Search This Blog

Monday, February 7, 2011

Leaping While Sleeping

When I was a graduate student, I would sometimes be assigned a difficult mathematical proof to present to the class. There was one that I had worked on for days, but the night before the presentation I was still stuck at a crucial step. I had a copy of the finished proof (I'd been given the paper expositing it, and was to explain it to the class in lieu of their having to slog through it), and if I skipped over that one step, I could explain everything after it, as well as before it. But that one step eluded me, and the paper offered no explanation for a highly convoluted line of mathematical symbols which seemed unrelated to anything that came previously.

At 3 am, I gave up and went to bed, slightly horrified, because as the only woman in the entire graduate program, I particularly hated to fail in front of my peers. When I awoke in the morning, I knew the answer. I just woke up with it in my head. It was a brilliant piece of symbolic manipulation necessary to force the proof to its end. Later, when presenting the proof to the class, I impressed even the professor who admitted that he also had not been able to figure out that particular leap between lines.

This has happened to me several times with regards to proofs or math problems, and a few more times when I was working as a financial analyst. My subconscious mind (or perhaps my unconscious mind--I asked a psychiatrist friend once what the difference was and he replied, Well, that's the million-dollar question) can solve things that my conscious mind cannot.

Do poets have this ability to access the not-conscious mind too? Apparently they do. In an interview with the UK Guardian in December of 2006, the poet Anne Carson (my hero) said, "I don't know that we really think any thoughts; we think connections between thoughts. That's where the mind moves, that's what's new, and the thoughts themselves have probably been there in my head or lots of other people's heads for a long time. But the jumps between them are entirely at that moment."

I suspect that many poets can access those jumps, have those moments, when they are awake. I, however, cannot, at least not yet. I suffer from the overly rational mind as described by Sir Rabindranath "Tagore" Thakur: "A mind all logic is like a knife all blade. It makes the hand bleed that uses it."

So I have learned to access my not-conscious mind, which is so much more resourceful than my conscious mind, in sleep. However, I cannot force it. It doesn't work unless I have exhausted every possible avenue my conscious mind can attempt in my waking hours. And even then, it doesn't always work. When insight like that comes, it's a gift.

Dreams are a well-known source of creativity. Many scientific discoveries were first seen in dreams: the helical structure of DNA was first seen by James Watson in a dream, for example. I know poets also commonly use the imagery of their dreams in their work. But what I want to know is this: all you poets out there, can you access your not-conscious mind in the waking state? Can you make those genuinely astounding intuitive leaps without resorting to sleep? And if so, how? And by how, I mean not only how does it happen, but also how do you stimulate that kind of access organically? What rituals do you have, if any, that lead to these kinds of soaring leaps in your thinking? Seriously, I'd like answers to this, if you've got them.


Mary Bast said...

Hi Jessica,

I love this blog, especially the background seems so appropriate for your style. I, too, have awakened from sleep with a poem on my lips and fingertips. What works for me is to steep myself in the conscious aspects of a poem, then 'let go' -- take a walk, a shower, a nap or play some music, think about something else, trusting that the poem will come. I wrote "alice's wonderland" ( while listening to Mingus play his composition of the same name.


Jessica Goodfellow said...

Hi Mary, It's so nice to hear from you. I loved the great energy in your poem; thanks for sharing it. I think you are right about the letting go stage, following the hyper-conscious state. I'm not as good at letting go as you are though. I think trust is a huge part of it, as you mentioned. Thanks for pointing that out.

Mari said...

Jessica, I love learning about different poets' processes, including yours. For me, poem making is a mostly felt, intuited experience, especially in the early stages, and a new poem generally begins with an image that's accompanied by a feeling or constellation of feelings. I try to "stay loose" during this phase and simply follow the thread. My "rational" mind comes into play during the revision stage, but not before. I believe that we are always dreaming and that the unconscious is very much alive 24/7, whether we attune to it or not. Dreams, of course, are direct communications from the unconscious. Paying attention to our dreams can invite them in. I like to write mine down and have been doing this for about 10 years. Afterwards, I can sometimes make out connections between sequential dreams.

Jessica Goodfellow said...

Mari, your process is fascinating to me. It's just about the opposite of mine, which is probably how you achieve such ethereal pieces with such a calming and mysterious use of space. I am going to try and reverse my process sometimes and see what happens. Thanks for sharing.