Writing the Unconscious

Writing the Unconscious:An exploration of two related arts, creative writing and the practice of psychoanalysis.

PLEASE NOTE: In May 2006 part of this paper was posted on the website of the Australian Psychoanalytical Society. Responses were invited. You can visit the site www.psychoanalysis.asn.au and click on “Experiment in Dialogue” and read the various contributions.

The organisers of the conference held at the State Library in Sydney on 6 May 2006 put some questions to those of us who offered to write papers:

What are Freud’s main concepts that we find relevant today?

Has the way we use them changed and evolved over time?

What about our own encounter with Freud?

In which way has it been instrumental in our lives?

I had those issues in my mind as I wrote this paper but I made no attempt to systematically answer the questions. I took the freedom offered to approach this paper from a more personal standpoint.

I want to make a few general comments about psychoanalysis. A friend in New Zealand saw this piece of graffiti. It will make my first point for me. It read:

For all of life’s complex questions there is a simple answer…

and it’s wrong!

If the human brain with its 100 million cells and limitless pathways is an object of our wonder and amazement, how can we possible serve up simplistic explanations of human emotion and behaviour? As Shakespeare through Hamlet said:

'What a piece of work is man! How noble in reason, how infinite in faculties, in form and moving how express and admirable, in action how like an angel, in apprehension how like a god!' (2.2.286-89)

When I consider the complexities of life I feel an affinity with Shakespeare and the graffiti artist. I found Freud interesting because he did not opt for simplistic solutions. I will mention two things Freud said which convey the spirit of the man.

In 1923 he wrote:

     ‘Psychoanalysis is not like philosophies, a system starting out from a few sharply defined fundamental concepts, seeking to grasp the whole universe with the help of these and, once it is completed, having no room for fresh discoveries or better understanding. On the contrary, it keeps close to the facts in its field of study, seeks to solve the immediate problems of observation, gropes its way forward by the help of experience, is always incomplete and always ready to correct or modify its theories’.

Similarly his approach to technique had an inbuilt flexibility. To his views on the dangers of being a devotee with regard to clinical practice we may turn to an exchange of letters between him and the Hungarian analyst Sandor Ferenczi. In 1928. Ferenczi had sent Freud a draft of his own paper ‘The Elasticity of Psychoanalytic Technique’ to which Freud (referring to his own papers written about fifteen years earlier) replied:

     ‘The title is excellent and would deserve to be made more of – as my recommendations on technique of that time... were essentially negative. I thought it most important to stress what one should not do, to point out the temptations that run counter to analysis. Almost everything one should do in a positive sense, I left to the ‘tact’ that you have introduced. What I achieved thereby was that the Obedient submitted to these admonitions as if they were taboos and did not notice their elasticity.’

Apart from Freud the person who was significant in my development was the English analyst Ella Sharpe. She taught English literature for 20 years before becoming an analyst in 1921. Before she died in 1947 she wrote this piece.

Explaining her reasons for becoming an analyst, and the benefits she derived from her life’s work, she wrote:

‘…apart from the obvious one of earning a living, I will name a possible final one...While our task lies primarily with the unconscious mind of the patient yet personally I find the enrichment of one’s ego through the experiences of other people not the least of my satisfactions. From the limited confines of an individual life, limited in time and space and environment, I experience a rich variety of living through my work. I contact all sorts and kinds of living, all imaginable circumstances, human tragedy and human comedy, humour and dourness, the pathos of the defeated, the incredible endurances and victories that some souls achieve over human fate. Perhaps for this I personally am most glad I made my choice of psychoanalysis, the rich variety of every type of human experience that has become part of me, that never would have been mine either to experience or to understand in a single mortal life, but for my work.’

There are many versions of ‘Freud’ and of ‘Psychoanalysis’. I am going to turn to what makes sense to me. I have been interested in psychoanalysis for nearly 35 years and been a psychoanalyst for about 20. I have observed how psychoanalysis and the psychoanalyst have been presented in the media. I have never seen a movie which comes close in describing what its like to be an analyst or a patient. The area in the humanities where I personally find the most comprehensive grasp of the essential truths of psychoanalysis is in literature.

So with that preamble is draw attention again to my title today: ‘An exploration of two related arts, creative writing and the practice of psychoanalysis.’

        I would like to add that I have not reached what I would call any conclusions on the subject of my paper today. I have intuitively felt that there is a similarity between the writer’s act of writing and the analyst’s act of speaking. In this paper I am trying to bring them together to think about them and discuss them.

