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“Runes for Writers”: How solving writer’s block is kind of like recalling where you left your keys

Though it may sound "a bit woo-woo," author Marc Graham writes that understanding where stories live in our minds can help us tell them better

Marc Graham is a bestselling author, speaker, story coach, and shamanic practitioner. He is also the developer of the Runes for Writers creativity system. When not on stage, in the studio, or bound to his computer, he can be found traipsing about Colorado’s Front Range with his wife and their Greater Swiss Mountain Dog.

The following is an excerpt from “Runes for Writers.”

UNDERWRITTEN BY

Each week, The Colorado Sun and Colorado Humanities & Center For The Book feature an excerpt from a Colorado book and an interview with the author. Explore the SunLit archives at coloradosun.com/sunlit.

2020 Colorado Authors League finalist for Self Help


Understanding how to most effectively use the Runes for Writers system requires at least a cursory knowledge of the nature of creativity. Now, a storyteller doesn’t have to know all the intricacies of consciousness and the human mind any more than someone has to be an auto mechanic to drive a car. Should the car break down, however, a mechanic will have a decided advantage in getting unstuck and back on the road than the run-of-the-mill driver. Similarly, the storyteller who understands how the creative process works will be far more skilled in keeping her creative engine in top form and getting back on track should things go awry.

The first thing to understand is the nature of human consciousness. A human being operates on at least nine different levels of consciousness. Some of these we share in common with animals and so-called lower lifeforms. Other levels of consciousness are distinctly human, while others we share with beings on an even higher evolutionary scale.

Fair warning, this discussion may seem a bit woo-woo, but the principles we’ll be exploring have been understood by truly integrated human beings for thousands of generations. Jung and Freud and later depth psychologists caught glimpses of these truths and brought them closer to the mainstream. Today, neuroscientists and quantum physicists are beginning to formulate theories to span the gulf between the inner and outer worlds that the wise ones have known for millennia. If I seem to be leading you into the deep esoteric woods, just stick with me and trust we’ll all come out safe on the other side.

With regard to Story, we’re mainly concerned with the Ordinary Consciousness, the Subconscious, and the Unconscious Mind. The Superconscious and Higher Consciousness also come into play, but these primarily interact with the Unconscious. For the scope of this practice, we’ll just stick with the first three.

The Ordinary Consciousness is that level of awareness we normally associate with everyday waking consciousness. This is the active mind that thinks and feels and interacts with the world around you.

The Unconscious Mind is deeply hidden within the psyche, but is the single most powerful level of consciousness for physical beings. When we hear the adage that we only use 5-10% of our brains (really, our Minds), the Unconscious Mind takes up the vast majority of the other 90-95%. Neuroscientists posit that the brain receives upward of eleven million pieces of information every second. To put this in perspective, if each piece of information were worth one cent, the neural input to the United States populace would pay off the national debt in just over half a second. A penny for your thoughts?

Now, we’re obviously not aware of all this information. If even one percent of that data made it into the Ordinary Consciousness, we’d all be catatonic from sensory overload. But every one of these data points is received, archived, spindled, and mutilated by the Unconscious Mind. This is the ultimate data storage facility, the clearinghouse of human experience.

The Subconscious Mind acts as the research librarian, the go-between from the Unconscious Mind to the Ordinary Consciousness. The information retrieved rests in the Ordinary Consciousness for a time (the short-term memory bin), before being returned to its place in the stacks. Repetition of certain thought patterns (physically represented by synaptic pathways in the brain) boosts the efficiency of recall, such as for birthdays, telephone numbers, driving directions, etc.

Those inputs that are beneficial for physical survival—for example, the screech of brakes and blare of the horn from a truck barreling down on you—are given priority status. These may be relayed to the Ordinary Consciousness—or, more likely, straight to the brain stem—for immediate processing and action. The importance granted and the speed of transmission goes rapidly downhill from there. The location of your car keys and that great story idea you had last night are relatively low on the file clerk’s priority list. Which leads us back to the point of this book and the Runes for Writers system.

