writing as a distinct form of consciousness

By Joan Mitchell

I received this cool email from a subscriber (let’s call him Z) a couple weeks ago. Since then I’ve been mulling over the idea of writing as a form of consciousness:

I read this line a while back: "the thing about writing is that it’s quite literally thinking". That comment which helped me a lot! I think my previous mental model was that in the process of journaling or writing, I capture thoughts which are already there - like the movie scene where Dumbledore pulls the memories out of his head and watches them flow into the pensieve.

But I like your idea much better! That the feedback loops of physically typing and looking at the words as they are thought and appear in letters constructs my thinking as it is thought. Which I am convinced is 100% true, at least for me! 

I've been realizing  just how much of my default thinking process is non-linguistic, just a blur of images and feeling that produce intuitions quickly but struggle with complex or subtle issues. Keeping track of words in my head is not something my brain can really do very well (maybe executive functioning issue?), so writing as I think helps me think thorny thinks where the blur of images and feelings just don't cut it.

I think you can even say writing is a specific kind of consciousness. You could imagine someone recording a stream of consciousness in a journal. The funny thing, is if they weren't writing, they wouldn't be thinking any of those things. So "recording" is not really the right word. Maybe it is better to say they are enacting a stream of consciousness with their pen and paper (or laptop). Reminds me of this work from Andy Clark on technology's coupling with mind and extended cognition: http://cogprints.org/320/1/extended.html

I looked around on the Internet and found this essay by Julie Kearney on writing as an altered state of consciousness. In the essay she references the work of psychologist Charles Tart, who “organizes the various degrees of human consciousness into discrete structures and subsystems more readily adaptable to research.” She uses his systems approach to demonstrate how “writing itself can be the cause of an altered state of consciousness (ASC).” Our normal state of consciousness, according to Tart, is highly rational and allows us to cope with an external environment that may be filled with threats. But it’s not necessarily the optimal state for us to get focused creative work done. Writing is a way for tate.

Tart believes there are four distinct psychological processes which “stabilize our ordinary state of consciousness: Loading, Negative Feedback, Positive Feedback, and Limiting.” Kearney explains how writing affects each, and in particular destabilizes Limiting:

The fourth stabilization process described by Tart is Limiting, and it involves the various subsystems of consciousness that he defines as Memory, Sense of Identity, Space/Time Sense, Motor Output, and Emotions. Each of these subsystems is capable of destabilizing ordinary consciousness. For example, tranquilizers act to blunt strong emotional responses thereby interfering with emotion’s ability to destabilize ordinary consciousness. Tranquilizers are, therefore, a Limiting stabilizer.

Of the several subsystems involved in this process, one, Sense of Identity, has already been mentioned, but others such as Emotions and Space/Time Sense are also de-Limited through the act of writing. For example, rather than suppress (Limit) emotions as certain tranquilizing drugs might do, writing enables the writer to express (literally “squeeze out”) emotions, again destabilizing the Limiting system of ordinary consciousness.

I like the idea of writing being an altered state of consciousness, analogous to being drunk or deep in a meditative state. This reminds me of Z’s email, where he mentions that someone recording a stream of consciousness in a journal is almost “enacting” rather than “recording” the consciousness.

I found a similar description in a passage from Girlhood by Melissa Febos where she is talking to her mother, a therapist, and explains how “Writing created a place where I could look at and talk to parts of my self that I otherwise couldn’t. She explained to me that this was exactly what her mode of therapy allowed her patients to do.”

According to Tart, a state of consciousness is a “system that has a certain coherent gestalt ‘‘feel’’ to it, a recognizable pattern like ‘‘ordinary’’ or ‘‘drunk’’ or ‘‘dreaming.” We could say that writing shifts you into a state distinct from ordinary consciousness, and allows you to have thoughts you otherwise wouldn’t have.

A lot of my thoughts center around the idea that it’s hard to get an accurate look from the inside. Your view of others, your view of the world, is inevitably distorted by your view of yourself. If you’re socially anxious, it would be almost impossible for you to accurately observe a conversation you’re having with someone else, because you’re too focused on neurotically trying to monitor the other person’s reaction to really pay attention to them. Since it’s so hard to live in real time, writing allows us to reconsolidate memory into something that may be more true than our initial experience.

When we write we get a more distanced view of our own interiority, and a closer view of other people’s. I have a note in my journal about how I “struggle to inhabit certain aspects of my own interiority.” For a long time, it was hard for me to even think about certain memories where I felt intense negative emotion (e.g. shame). But the version of myself that writes is a version willing to interrogate and use the ugliest things I feel: I can be a channel, a vessel. If the choice is between continuing to look and looking away, you could say that writing is a state of consciousness that allows me to look without flinching.

If we treat writing as a form of thinking, we can appreciate its benefits in a way that isn’t focused on objective output. I’ve heard a lot of friends say things like, “Oh, I’ve tried to write more stories, but they weren’t any good.” I think that rewarding writing practices can be focused purely on journaling—on clarifying your lived experience to yourself. What if we wrote to have conversations with ourselves that we otherwise couldn’t have? What if we wrote to keep a record of thoughts that otherwise wouldn’t exist at all?

I’m reading Jenny Diski’s wonderful essay collection right now. In one essay she describes the pleasure of writing: “It is a kind of heaven. This is what I was made for. It is doing nothing. A fraud is being perpetrated: writing is not work, it’s doing nothing. It’s not a fraud: doing nothing is what I have to do to live. Or doing writing is what I have to do to do nothing; doing nothing is what I have to do to write.”

I’m trying to think of writing less as doing and more as being. A passive state, almost: a way of existing in the world. Something that takes me away from myself, and in doing so draws me deeper inwards.