Iris Murdoch on making your unconscious work for you

“You have to spend a lot of time looking out the window.”

Welcome to the latest issue of Subtle Maneuvers. Previously, we looked into Ennio Morricone’s “mysterious process.” This week, the British novelist Iris Murdoch, who would have turned 101 last Wednesday.

Iris Murdoch (1919–1999)

“I live, I live, with an absolutely continuous sense of failure,” the struggling-writer narrator of Murdoch’s 1973 novel The Black Prince declares in a confrontation with his literary rival about midway through the book. “I am always defeated, always. Every book is the wreck of a perfect idea.”

In any other book, it would be tempting to read this as a reflection of the novelist’s own writing difficulties, but in Murdoch’s case this would be inaccurate. In interviews over the years, the British novelist always said that she found writing rather enjoyable. “I like working and when I have time, I work,” she told the Paris Review in 1990. Naturally, writing had “moments when you think it’s awful, you lose confidence and it’s all black,” she said. “You can’t think and so on. So, it’s not all enjoyment.” But, she continued,

I don’t actually find writing in itself difficult. The creation of the story is the agonizing part. You have the extraordinary experience when you begin a novel that you are now in a state of unlimited freedom, and this is alarming. Every choice you make will exclude another choice, so that it’s rather important what happens then, what state of mind you’re in and what you think matters. . . . You have to spend a lot of time looking out the window and writing down scrappy notes that may or may not help. You have to wait patiently until you feel that you’re getting the thing right—who the people are, what it’s all about, how it moves. I may take a long time, say a year, just sitting and fishing around, putting the thing into some sort of shape.

This process involved a lot of “writing odd things in a notebook,” but the most important component was to plant ideas in the back of one’s mind and then—wait. “I think the thing to do is to make one’s unconscious mind work for one,” Murdoch explained in a 1984 interview with the Threepenny Review.

When there’s a problem, and suddenly you get a sort of knot in the procedure, where you want to do two things which seem incompatible, for instance, or when you can’t really see what a character is like—there’s a sort of blank where the character ought to be—then you must just meditate upon the problem, set it, as it were, as a problem to your unconscious mind, and hope that suddenly some creative flash will arrive. And that’s a time that requires very great patience.

Iris Murdoch in 1957. Photo by Ida Kar via the National Portrait Gallery, London

Even after a year or more of “just sitting and fishing around” had yielded the material for a new novel, Murdoch didn’t start writing. She was a fiendish outliner, and could never begin writing without first creating “a very detailed synopsis of every chapter, every conversation, everything that happens.” She explained this process to the Threepenny Review:

The whole thing is like a sort of symphony, contained in one’s head, as it were. I mean, this is how I work—every novelist must find his own way to work. All the important thinking, the fundamental plot, the characters, even the details of dialogue, the way the characters talk—all this I know before I begin. When I’m writing other insights come, but they’re usually not fundamental ones. And then of course there’s the business of writing itself, of creating every sentence, every paragraph, the rhythm of the prose and so on, things I care about very much.

When she finally was in the writing stage, Murdoch generally worked “from about half past seven in the morning until about half past twelve or one,” she said. “Then in the afternoon I do jobs in the house. I work again from about half past four to half past seven.” (Her husband did the cooking.)

She always wrote by hand, never on a word processor or the computer, drafting on the right-hand pages of a notebook and writing “variants or queries” on the facing page. “I rewrite some passages many times, but I rewrite the whole thing twice,” Murdoch said. “That is, I write a first draft, which is absolutely complete. . . .  I finish the first draft, then I start again completely from the beginning and rewrite the whole of it, partly of course copying from the first draft but partly revising it.” (In the end, she had just one finished copy, which she delivered to her publisher, a thought that gives this writer the chills.)

Murdoch’s fundamental enjoyment of the writing process seems appropriate given her ideas about literature and how it works, which she summed up nicely in that Paris Review interview. Near the end, the interviewer asked her what effect she would like her books to have. Murdoch’s reply was refreshingly unpretentious:

I’d like people to enjoy reading them. A readable novel is a gift to humanity. It provides an innocent occupation. Any novel takes people away from their troubles and the television set; it may even stir them to reflect about human life, characters, morals. So I would like people to be able to read the stuff. I’d like it to be understood too; though some of the novels are not all that easy, I’d like them to be understood, and not grossly misunderstood. But literature is to be enjoyed, to be grasped by enjoyment.

