Philip K. Dick and a Writer’s Subconscious

This is a great resource for the Philip K. Dick fan, and I will be posting what I’ve learned from it for some time.  (Photo credit Wikipedia)

Currently I’m working on the third and final book in the Five Rims trilogy: “The Shibboleth Code”. It is an arduous task, and even though I love the characters and the setting and I feel like I’m really bringing the story to a close, I am so ready to get on with another book.

I have ideas for several other novels that compete with my current project, but I must soldier on.

In between writing and being a full time dad and teacher, I’m reading several books.  I am currently working my way through a massive tome entitled The Exegesis of Philip K. Dick.  Published in 2011 and edited by Pamela Jackson and Jonathan Lethem it contains the annotated mad writings of one of my favorite writers of all time.  Currently Dick’s most famous book The Man in the High Castle is in its second season, a third to debut in the spring of 2018 and Ridley Scott has made a sequel to Blade Runner based on a novella by Dick entitled Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?.

I have always been fascinated by the madness of Dick.  He was indeed a great writer, someone I would aspire to emulate in the work that I do as a science-fiction novelist.  He is indeed one of my heroes even though I don’t ascribe to dropping acid or taking the soluble vitamin concoctions meant for a schizophrenic as he did on numerous occasions.

Currently I have been making notes in the margins of the book and underlining passages that give me insight into the process that Dick followed, hoping to help me become a better writer.  I believe I have found a particular gem about inspiration in the pages of the text and I wanted to relate it to you here:

It appears that Dick believed that novels will write themselves and that he was writing reality into being.  In a letter to Peter Fitting dated June 28th, 1974, Dick described (in the post script) a “directing presence” that guided the writing of his novels, specifically the novel Ubik (10).  Later on he wrote that he was “inspired by a creative entity outside [his] conscious personality to write what [he wrote].  He states: “I had imagined it to be my subconscious, but this only begs the question, What is the subconscious?  There is no doubt that quite frankly I do not in any real sense write my novels; they do come from some non-I part of me.  Often they contain dreams I’ve had (this was true of Lovecraft, I’ve heard).  If tachyon bombardment was inspired by my novels, then it would stand to reason that the world —  it is really all the same world which my books depict, as has been pointed out in critical essays many times — it would stand to reason that, as the years pass, my books would, so to speak, come true” (13).

In a letter to Claudia Bush, dated July 5, 1974, Dick wrote about a dream he kept having about a book that according to his dream would give him the knowledge of the universe. He kept dreaming about it, the dream being recurring, and each time he would try to find out more information about the book (i.e. the color of the cover, the title).  He did eventually find the book in the real world, but it was a biography of Warren G. Harding, and in his words “the dullest book in the world; I tried to read it, but when the Book Find Book Club sent it to me but couldn’t” (15).

So I guess his theory doesn’t always ring true.

It is interesting to note that he spends several pages of one letter discussing the idea that he was possessed by a dead friend Jim Pike because he was doing all the things Pike would do (i.e. drink beer instead of wine, mis-spelling words, having odd political views) which is to note Dick’s particular form of madness.

However, this madness can be sifted down to a pretty profound idea that his muse was his subconscious, that he felt that his subconscious was what drove his writing.  In the exegesis, he states that “(1) I, consciously, don’t write my novels.  (2) Therefore a part of my unconscious does” (p. 29).  The question remains: Does our conscious or unconscious mind write our novels?

I don’t know how many times I’ve written passages and gone back months later and wondered how I came up with the phrasing, the plot, the character interaction that appears on the page.  Dick actually believed that the part of the brain unused during consciousness “active and more highly potentiated than before, and unusually endowed with verbal skills, in particular written verbal skills, rattles away at [us, the writer] visibly as soon as [we] shut [our] eyes; it is so to speak, writing a book while [we are] asleep” (29).

I have experienced this without copious amounts of soluble vitamins.  I awake often with ideas running through my mind from a dream I’ve had, feverishly writing it down before I forget it, and these have often been the best ideas I have produced in writing.

What do you think?  Was Philip K. Dick a madman or was he on to something?  How could we utilize this phenomena if it exists?  I’m not advocating LSD use by any means, but what can we learn from the man who wrote 7 novels in a year, 7 novels that are still lodged deeply into our science-fiction pop culture.

Dick, Philip K., Jonathan Lethem, and Pamela Jackson. The Exegesis of Philip K. Dick. London: Gollancz, 2012. Print.

Published by Roger Colby, Novelist, Editor

Roger Colby is a novelist and teacher who has taught English for nearly two decades. He is also an avid reader of science fiction who feels, like many other sci-fi readers, that he has read everything. He writes science fiction for the reader who is looking for the next best thing, something to excite them into reading again. This blog is his journey as a writer and his musings about writing. He also edits manuscripts for a fee and is an expert at helping you reach your full potential as a writer.

2 thoughts on “Philip K. Dick and a Writer’s Subconscious

  1. Had a great professor who recommended keeping a dream diary, so when you reread it even a few months later you can find out “You’re weeeirrrd!”

    Amazing how much of what we do seems to come from an odd alchemy between our current state of mind and our concept of our current situation, and how totally bizarre and foreign they can seem when those two things have changed even a little.

    Dreams can seem weird even when you first wake up (though you can still remember them making perfect sense just a few seconds ago when you were asleep) but months later it can be hard even imagining yourself as someone who would have a dream like that.

    Catch ’em while you can!

  2. Most people accept that the advice to “sleep on it” is sound advice. Likewise, who hasn’t said based on personal experience, “I know that as soon as I try to stop figuring this out, it’ll come to me.” But what do these things imply if not that our subconscious is able to do what our conscious mind is not?

    I also believe that “madness” is relative and is a continuum. Many a brilliant mind has been deemed “mad” by those who couldn’t comprehend what was said.

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