To be clear with regard to the type of writing I mean. I am not dealing with writing non-fiction, with scientific books. They require a different application. I am dealing with writing were the imagination of the writer plays a prominent part. So novel writing and poetry are my area of interest but today I am going to direct my attention to the writing of a novel.

Additionally to be clear on the type of novel I am not dealing with let me say this. The aim, it seems of the majority of novel writers is to write a best-seller and achieve fame and fortune. These books are written for a market and publishers of course love them because they make loads of money. I am talking about a different sort of novel. The attitude of the type of writer I am talking about is represented by the Irish novelist John McGaharn who is his Memoir published last year (2005) described writing as the novelist holding a mirror up to his own life. Sometimes he comes dangerously close to presenting his life but veers away. He is always drawing on his inner world. That is the type of novel I am talking about; where the writer has been changed by the act of writing.


In a recent review of Adam Philips’ book The Penguin Freud Reader (Observer 19 Feb 2006) the reviewer and critic Peter Conrad wrote,

‘Psychoanalysis is meant to be a talking cure. Its greatest boon, however, may be its gift to writers, who silently transcribe what they cannot or dare not say out loud, and in doing so - if they're lucky - heal themselves.’

Conrad is touching on an important issue. He suggests psychoanalysis gives a freedom to writers and by taking hold of that freedom, and through their art of writing, they are able to heal themselves.

Creative writing and psychoanalysis have long been of interest to each other. Freud himself wrote about the creative writer and was intrigued by the capacities of the writer and curious about the origins of creativity. Freud himself was a good writer of prose. Part of the reason he had success with his ideas was due to his ability to communicate well through his writing. He often wrote very imaginatively.

In May 1922 Freud wrote to the writer Arthur Schnitzler (1862–1931). Schnitzler like Freud had trained as a doctor and a neurologist but gave up both and turned to write literature. This is what Freud said:

‘I think I have avoided you from a kind of awe of meeting my ‘double’. Not that I am in general easily inclined to identify myself with anyone else or that I had any wish to overlook the difference in our gifts that divides me from you, but whenever I get deeply interested in your beautiful creations I always seem to find behind their poetic sheen the same pre-suppositions, interests and conclusions as those familiar to me as my own … Your deep grasp of the truths of the unconscious … the way you take to pieces the social conventions of our society, and the extent to which your thoughts are preoccupied with the polarity of love and death; all that moves me with an uncanny feeling of familiarity. So the impression has been borne in on me that you know through intuition – really from a delicate self-observation – everything that I have discovered in other people by laborious work. Indeed I believe that fundamentally you are an explorer of the depths, as honestly impartial and unperturbed as ever anyone was.’

So Freud himself looked across at the work of this creative writer and saw in him and in his work characteristics similar to those of the psychoanalyst. Freud acknowledged that much of his understanding and the central tenet of his practice came from creative writers. Freud traced his practice of asking the patient to say whatever came to mind to the influence of the Swedish writer Ludwig Börne. In 1823 Börne had written an essay called ‘The Art of Becoming an Original Writer in Three Days’. Freud read this book as a teenager and when asked at 65 what influenced his placing the practice of free association at the centre of psychoanalytic practice he went to his library self and retrieved the little book he had first read half a century earlier. Börne’s advice was:

‘Take a few sheets of paper and for three days on end write down, without fabrication or hypocrisy, everything that comes into your head. Write down what you think of yourself, of your wife, of the Turkish War, of Goethe, of Fonk’s trial, of the Last Judgement, of your superiors – and when three days have passed you will be quite out of your senses with astonishment at the new and un-heard-of thoughts you have had. This is the art of becoming an original writer in three days.’

Conrad seems to have got things the wrong way around. History tells us that psychoanalysis was the recipient of the gift!


Norman Mailer was once asked why he wrote. He said that the answer seemed too complicate but the question brought to mind a conversation he had with an old friend the writer Jean Malaquais. Mailer knew that Malaquais worked very hard on his creative writing. He spent 14 hours a day writing. And what was he left with? Two or three hundred words! Mailer could not understand this. He himself usually produced 1000 words in three or four hours. He put it to Malaquais.

        ‘Why do you insist on remaining a writer? With your intelligence, with your culture, you could be successful at so many things. Writing may not be a normal activity for you.’

        You are perfectly right’, said Malaquais. ‘I am not a natural writer. There are even times when I detest this torture. I achieve so little of my aims.’

        Mailer pressed him further and said, ‘All right, why not do something else?’

        ‘Never’, said Malaquais. When pressed further to explain himself Malaquais said,

        ‘The only time I know the truth is when it reveals itself at the point of my pen.’

