Stirring the Compost Heap

Most of our thinking is done in our unconscious. We don’t consider it a lot, and when we do, it doesn’t feel right. We know ourselves, our thoughts. We tend to think of our unconscious as a minor part of ourselves. The meat and potatoes of who we are must be found in our consciousness, right?


I’m no brain doctor so nothing I’m about to say should be taken as authority. In fact, assume that nothing I say on anything is correct because that’s just playing the odds, but as a writer who has been doing this for decades I’d like to think I have some insight into how it works. A lot of creativity is in the unconscious.

Every writer has heard the question: Where do you get your ideas? And most of us know that ideas aren’t that important, and that actually writing is what makes one a writer. Just like thinking about painting doesn’t make one a painter. No, the act of creating is what makes one a creator.

I think we skip past the idea question a little too easily, probably because it doesn’t usually have an easy answer. The question is bigger than ideas though. It’s about how our brains work on a fundamental level.

Where do we get any of our information, our memories, our thoughts? If I ask you to add 2 plus 2 where did that come answer come from? It’s not like any of us have access to our brains on that level. None of us can point to a particular clump of brain cells and say, “Here’s where I store math.” Sure, studies show that different regions of the brain specialize in different functions, but that doesn’t mean a mad scientist with a laser could burn out the little bit that makes addition possible. Maybe one day, but not yet.

The notion that creative ideas are somehow special really jumps right past that all ideas are found in a phantom process that we all participate in but don’t understand. It’s easy to take this talent for granted, but imagine if you had to reboot and reload your brain every time you needed to remember how to ride a bike or spell Apple?

From walking to talking to driving to typing to any skill you might name, none of us start out as masters. We figure it out through trial and error and practice. As an amateur juggler I can tell you the only way to be even an average juggler is to drop a lot of balls until one day, you stop dropping them.

I remember when I was learning to juggle that it came in stages. My brain and body got better at it in ways that my conscious mind didn’t even realize. Once, I almost nailed myself in the face with a juggling club, only for my head to automatically move aside. My brain just knew it was coming at my face the second I released the club. Too late to stop it, but not too late to get out of the way. It was surreal, a glimpse at the power of the unconscious that spared me a smack in the nose. It was like being in tune with my body but also, like my body had its own control system and had hit the override button.

You’ve probably had an experience like this in one way or another. Maybe you ducked something tossed at you or hit the brakes on your car before you even realized you needed to stop. Odds are good you know something, many things, that you can’t really say where you learned them. And we’ve all managed to catch ourselves mid-trip or catch a falling cup now and then.

That’s where the magic happens.

I’m convinced that most of creativity starts there in that foggy unknowable space of ourselves. I am also convinced that the best way to become a better artist is to create. Just create. It doesn’t have to be good art. It often won’t be. But just like throwing a ball up in the air with hopes of catching it, you have to be willing to create and fail. If you do it long enough, then you start catching those balls. If you do it long enough, catching becomes second nature.

I was talking with a friend of mine, and we came up with this metaphor of the compost heap of our imaginations. We take everything we experience, everything we read and watch and hear, and everything we like and everything we hate, and we toss it in a heap in our unconscious, stir that shit up, and see what grows.

This is where art is made. After the idea sprouts comes the pruning and the shaping and the thoughtful exploration. But the idea itself is usually a mystery birthed from that unknowable space.

I can’t say I always understand my own heap. Why does it love spitting out stories about robots and space squids? Why do I so often end up writing stories about weird creatures confronting cosmic mysteries? And what’s the deal with slime monsters? Like, there’s a lot of them in my stories, right? A disproportionate amount.

I’ve often said that I write stories birthed from a nine-year-old’s love of monsters, mixed together with equal parts cynicism, optimism, mysticism, and irreverence. A lot of that comes from my formative years where I absorbed superhero comics, cartoons, and monster movies. That stuff forms a bulk of my personal compost heap, and when you get down to it, there’s nothing that odd buried in there. It’s not the components of the heap that matter. It’s how it all mixes together in its own unique way.

If we view creativity like we do so many other skills we can help demystify it. I’m pretty good at making up stories, but why wouldn’t I be? I’ve spent decades training myself to do so. I’m not saying talent doesn’t factor into the equation, but I think talent is overrated. Attitude matters, but aptitude without training isn’t worth much.

I won’t say that you need to write every day to be a good writer, but I will say that I write more and am far more productive when I just make time to write. When I write, shit gets stirred up, and then, one day, a book comes out and people seem to like it enough that I’ve been able to pay my mortgage.

That’s pretty cool.

So if you’re an artist, and you don’t always feel like it, don’t worry. That’s normal. Not everything that comes out of the compost heap of our unconscious is going to be great. A lot of it will just wilt on the vine, but every so often, you might stumble on something great. Or at least something good enough to make it all worthwhile.

And if you’re not an artist, that’s cool, too. We all have our unknowable unconscious at work, and whenever you’re tempted to forget that, ask yourself this:

What’s 2 + 2?

A simple question with a universe of self underneath it.

Fighting the good fight, Writing the good write,


4 Replies to “Stirring the Compost Heap”

  1. In one of his HORNBLOWER books, CS Forester describes the development of his writing ideas as logs floating in a lagoon. Sometimes they float to the top and are ready to use, other times he sends them back down to grow some more moss.
    Saty mossy, Lee!

  2. I hate to sound pedantic but I believe you’re referring to the subconscious . Unconscious indicates you’re not cognitively aware because you’re asleep , passed out drunk or suffered a blow to the head. None of which is good for creating new ideas.
    For me the subconscious is where all ideas percolate and spring forth from. As we move through our day we are bombarded constantly with new stimulus. Sometimes we are very aware of the input , such as what we choose to read or watch. Other times it may be just a snippet of a conversation or a fleeting dream recalled. And even if you followed someone around 24/7, watched and read everything they did you will still come up with different ideas. News ideas come from rehashing old ideas to such a degree they are not immediately recognizable.
    This is why it is important to get out in the world and stimulate your brain. Go outside and take a long walk, read a book that isn’t in your favorite genre, try a new restaurant. I enjoy doing improv because it challenges my creativity. I have to set up a reality on the spot. Sometimes it works, sometimes I get the deer in the headlights look. But when it works and the audience laughs there is no better feeling.
    Now, if you’ll excuse me I have to stimulate my brain.

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