Involuntary Ideas

Nuar Alsadir

In our Craft Capsules series, authors reveal the personal and particular ways they approach the art of writing. This is no. 139.

Writers often berate themselves for not working, by which they mean sitting down with a notebook or computer and producing writing that seems presentable to others. Yet much work occurs when we are doing something else, when our focus is on a physical or habitual task—walking the dog, making dinner—and we are less likely to censor the thoughts that pass into our mind.

There are ideas we consciously construct and ideas we are given—“involuntary ideas,” in Freud’s terminology—that emerge of their own free will when our critical faculty steps out of the way. In The Interpretation of Dreams, Freud depicts these involuntary ideas, which are crucial to free-association and poetic creation, as being policed by guards stationed at the gateway of our conscious mind to reject certain thoughts before they are perceived. He borrows this image from a letter Friedrich Schiller wrote in response to a friend who bemoaned a lack of productivity:

It seems a bad thing and detrimental to the creative work of the mind if Reason makes too close an examination of the ideas as they come pouring in—at the very gateway, as it were.... [W]here there is a creative mind, Reason—so it seems to me—relaxes its watch upon the gates, and the ideas rush in pell-mell, and only then does it look them through and examine them in a mass.—You critics, or whatever else you may call yourselves, are ashamed or frightened of the momentary and transient extravagances which are to be found in all truly creative minds and whose longer or shorter duration distinguishes the thinking artist from the dreamer. You complain of your unfruitfulness because you reject too soon and discriminate too severely.

Reason places watchers at the gateway of the mind to bar entry of “the momentary and transient extravagances which are to be found in all truly creative minds.” To be creative, you must relax your watch upon the gates, let involuntary thoughts and ideas enter freely. Part of the work of an artist is to dream.

The challenge is that the “transient extravagances” that tumble out of us, if judged too soon, can make us feel “ashamed or frightened.” If we reject ideas too quickly, we will not be able to see where they might lead: “Looked at in isolation, a thought may seem very trivial or very fantastic; but it may be made important by another thought that comes after it, and, in conjunction with other thoughts that may seem equally absurd, it may turn out to form a most effective link,” Schiller wrote. As in dream analysis or writing poetry, following a trail of associations often leads to an unexpected, previously unknown revelation. But inhibitions need to be lifted for that to be possible.

When you free yourself from the goal of constructing meaning, pleasing the watchers at the gateway of the mind with Reason, you leave open the possibility of connections that are made with the participation of more than just your logical faculty, as I discussed in my last Craft Capsule: “To access genuine emotion, for your writing to be alive, it helps to soften your brain and let your impulses spontaneously express themselves.” The next time you feel unproductive, ask yourself whether the problem is “unfruitfulness” or what you have deemed edible.


Nuar Alsadir is the author of Animal Joy: A Book of Laughter and Resuscitation (Graywolf Press, 2022) and the poetry collections Fourth Person Singular (Liverpool University Press, 2017), a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award and shortlisted for the Forward Prize for Best Collection in England and Ireland, and More Shadow Than Bird (Salt Publishing, 2012). She works as a psychoanalyst and psychotherapist in private practice.

Art: Dave McDermott