T.S. Eliot wrote about the curious fact that we can know what a poem is trying to communicate to us before we understand it. How can this happen? He said it was due to the work of the ‘auditory imagination’. This he described as

‘…the feeling for syllable and rhythm, penetrating far below the conscious levels of thought and feeling, invigorating every word: sinking to the most primitive and forgotten, returning to the origin and bringing something back, seeking the beginning and the end. It works through meanings certainly, or not without meanings in the ordinary sense, and fuses the old and obliterated and the trite, the current, and the new and surprising, the most ancient and the most civilised mentality.’

Eliot went on to say that the best way of testing a new poet and knowing if we are hearing an original voice is by listening out for an individual rhythm.

Is knowledge of this kind of use to an analyst? Can the analyst listen is this manner to the patient? Do we all not find occasions―this I would assert is the case for patient and analyst―when we intuitively know we understand something but are unable to adequately explain ourselves? Perhaps as with a poem when we are engaged in free associative talk the primitive sounds of our words and the echoes which reverberate through us are as important as any articulate sense they carry with them.


A woman in her 20’s lay on my couch for 18 months. She came 5 times a week. She never missed a session. She had plenty to say. One day she stopped talking 10 minutes after the session started. She said nothing for quarter of an hour. This was unusual. Then she spoke and said,

        ‘I have just realised something about everything I have said here since I first came. I have been taking over myself. I have never until now stopped and heard what I was doing. I have done it all my life.’

A truth was revealed to her not at the point of a pen but within the act of speaking; within the art of conversation. What about everything that had been said between us during the previous 300 sessions? Of course her realisation depended upon everything that had gone before. The analytic setting had been maintained; she talked about her dreams, her past was explored, her transferential feeling and fantasies interpreted, etc Without all that her realisation could not have taken place.

For the complex questions which arise in everyone’s life there are no simple answers. Sometimes it takes a lot of words, a great amount of talking and listening. As the Tasmanian writer Richard Flanagan once said

‘Words, words, words, I’d built a bonfire with the bastards if it would illuminate one moment of truth.’


In his essay ‘The Difference between Writing and Speaking’, the great English essayist William Hazlitt provides us with a window through which we can look into the mind of the writer and also into the mind of the psychoanalyst.

There are persons who in society, in public intercourse, feel no excitement,but who, when left alone, can lash themselves into a foam. They are never less alone than when alone. Mount them on a dinner-table, and they have nothing to say; shut them up in a room by themselves, and they are inspired. They are ‘made fierce with dark keeping.’ In revenge for being tongue-tied, a torrent of words flows from their pens, and the storm which was so long collecting comes down apace. It never rains but it pours. Is not this strange, unaccountable? Not at all so. They have a real interest, a real knowledge of the subject, and they cannot summon up all that interest, or bring all that knowledge to bear, while they have anything else to attend to. Till they can do justice to the feeling they have, they can do nothing. For this they look into their own minds… What they would say (if they could) does not lie at the orifices of the mouth ready for delivery, but is wrapped in the folds of the heart and registered in the chambers of the brain. In the sacred cause of truth that stirs them, they would put their whole strength…to drag their words and ideas from their lurking places... and [bring them] into play by the levers of imagination and reflection.

There is here much that describes the work of the analyst in the consulting room.

There is here much that describes the work of the patient in the consulting room.

The woman I mentioned had spent most of her life unable to listen to herself. Everyone else’s voice rang in her brain. The persistent intrusive nature of her experience in her family was taken on by her and she continued to attract people who despite their initial promise perpetuated that intrusiveness. She spent the first 18 months expecting that intrusiveness to be repeated by me. But whatever the particular manifestations in her life and they will be similar in everyone’s life, perhaps the essential task is as described by Hazlitt.

What they would say (if they could) does not lie at the orifices of the mouth ready for delivery, but is wrapped in the folds of the heart and registered in the chambers of the brain. In the sacred cause of truth that stirs them, they would put their whole strength…to drag their words and ideas from their lurking places... and [bring them] into play by the levers of imagination and reflection.


I work as a psychoanalyst. I also write creative literature. When I write creative literature I know what Malaquais is talking about. Truth becomes a living reality as the pen moves across the page, or the fingers touch the key-pad. When I have listened to a patient and when it’s time for me to speak, what I say is formed in the act and moment of speaking. I may have thought about it for hours and even weeks but when spoken it speaks itself.