If you’re anything like me, you’ve misplaced your keys on more than one occasion. You’re in a rush for work or a dinner appointment, and Poof!—Gremlins have made off with your keys. You systematically search the house, you retrace your steps since last arriving at home, all to no avail. You wrack your Ordinary Consciousness—intellect, short-term memory, logical processing—in an effort to locate those pesky keys, but nothing seems to work.

The problem in this case is that we’re using the wrong tool—the wrong level of consciousness—for the job. It wasn’t the Ordinary Consciousness that left the keys wherever they might be. It wasn’t the intellect, reason, or even emotional choice that hid them. Yet we generally resort to those levels of consciousness to find a solution to the situation created by another.

Instead, it’s only after you’ve canceled your plans, sat down on the sofa, and punched up Netflix that the solution appears. You’re bingeing “The Last Kingdom,” and your Subconscious whispers to your Ordinary Consciousness, Gee, some ice cream would be great right about now. You may debate this among your various levels of consciousness but—again, if you’re anything like me—higher judgment prevails and you head to the freezer. And there you discover your keys, right next to the ice tray where you left them.

…It wasn’t the Ordinary Consciousness that chose to deposit the keys along with the Alden’s. And it isn’t the Ordinary Consciousness that can unravel the bizarre yet deliciously satisfying sequence of events that led to their recovery. The same is true with writer’s block.

Marc Graham, “Runes for Writers”

The point here is that it wasn’t the Ordinary Consciousness that chose to deposit the keys along with the Alden’s. And it isn’t the Ordinary Consciousness that can unravel the bizarre yet deliciously satisfying sequence of events that led to their recovery.

The same is true with writer’s block. It’s a common fallacy among creatives that our brilliance is a product of superior intellect, that our Genius (in its Classical meaning) arises from the Ordinary Consciousness. If this were the case, the Ordinary Consciousness would be the perfect tool for getting unstuck when our stories go off the rails and we have no idea what to write next.

Fact of the matter, Story arises from the Unconscious Mind. It actually has its origins outside of any individual human experience, but its appearance within the milieu of the individual storyteller comes through the Unconscious Mind. From there, as time and diet and other matters of physical survival allow, the Subconscious is able to ferry bits and pieces of a particular story into the conscious awareness of said storyteller.

When those threads of the story taper off, or when the Ordinary Consciousness has taken over for Flow and written itself into a corner, we experience the condition commonly referred to as Writer’s Block—capital letters, italics, boldface, and any other sort of nefarious emphasis with which you care to embellish it.

Thus blocked, we typically then turn to the Intellect, that agent of the Ordinary Consciousness, to craft a solution. We storyboard, conduct character interviews, observe and analyze hapless bystanders at the mall or the dog park. All to no avail, because we’re enlisting the wrong center of consciousness to resolve the problem. If we want to reconnect to the Story, we need to return to its Source in the Unconscious Mind.

Which leads us to…

How All This Stuff Works

The Source of Story—of any story—resides outside of the human brain, beyond the Ordinary Consciousness or any event related to the particular storyteller. Now, an idea may seem to spring from a personal experience, but its evolution into a story that might have any relevance to another individual passes through a realm far removed from our everyday experience. Such stories exist independently of the storyteller.

Plato called this source the Realm of Ideas. This was a place where the idea, for example, of an oak tree had its origins. The oak trees that we see and experience are simply drawing material from the physical world and accreting that, bringing it together and growing within some matrix that comes from this Realm of Ideas. But the ideal, the primeval Oak Tree—the template for all oak trees to come—resides in this non-physical realm.

Jung spoke about this to some degree in his theory of the Collective Unconscious. Here he offered the idea that there are experiences, realities, and understandings that reside outside of the individual, and that we can access these through the Subconscious. Even Joseph Campbell touched on this aspect of creativity when he spoke of the Monomyth, the idea that the structure of story among cultures separated by vast quantities of time and space, are eerily similar.