Murdoch in her rose garden, in an undated photo via @ianarchiebeck



Dear Subtle Maneuvers,

My question is around having multiple “hobbies,” if you want to call them that. You write about artist routines and how their time is usually split between two things. But when someone has a demanding full-time job (that they enjoy!) but also more than one thing on the side (writing, music, drawing), does something have to give? Is it sustainable to have more than one creative line of work or hobby, and be accomplished in all of them?
—Marianna in Milan

Dear Marianna,

It’s true, a lot of the artists I’ve written about tended to split their time between: 1.) their all-consuming creative project; and 2.) whatever they had to do to facilitate that project, whether it was working a day job, running a household, or just attending to the tiresome business of keeping one’s physical body fed, bathed, clothed, and sheltered. (As Frida Kahlo once wrote, “How much work!!”)

But a lot of notable artists had hobbies too. As I wrote the other week, the composer John Cage was a dedicated mushroom hunter—and he also spent a good deal of time playing chess and tending to his large collection of houseplants. (Asked for his creative secret once, Cage said: “Well, you begin the day by watering the plants, and you end the day by playing chess.”) Vladimir Nabokov was another chess obsessive, as well as a serious lepidopterist. Flannery O’Connor raised peacocks, Lillian Hellman raised chickens and bred poodles on her 130-acre farm, Sylvia Plath kept bees, and the 19th-century French painter Rosa Bonheur kept a vast menagerie of animals on her estate, including dogs, horses, oxen, sheep, goats, lizards, boars, monkeys, and lions. A number of writers have been serious gardeners, including Iris Murdoch, L. Frank Baum, Vita Sackville-West, and the contemporary writer Olivia Laing. Emily Dickinson baked, Ayn Rand collected stamps, Ernest Hemingway hunted and fished, and P. G. Wodehouse, Agatha Christie, Ian Fleming, and John Updike all loved to golf.

I could go on, but you get the idea. Hobbies and art-making are not mutually exclusive; in fact, hobbies can be a great way to exercise a different part of your brain than what’s required for your main creative project. As Ayn Rand once wrote, “A stamp album is a miraculous brain-restorer.”

But I want to return to the end of your question, where you ask: “Is it sustainable to have more than one creative line of work or hobby, and be accomplished in all of them?” To my mind, a creative “line of work” and a hobby are two different things. As the above examples illustrate, it is certainly possible to do serious creative work and also enjoy a hobby or hobbies. But whether you can “be accomplished in all of them” seems like the wrong framing to me. Hobbies are not about being accomplished! As the author Austin Kleon wrote in his book Steal Like an Artist,

A hobby is something creative that’s just for you. You don’t try to make money or get famous off it, you just do it because it makes you happy. A hobby is something that gives but doesn’t take.

(Kleon has an entire blog post on this subject that’s worth a read.)

A creative “line of work,” on the other hand, probably is something you’re trying to make money or get famous off. And pursuing that plus enjoying some hobbies and having a day job, which you mentioned—well, that does strike me as a recipe for spreading yourself too thin.

This part of your question jumped out at me: “Does something have to give?” More and more I’ve come to think that the answer is yes. If you want to do ambitious creative work, the kind that requires long periods of deep focus—and that’s most kinds—you need to make room for that, and almost inevitably this means shouldering something else aside. This is especially true if you have a day job; at least based on my personal experience, there is just no way to work full-time, have a serious creative project on the side, and do much of anything else beyond attending to the necessities of daily life.

That sounds rather depressing, but I don’t mean for it to be. Clearing out space for a single cherished project can be liberating. It’s an indulgence to delve deeply into one activity and just straight up ignore others. I think so many of us feel an obligation to be superhumanly “creative” in all aspects of our life: to have homes stocked with well-designed furniture and knickknacks, to have yoga-toned bodies that look good in expensive form-fitting athleisurewear, to use our spare time to make ceramics, learn to knit, or concoct our own artisanal cocktail shrubs—and, of course, to document it all on Instagram. If you derive satisfaction from that, fine—I like a homemade shrub as much as the next person!  But if trying to be “accomplished” at a lot of activities is keeping you from giving your full attention to one creative pursuit, I’d suggest an experiment in giving things up.

On the other hand, if you just want permission to pursue a variety of hobbies that you enjoy—by all all means, go for it! One of the problems with looking at the habits of monomaniacal, work-obsessed artists is that not all of us want or need to be monomaniacal, work-obsessed artists. We could just do a variety of interesting stuff that we enjoy. Indeed, in a society where we’re all being pushed to monetize our hobbies and turn every activity into a “side hustle,” just doing stuff that you enjoy can begin to seem like a radical act of pleasure and self-enrichment.

Readers—Do you have additional thoughts for Marianna? (Or totally disagree with what I wrote above?) Leave a comment!

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Struggling with your own creative dilemma? Email it to (or just reply to this email) and I’ll do my best to provide some concrete advice based on my research into great minds’ work habits.

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