have just read from Human Events. For one thing, I had already been working intently on the novel for several months, and had amassed a couple hundred very raw pages. For another, shortly before I began to write, I had been out riding my bike and, seeing a smear of rain beneath a distant cloud, the phrase “a drizzle grays the air” had come into my head. I was all but certain, as I sat down to write, that I would start with that phrase. My imaginative choices were also constrained by the fact that every section of the novel I had written thus far focused on either Thomas Jefferson or Sally Hemings, or on the two of them together. I didn’t know what this section of the novel was going to be about, but as soon as I had typed my opening phrase, I saw Jefferson and Hemings walking in a misty space under an avenue of plane trees. Where were they going? I wondered.
“The Museum of Miscegenation” was the big surprise in this opening, and it was just the sort I like most: an utterly absurd notion, that, by that very fact, would automatically allow me to approach whatever human concerns my story would bring me from a fresh and, I hoped, illuminating perspective. The trick, however, would be to make this absurd institution feel real—but only to a point, because it is the readers’ sense of the simultaneous reality and unreality of a story like this that gives it a thrilling, dreamlike unpredictability, and that gives me the maximum freedom to provide my readers with yet more surprises, and ones that, in their implications at least, might grant them access to some form of truth.
And so, having come up with the absurd notion of the Museum of Miscegenation, my first task was to make it seem real—and the best way to do this was to make it tangible to the senses. So I made the museum marble, in the Palladian style, and at the end of an avenue of plane trees, with “all-but-invisible droplets drifting between bare branches…” and so on. I did not know, however, until Jefferson and Hemings had stepped inside the cathedral-size lobby of the museum, that they had come to see an exhibit on their own relationship. As soon as that notion occurred to me, almost the whole rest of the story came in a flash. I knew right away that Jefferson and Hemings would go backwards through the show, that the displays and other viewers’ responses to the displays would constantly cause them sorrow and pain, that Jefferson would experience humiliation and regret and, to some extent, recognize his moral failure, and I knew that, in the end, Sally Hemings would put on that yellow dress (I saw it as yellow from the first) and that, as she and Jefferson looked into each other’s eyes, they would both experience, from their separate points of view, the full complexity and import of their powerful bond. I would, of course, use my conscious mind to work out many of the particularities of this story (which objects would be displayed, for example), but its basic scenario came to me all in an instant, through that mail slot in an unopenable door.
As I am sure is already obvious, I have an enormous respect for unconscious thinking. On the whole, I think the unconscious is far more concerned about things that truly matter, and that, in some ways, it is smarter, wiser, and more honest than the conscious mind. Our conscious minds, after all, are so often crammed with triviality as we write. We worry about whether we have any talent, for example, or enough talent, or whether we should get up and make another cup of coffee, or what we might have for lunch, or we wonder what is that tiny black spot on the wall anyway: a pencil dot or a bedbug? The unconscious mind is far more monomaniacally concerned with the things we least comprehend and that most trouble us: our desires, our furies, and our fears. And since those things we least comprehend and are most troubled by are likely to be mysterious and troubling to a high proportion of our readers, they are what most draw those readers to our work, and make them take it to heart—at least if we can give them a deeper understanding of their vexing conundrums.
At the same time, of course, the unconscious is notoriously egotistical, selfish, indifferent to fact, and the source both of delusion and of compulsions to commit acts that might shame us, hurt innocent people (including those we love), and even land us in a prison cell or the grave. And in writing, as in life, conscious thought is one of the main mechanisms by which we attempt to civilize and make the best of our unconscious urges. For me, conscious thinking generally plays its most important role in writing when I am about to begin revising the first solid, complete draft of a story. Having tried up until that point, to simply let the draft come, I now analyze it line by line, and attempt to understand what each phrase or detail might mean to my readers, and how it will influence their comprehension of and feeling for the story. I do this because I want to be sure that I always say exactly what I mean and mean exactly what I say. I never want my work to be fake. I never want to imply significance when there is none. And, most important of all, despite my respect for the unconscious, I want to be sure that it has not led me to imply that something false is true, or that something I object to is good. Very often I have to think long and hard about one or another element of my story, because, of course, I don’t always know what is true or right. But in the end, my decision to let that element be or to change it is almost entirely conscious.