When you create, when you have that flash of inspiration, you’re reaching into this non-physical realm. Your Unconscious Mind absorbs these data—along with the eleven million bits per second you receive from your physical environment—and faithfully stores them away. Your Subconscious is then able to retrieve these from that realm and bring the story to the attention of your Conscious Mind.

Of course, you’re not simply a medium. You’re not a mere channel, but a partner in the creation of the story. Story itself is beyond language. It is beyond movement, beyond symbol. It’s beyond anything of the physical world. It is the abstract notion of any particular story. In order for that story to be accessible, to be communicable to other people, requires the intervention of the artist, the storyteller. Story needs you.

You receive the story—however fine or bold the brush strokes—then translate it into language, into motion, into some vehicle through which the story can be conveyed to other human beings. It’s a vital partnership. Story arises when its time is ripe, and it selects the storyteller who can best convey its essence into thought and language.

All well and good. But what does this have to do with writer’s block, and how can this system help you and your story?

Quite simply, writer’s block is never the fault of Story. Your muse, your daemon, your inspiration is sitting patiently by, waiting to upload the next installment of Genius. The problem is that the Intellect, the Ordinary Consciousness, has adopted the story as its own and chosen to run with it. Usually, straight into a corner. And the more you cogitate, the more you outline and analyze and brainstorm, the harder your Ordinary Consciousness bounces off the brick wall.

Rather than trying to counter this innate reaction, Runes for Writers works with the various levels of consciousness and their root functions, not against them. Visual cues, writing prompts, and similar creativity jump-starters do engage the creativity center, but their overt imagery and meanings leave little for the Intellect to chew on, so it simply tries to create linear, logical links between the surface prompts and the story problem.

By contrast, the abstract nature of the Runes distracts the Intellect as it tries to identify the shape, name, sound value, and other properties associated with the particular rune. With the left brain thus distracted, the right brain can sneak past the intellectual musings and connect directly with the underlying, multi-dimensional symbolism of the Runes that reside in the realms of the Unconscious Mind. And it is here, within the Unconscious Mind, that the solution to any particular story problem (or life problem, for that matter) resides.

All genuine divinatory systems—and the Runes, Tarot, dowsing, pendulums, and so forth all began as divinatory systems—find their value by the manner in which they connect the user to her Unconscious Mind. As described above, the personal Unconscious Mind gathers and sorts every bit of information we’re exposed to—thousands or millions of times what actually gets passed along to the Ordinary Consciousness. This is hard science.

What is less well developed (though quantum physics is drawing nearer to a proof—well, as much a proof as the Uncertainty Principle will permit) is the premise that each individual Unconscious Mind floats in the stream of the Collective Unconscious, as described by Jung. Here, not only is it possible to access every bit of information we’ve personally been exposed to, but to access all the information that is. Period.

That’s a lot. And while it takes many lifetimes to approach the level where such information can be accessed at will, the ability to retrieve the solution to a personally relevant problem—particularly a problem relevant to a story you’ve been called to write—can be acquired in very short order.

The Subconscious, then, is the key to accessing Story. Whether the inspiration arises from the Collective Unconscious or is sparked by the Muses and Guides who live in the Superconscious realms, your story resides within your personal Unconscious Mind. The Subconscious shuttles back and forth with the appropriate bits of story at just the right time.

If you run into a block, it’s generally due to a conflict between your Intellect and Unconscious. This may manifest as pure Resistance (a slightly different animal than what we’re addressing here) or it may be that the Intellect is looking for one piece of information while the Subconscious knows the story needs something else. If we can get the Intellect out of the way and build a mutual trust with the Subconscious, that part of the mind will become our greatest ally in bringing Story into complete and glorious manifestation.

The power of the Runes is in freeing the Subconscious to dive deep and come back with inspiration from the Unconscious. The Unconscious Mind itself already knows every aspect of your story, both to deliver an engaging tale and to relay the more important thematic, transformative message. If you get stuck, it’s simply a matter of distracting the Intellect and freeing the Subconscious and Unconscious Minds to work together to bring you the answers you seek.

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