The actual writing of the novel is a particular challenge. If you are writing and you make the mistake of telling someone they will ask you what you are writing about. Many writers can’t answer that question. The reason, well, let me tell you what Don DeLillo said about the novel in its early stage. He compared the work in progress to a hideously deformed infant that follows the writer around, dragging itself across the floor of restaurants where the writer is trying to eat, appearing at the foot of the bed first thing in the morning, crying out in the writer’s dreams, forcing itself into every nook and corner of his life. This infant is hideously defective, noseless and flipper-armed, incontinent and retarded and dribbles spinal fluid out of its mouth as it mews and burbles and cries out to the writer, wanting love, wanting the writer’s absolute attention, desperately seeking renewal, rebirth, redemption.

        This, I find is a good metaphor to describe that indescribable piece of writing, the plot that is going round in circles, the characters that are unbelievable, the language that looks back at you from the page and you wonder how anyone could write such drivel.

        I also think it can be a good metaphor to describe an analysis. Despite the incoherence of the whole project the writer who believes in himself carries on. He accepts that he cannot produce a perfectly shaped ‘baby’ by just sitting down and writing. Years of works will be required. He needs faith, hope and love. He needs to have faith that he can write; hope that despite the hardships he has some talent; and he must have a love of his art. Anyone involved in an analysis needs the same. By anyone I mean an analyst and a patient. There can be weeks, months sometimes years where the whole entity can feel deformed, where the journey into the unconscious finds no shape. How can we tolerate such a shapeless existence? I have no simple answers except that I know from my own experience as a patient and an analyst that it requires faith, hope and love.

Faith that this talking cure, despite its imperfections, is one of the best methods we have got.

Hope that the person with whom you are having this strange conversation carries inside them, somewhere, the courage to keep going, to persist in that most valuable of enterprises, learning to listen to themselves, to hear those final words of Shakespeare’s King Lear:

The weight of this sad time we must obey,

Speak what we feel, not what we aught to say.

Love, of truth.

Perhaps the writer of the novel and the patient who is asked, how is there analysis going, by a friend or spouse are in a similar position.

Question: Did you have a good session today?

You have been going for a long time? Will you be finished soon?

Got everything sorted out?

Answer: Silence

Similarly the analyst who has a supervisor or a group of colleagues with whom work is discussed may be like the novel writer which DeLillo described. A colleague who when it was her turn to present in a supervision group with a senior analyst arrived without a single note from her session. Nothing would transcribe itself to the written form. Encouraged to talk about the effect of an autistic boy on her, she stood up and by miming the contortions she was experiencing gave a silent performance that would have impressed Marcel Marceau!

Training as a psychoanalyst is an arduous process. You spend 50 minutes with your patient every day. You spend another hour every day writing up the detail of the session. Add up the hours. It is a lot of writing. It is an extremely useful and necessary discipline. However the tendency is there in all of us to become one of the Obedient and with a supervisor and a training body looking over your shoulder we can write on and on and on and on.

        What about listening to a piece of creative writing?

        What about reading a writer who has held a mirror up to himself?

        What about taking your pen and a blank sheet of paper and letting your imagination guide you?

        What about letting the truth reveal itself at the point of your pen?

     What about listening to Hazlitt? That which resides in a silent lurking place within us, what is wrapped in the folds of the heart and registered in the chambers of the brain, needs the levers of imagination.

I will finish with a poem and a story about the poem. The Irish poet Seamus Heaney told a story about his childhood. In the year of his birth a chestnut was planted first in a jam jar and then under a hedge in their garden. He grew up with loving comparisons made between him and the tree. In his teens his family moved house. New owners moved in and cut down the tree. His family were upset, but life went on and he forgot about his old house and his tree. He takes up the story in an essay he wrote in adult life. One day the memory of the tree came back to him and he described how and I quote from the essay:

‘all of a sudden... I began to think of the space where the tree had been or would have been. In my mind’s eye I saw it as a kind of luminous emptiness, a warp and waver of light, and once again, in a way that I find hard to define, I began to identify with that space just as years before I had identified with the young tree.’

Then he wrote this poem. It is one of a collection of eight poems called Clearances that he wrote after his mother died.

                                       I thought of walking round and round a space

                                      Utterly empty, utterly a source

                                      Where the decked chestnut tree had lost its place

                                      In our front hedge above the wallflowers.

                                      The white chips jumped and jumped and skited high.

                                      I heard the hatchet’s differentiated

                                      Accurate cut, the crack, the sigh

                                      And collapse of what luxuriated

                                      Through the shocked tips and wreckage of it all.

                                      Deep-planted and long gone, my coeval

                                      Chestnut from a jam jar in a hole,

                                      Its heft and hush become a bright nowhere,

                                      A soul ramifying and forever

                                      Silent, beyond silence listened for.