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John DeDakis on The Power of the Subconscious

John DeDakis is the author of the Lark Chadwick mystery-suspense-thriller series. You can find out more about him on his website, www.johndedakis.com, or by clicking here, see his last post here, and buy his books here.

Writing is like dipping a straw into your subconscious. When you ask yourself “what if?” questions, you stir up the creative juices inside you—all that subterranean psychological stuff that’s been lurking just below the surface for years. The act of writing is like taking a sip—the creativity simply flows through your fingers and onto the page.

Fast Track by John DeDakis book cover

You experienced writers know what I’m talking about. It’s spooky, right?

More often than not, however, when I tell that to students in my “From Novice to Novelist” writing classes, I see their dubious expressions. So I give them a writing exercise to let them experience it firsthand:

“For the next ten minutes, I want you to interview one of the characters in your novel.”

“I haven’t even started my novel,” someone will protest.

“Fine. Consider it a job interview,” I’ll suggest. “Start with ‘who are you and why do you want to be in my book?’”

I then start the timer. “This will either be the longest, or the shortest, ten minutes of your life.”

Almost without fail, when the timer goes off, the students are writing furiously.

One woman reported, “I asked the question you suggested and a voice showed up. He said, ‘I don’t want to be in your book,’ so I asked him, ‘Why not?’ and he kept talking.”

I came across her the next day and she said, “When I was in the shower this morning, he showed up again and asked, ‘Don’t you want to ask me any more questions?’”

Spooky.

But effective.

I discovered this technique for myself in 1994 when I began playing around with writing my first novel. A writing prompt had me recount a personal experience. As I was writing down the details of a car-train collision I witnessed when I was nine, I remembered a radio news report from forty years earlier, about a week after the crash I witnessed that killed three people, including a boy about my age. The radio report was of a similar crash in which an infant survived.

I asked myself, “What if that infant grew up and wanted to find out more about her parents who were killed in the accident?”

That question fueled my first novel, Fast Track, as my protagonist, Lark Chadwick, solves the mystery of the car-train collision that orphaned her as an infant.

By the way, Lark is named after Chadwick, Illinois, the tiny town where I witnessed the accident.

Several years and three books later, I would learn from my subconscious the deep reason why I write as a woman.

In August 2011, my youngest son, Stephen, 22, went missing. He was found dead a week later, slumped at the wheel of my car, the victim of an accidental heroin overdose.

I went through more than two years of grief counseling, one of the best decisions I ever made. A year after I left therapy, the grief counseling center asked me to give a speech for a fund-raising banquet.

The author's sister Georgia Ann
Georgia Ann DeDakis

As I was writing my talk, I realized, “There’s a deeper reason why I write as a woman.”

It goes all the way back to my sister’s suicide in 1980.

Georgia was brilliant and talented. She could have been a concert pianist or a doctor. But her husband said to her, “What would it look like for a football coach to be married to a surgeon?”

So, one by one, Georgia gave up her dreams—and her life.

It took years, but my subconscious finally revealed to me that the deeper reason I write as a woman is to create a character I wish my sister had chosen to become. Lark Chadwick still falls for the bad boys, but she doesn’t let a guy define who she is. She doesn’t let herself become a victim.

Now I tell my students, “The better you know yourself, the better you’ll be as a writer because you’ll be drawing from the creative well of your subconscious.”

John DeDakis

Award-winning novelist, writing coach, and manuscript editor John DeDakis is a former editor on CNN's "The Situation Room with Wolf Blitzer." DeDakis is the author of five mystery-suspense-thriller novels. In his most recent novel, FAKE, protagonist Lark Chadwick is a White House correspondent dealing with “fake news” in the era of #MeToo. His website is at www.johndedakis.com

This Post Has 14 Comments

  1. Laurie Buchanan
    Laurie Buchanan

    John — This post is a prime example of why I cherish every class or presentation of yours I’ve been privileged to sit in. They’re gold—pure gold.

  2. Tracey S. Phillips
    Tracey S. Phillips

    Thanks for your insights, John. I love digging deeper, to see why I write the characters I created. Sign me up for your next class!

  3. Christine DeSmet
    Christine DeSmet

    Powerful words and wisdom. Writing is about emotion and you know how to create emotion in characters and writers. How can I not write today after reading this blog post!

  4. Sheila Lowe
    Sheila Lowe

    As the parent of a murdered daughter, and just finishing writing my memoir, I wholeheartedly understand plumbing the depths and bringing up our deepest experiences in our creative writing. And I hope that you have learned, as I have, that there is no death, only life after earth.

    1. John DeDakis
      John DeDakis

      I have no words, Sheila, but am heartened by the courage you have to tell your story. I pray many will be helped and enlightened by your words. ~JD

  5. Avatar
    Margaret Mizushima

    John, this is a powerful post in many different ways. Thank you so much. Yes, tapping into that subconscious flow is wonderful when it happens!

  6. joyribar
    joyribar

    John, thank you for sharing something so deeply personal. I appreciate how you arrived at your main character and the process of questioning. Now that I’m tackling a new series, I’m going to try out the interview technique. I hope you will let us know how to go about signing up for your classes.

  7. Avatar
    Avanit Centrae

    Powerful post John. Non-dominant handwriting is fun as well.

  8. Sherrill Joseph
    Sherrill Joseph

    John, thanks for sharing some personal life tragedies and how you turned those into powerful literature. I admire people who can take lemons and make sweet lemonade. And yes, the subconscious is spooky but golden for me, the writer, too.

  9. Sharon Lynn
    Sharon Lynn

    I saw your opening image of Chadwick and went, oh my – no wonder Lark has such a hard time. Poignant and beautiful post!

  10. Avatar
    saralynrichard

    Your emotional wellspring is so rich. I’m glad your sister’s voice runs deep inside of you and finds its way out into the world, where it can make a positive difference in many lives.

  11. John DeDakis
    John DeDakis

    Thanks to my fellow Blackbirds for your words of encouragement. ~JD

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