Using Active Imagination to Access the Unconscious and Collective Unconscious

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For interested authors, here are the steps used in Psychoanalyst Dr. Carl Jung’s “active imagination” technique as applied to creative writing:



So, this is how it works. You set up your studio, turn on the word processor, stare at the white page and pay attention to nothing.
If you’re accustomed to the method, then either you already have an idea in mind, or one will come very shortly as you stare. By “something in mind” I mean an image. It may be a static image, like a photo, or a moving picture, as from a movie. It may even be an abstract idea delivered in a word, like, “multiverse.” Whatever it is, attend to it, wholeheartedly.
As you do your mind may begin to kick into gear. In no time at all you may be talking to yourself out loud, playing out a scene, but not realizing that you’re doing it. You may think deep thoughts and try explaining them to a make-believe audience, and get so wrapped up in it that you forget what you’re supposed to be doing – which is to record changes in the image.
After you have trained yourself to stay focused and take notes (which may take a trial period of difficult, dedicated practice), it remains to cook what you’ve got. Somewhere in there is the germ of a story informing material that’s just begging to be narrated and turned into scenes. It may even be that the unconscious presented the material in partially constructed scenes turning it over to you to develop farther.

Driving in the Dark with Headlights On

Once a narrative has begun the overall approach is to spin the yarn. This is often done in a manner referred to by writers as “driving in the dark with headlights on.” One shapes the narrative as the material is delivered – seeing only so far ahead. This differs radically from writing according to a plan, in which one works backward from the end. Instead, it’s like you’re riffing with a partner, feeding on each other and, occasionally, testing one another, even deliberately trying to trip up one another by writing yourself into a corner to see if your partner is spry enough to write his way out.
It may also happen, as it has to me, that being presented by a certain kind of emotionally charged image, one in which you find a symbol of unresolved conflict, stops you dead in your tracks. Even if the next step is obvious to others, you just can’t see it. And moreover, in an attempt to avoid wrangling with issues in conflict, you go off on tangents that run the story into the ground, killing the enthusiasm of finishing it.


At this point bear in mind that that even the Ancient Greeks viewed drama (dramatic fiction) as a kind of Yoga, or at least as medicine for the soul. Good drama produced catharsis, a flood of emotion that restored the flow of life energy. But before the author can tell a story that moves an audience to catharsis, he must do it for himself. He must confront his emotions and resolve their underlying conflicts.

Psychology and Literature

To write this way is to spark and maintain dialogue between consciousness and the unconscious. In doing so the unconscious mind furnishes material that the conscious mind then shapes. The creative part, which is making something from nothing, is handled by the unconscious mind, as it would handle the imagery of dreams. The technical part of interpreting this in a way that tells a story – that is setting up the dramatic structure and writing it out well – is handled by the conscious mind. As a picture is worth a thousand words, the unconscious paints the picture and the conscious mind verbally explains it, one process reacting to the other and spurring it on, until the story is told, and, the goal in telling it, completed.
I used this technique to access conscious images from my unconscious to apply to the erotic fantasy novel Orkidedatter (Orchid Daughter) and in many other stories and novels at key moments in the plots. Of course, this can be applied to poetry, as well, but good poets, in my opinion, already do it, most of them quite naturally.
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