Writing with wine, editing with coffee

I recently posted on Facebook that I was halfway through writing my current novel and that I had more loose threads than the Bayeux Tapestry. “Just as well Poppy [my lead character] knows what’s going on, because I don’t!” I complained. Invariably, fellow writers empathised, offering encouragement such as “Just follow Poppy, she’ll lead you through it.’ Or “I love it when that happens, it becomes an adventure and I’m excited to see where it leads.” Or “My characters also seem to have a mind of their own!”

But the non-writers said things like: “But surely you are in control of what happens; you’re the writer, aren’t you?” Or “How can you not know where you’re going? You’re the one making it happen.” Or “But hang on, aren’t you Poppy?” They all seemed to assume that writing was an activity of the conscious mind.

I tried to explain that creative writing is an interplay between the conscious and sub-conscious. This attracted lots of ‘likes’ from writers, but by then the non-writers had lost interest and moved on.

So that leaves me with you writers. The best kind of art is suspended between two worlds: the conscious and the sub-conscious. Creative people know that the source of their inspiration and their most surprising ideas often come from the sub-conscious. Some people are able to mine those depths with ease, for others it’s more difficult and they speak of things like ‘writers’ block’ or ‘not being able to get into the flow’. During the Romantic Period artists and writers began to experiment with mind-altering opiates to help them clear the pathway to their sub-conscious. [Writers and their drugs of choice]

Most famously, perhaps, was Samuel Taylor Coleridge who wrote Kubla Khan on an opium high. When the drug wore off he was unable to finish it and he was never again able to find the pathway that took him to it. His opium addiction finally killed him. Aye, and there’s the rub.

If we use substances to help us access our sub-conscious they can not only cause health problems but creative problems too. We need to be able to move between the sub-conscious and conscious at will. We access the sub-conscious to get our ideas and ‘get in the flow’ but then we use the conscious mind to shape, craft and edit. As I once joked with my uni scriptwriting students: “If you write with wine you should edit with coffee.”

Here are some ways you can access the sub-conscious without resorting to alcohol and drugs.
  • Absorb other forms of art: listen to music, take a walk around a gallery, or try a bit of painting or playing yourself (it doesn’t matter if you’re not very good at it, it’s the act of accessing the creative realm that may release something in you).
  • Take a walk in nature. God’s creativity feeds our creativity.
  • Pray. When we settle our hearts and minds before our Creator both our sub-conscious and conscious selves are brought into balance. The Holy Spirit can stir our creative sub-conscious and open those ‘pathways’.
Fiona Veitch Smith is a writer and writing lecturer, based in Newcastle upon Tyne. She writes across all media, for children and adults. Her formerly self-published children’s books The Young David Series, are now available from SPCK. Her mystery novel, The Jazz Files, the first in the Poppy Denby Investigates Series (Lion Fiction), is due out in September 2015 but can be pre-ordered now. http://fiona.veitchsmith.com


  1. I love this post! It's very wise and very funny!

  2. This is great - so helpful. As a bit of a control freak I struggle to let the subconscious reign and find I'm often trying to grasp something just out of reach. I find one focused task helps me to free my mind - like decorating, gardening and driving (not the best time to have a flow of ideas!)

  3. Yes sometimes simply 'switching off' and doing something dull like the ironing can release your creative flow. I think it's a matter of allowing the conscious mind to settle down and be still. Then you can sink into the unconscious. At least that's how I think it works - consicously ;)

  4. Good article, Fiona. And for anyone who would find it useful, here's that Guardian article I mentioned earlier: http://www.theguardian.com/books/booksblog/2015/apr/07/subconscious-mind-creative-writing-mark-haddon-michelle-paver?CMP=share_btn_tw

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  6. I thought you were giving me permission to crack open a bottle of bubbly and drink it while I am writing tomorrow. Alas it is not to be. Great post and I will certainly take on board your tips

  7. I related so much to this post. Which is why I can't do the write-for-a-few-minutes-every-day thing when I'm working. My brain is too cranked up with school stuff. Weekends and holidays are best after a walk/gardening session/mindless culinary task. Really helpful, self-validating post :)


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