As some of you may know, the version of “Ziggurat” that Jean McGarry has distributed is not the one that appeared in The New Yorker. I no longer remember how this happened, but at some point in that magazine’s extremely rapid and intense editing process, an essential element of my story was inadvertently dropped—and I didn’t notice it, alas, until I reread the story in the published issue. The Minotaur in “Ziggurat” means many things to me, and I hope to my readers as well. One of the ways I see him is as a representation of human nature—which entails both the capacity to feel compassion and love, and, unfortunately, as we see in the news every single day, the capacity for heartless indifference and savage cruelty. In The New Yorker version of the story, the Minotaur seems to become civilized by his love for the new girl. And, at least after he begins to worry that he might have absentmindedly gobbled her up, he seems to entirely give up his original barbarity. Much as I would like to believe that love can quell our worst tendencies, I felt this version of the Minotaur perpetrated a sentimental falsehood about human nature. And so, when I prepared the story for my book, I inserted a brief section just before the end, in which the Minotaur encounters evidence of his continuing barbarity, and so wonders, “[I]f, at some intersection, he had accidentally turned right and left simultaneously, and thereafter wandered ever farther from himself. Or if, in some other way—only just beyond the limit of his comprehension—he were not, in fact, the one who had spilled the blood with which his lips and hands were stained.”
While in “Ziggurat,” I was trying to render a truth about an abstraction called Human Nature and about characters who lived entirely in my imagination, in Human Events I am trying to represent two real people about whom hundreds of thousands of pages have already been written, and, more to the point, whose relationship has been the subject of passionate controversy. As a result, my conscious mind has had to play a much more prominent role in every stage of the composition of this book than in any other work of fiction I have ever written. I have employed a number of tricks in an attempt to give my unconscious maximum freedom. I have been writing scenes entirely out of chronological order, and I have been switching randomly from realistic fiction, to fantasy, to essay, to prose poetry. I have also been throwing in my own drawings and extended quotations from historical documents—anything I can to keep myself stimulated, guessing, a little off balance, and in territory I can’t quite make sense of. But at the same time, I struggle constantly to keep even my wildest imaginings in accord with the historical record—although, of course, when it comes to my more fantastical sequences, I mean a particular type of accord. While it would be utter insanity to imply that the real Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings ever attended the Museum of Miscegenation, I do hope that the feelings my characters have as they re-experience their relationship are consistent with the feelings the real Jefferson and Hemings might have had.
And this brings me to the biggest challenge I face writing this novel.
Although I have written history and biography, I am neither historian nor biographer when I write about Jefferson and Hemings. I am a novelist, and as such I am not writing about these two people to set the record straight, but because I want to tell a story—a story about how even the best qualities in human beings can be warped by the circumstances in which they are living (with the most significant circumstance Jefferson and Hemings had to contend with being the institution of slavery), but also a story that would explore the netherworld of that complex bond we so often venerate as "love"—and, not surprisingly, this aspect of the story is the one that has been the most troubling to me, even as it has also been the most inspiring.
As someone who thoroughly accepts the notion that a slave's inability to say "no" to her master means that any sexual relationship between them is a form of rape, the notion of associating "love" with Hemings and Jefferson's relationship has caused me grave trepidations. The last thing on earth that I want to do, is to tell a story that can come off as an apology for rape or for slavery. That said, there is, in fact, a fair bit of evidence (though all of it circumstantial) suggesting that there were at the very least positive aspects to the feelings Jefferson and Hemings had for each other. There are references in the journals and letters of Jefferson’s friends to his having been made happy at the end of his life by the attentions of a female slave. And Sally Hemings actually did take Jefferson’s glasses, inkwell and shoe buckle when she left Monticello after his death, and when she was near death herself, she gave them to their son Madison, who in turn passed them down to his daughter—something that seems highly unlikely to have happened had had Hemings viewed her life with Jefferson as unending torture.
My sense is that whatever attachment Sally Hemings may have felt for Jefferson must have partaken to some degree of the Stockholm syndrome—that love-like emotion that kidnapping victims often come to feel for their kidnappers—and that his love for her was infected to no small degree by condescension, at the very least. For reasons that I don't entirely understand, these ambiguities are turning out to be a powerful source of inspiration for me. I am eager to explore that uneasy frontier where love as a source of joy and strength becomes a painful vulnerability to oppression, and my hope is that over the course of my novel both my readers and I will come to a much deeper understanding, both of this feeling we call "love" and of the human heart in all of its beauty, fortitude, vulnerability and perversity.
One cannot write a novel about people who have actually lived without making it consistent to a considerable extent with their actual lives. To fail to do so would be to risk interfering with readers’ suspension of disbelief, and possibly turning readers away all together. But the main reason I want my book to stay so close to the historical record—although sometimes, admittedly, in an eccentric fashion—is so that I may guard myself against sentimentality and even the appearance of an apology for slavery. By constantly thinking about the nature of Jefferson and Hemings’s relationship—as I am even this very minute—and by forcing myself constantly to confront the barbaric particularities of slavery and, especially, of Jefferson as a slave holder, I am trying to make myself wiser and more clear-headed, so that I may not only understand but feel the realities of Jefferson and Hemings’s lives. This effort is almost entirely conscious, and it is, I believe, the sort of dialogue between the conscious and unconscious minds that all literary works must undergo if they are to fully realize themselves and fulfill the ideals of their genre and, really, of all art.