Intuition vs intellect

Coming out of a wonderful Halloween weekend, I happened to catch  part of a segment of Writer’s Confessions on Book TV. The topic: muse. Perfect for a creepy, gusty, weekend.

This wonderful series covers so many different topics, and features many literary writers. You can see some clips by clicking on the link above.

One thing all these writer’s had in common was the idea that the best writing is done without thought, by giving oneself over to the story and characters. Many of these writers are professors, yet they all said that when writing a first draft the intellect must be put aside. Otherwise you fail your muse.

Where does the muse come from? One author said that being a writer is akin to being a patient with split personality. Another said it is tales and personae that seep into us from our world.

Intuition. Do not think about your outcome, do not think about your path, let you intuition write for you. We should be surprised, surprised by ourselves and what we bring forth. One author spoke of the writer being able to reach a point of levitation – he compared it to the transcendence Buddhists experience. He said he reached this point once in writing, and hopes he can reach it again.

I rely on my intuition when writing. In the last year I have feared that I have done so on too large a degree, thinking that more of my work should be done consciously. I am learning that the intellect must take over once the intuition has laid down its foundation. Contrary, when I began writing I only believed in intuition, refusing even to edit lines that my intuition created. One author said (I am sorry I took no notes and cannot remember who said what!) that even when sitting down to begin a new piece do not think of theme or plot. Go in with a blank slate and let your muse create.

This past week I spent editing a short piece that I wrote maybe 2 or 3 years ago, not long after I began writing. I know where my muse came from for this particular story, and the story wrote itself. I recently gave it to my critique group, and now decided to go in and edit. I tried to let my intellect guide my intuition, not wanting to lose the atmosphere my subconscious had created (I could never do this on a conscious level – never – and it just amazes me.)

The end result was a crisper, cleaner, piece. But better, what my intuition had been trying to display was now even more evident.

Do you struggle with the balance of your intuition and intellect when writing and editing? Do you find you favor one more than the other?


26 thoughts on “Intuition vs intellect

  1. I totally agree with you. For your first draft you need to just let it flow, like you’re almost in a trance, but when it comes to editing you have to put that muse away and be brutal and think almost strictly on an intellectual level. Great post.

  2. I do struggle with the balance, including allowing the intuitive side to have the upper hand even during parts of the editing process.

    It’s because the intellect tends to take over easily, that I made the last-minute, half-crazed decision to participate in NaNoWriMo for the first time. The purpose of the month-long dash to 50k words is to make it nearly impossible for the intellect to interrupt. (At least that’s the theory … I’ll let you know.)

    Great post, thanks for your insights.

    1. You intellect takes over easily, Cathryn. I find that fascinating – so different from how my mind works. I have to push mine out, I really rely on my intuition. I have trained myself to allow the editor out. (I love seeing the different ways we all work)
      Good luck with NaNo!

  3. I do! I know if I use my intellect to configure the overall plot, my intuition will take over during the details of the scenes. So far I have to use a combination to finish my work in a timely fashion.

    Super topic, though, Jennifer!

  4. I’m all about intuition… I find I write best when I just let go, stop trying to control things and let them happen organically. Of course, if I get stuck this way I can use my intellect to figure out how to get out from it, but my writing is a lot stiffer when I’m ‘trying’, when I just let go… feels better, reads better.

  5. I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately because of all the NaNoWriMo publicity. But I don’t think much about it when I’m writing. And I don’t want to.

    Apparently, I don’t do much of what I’m “supposed” to do as a writer. I just write. I hear my Muse, or whatever, but she also edits. So it’s all the same to me … write, edit, listen, write, write, write.

    I just think you have to find what works for you and do it. If you’re not happy with your writing, try something new. If you are happy, don’t mess with it … even if it’s not the way you’re “supposed” to write.

    1. I totally agree with what you have just said, Linda. There doesn’t seem to be anything more for me to add. You hit the nail right on the head as far as I’m concerned.

    2. HI Linda! Oh for sure, we all have to find what works for each of us. I also wonder if the process works differently from one format to another, given from writing a short to a novel. I think when I write my shorts I still rely largely on intuition, yet I have a much deeper understanding of what I am writing. Meaning the scene and theme are already developed before I put them down on paper.

  6. What a thoughtful post! You always come up with such great topics.

    My intuition and intellect are always at war. Perhaps that’s why they’re both so damaged. 🙂 While my intuition is responsible for any good ideas I’ve ever developed (and it’s questionable whether I’ve actually created any good ideas!), they’d never get written if it weren’t for the intellect. I’d sit around and daydream all day if I could. It’s my intellect that provides the nuts and bolts of the novel. There are moments when I find myself writing words that just seem to flow out of me, but for the most part, I have to think about each word, sentence, paragraph. Like Linda, I go back and reread and edit. I know this is supposed to be a no no. And I am a slow writer because of it. But I actually enjoy it despite the frustrations that develop.

    So, maybe my intuition and intellect aren’t at war. They just bicker like an old married couple who wouldn’t have it any other way. 😉

  7. I’d like to think that intuition and intellect are inseparable and that they inform each other during the writing process. Sure, they are sometimes at loggerheads with each other, but I don’t think I can eschew one for the other.

  8. I keep reading that you should write your first draft with abandon, but I never can seem to let go of my intellect. I suppose I can write a short story or poetry that way. But a whole novel? I have to know where I am going. I do let my intuition fill in the blanks between, but I have to have the skeleton of a story at least. If I don’t have concrete ideas to start with, I won’t have the inspiration to even get started. I’m really trying to turn off my self editor and let my muse take control more often. I think I’ve done a better job at that in the past week, and I believe I’m finally making progress.

    1. Hi Jana – nice to see around. I hope that means you were able to take advantage of your inspiration, sounds like you were.
      Like Linda and Laura say, you have to find what works for you. Do you feel the need to let your muse have more control? I have come across a few writers in workshops who rely entirely on their intellect and are excellent writers.

      1. Yes, I finally got back to writing because of NaNoWriMo. I’m still working on the novel I started last November, but my husband decided to do it this year so I’m unofficially trying to do it along with him. Since he’s writing too, it gives me more motivation and more opportunity to write without feeling guilty about neglecting him. 🙂

        The reason I’m trying to let loose a bit more with my writing is that I drive myself crazy with planning and editing. I want to actually make some real progress. As it is, I still have a whole chapter to revise before I can even think of going on to the next part. I suppose my first draft will be a lot neater that way, but it just gets so frustrating sometimes.

        In fact, that is a big part of the reason I pretty much gave up on writing fiction for seven years after getting married. I stuck with music for quite a while because it was something I could do with my husband. It wasn’t until the insanity of being a full-time mom caught up to me that I realized I needed something of my own. But now I have very limited time, so I really wish I could make more progress. Sorry, I really should save my rambling for my own blog. 🙂

      2. Oh no, Jana, I love listening to writers ramble. Given how much we edit ourselves it is not something I get to hear often!
        I am constantly trying to appease myself due to lack of output. For me, in this balancing act, the mommy role tends to tip the scales, but I when I write I have to put this frustration aside, otherwise it slows me down even more. I wish you wonderful writing!

  9. It’s so weird to read this post from you. I just read a post by Dani Shapiro on the same thing. And I’m writing this way–not knowing anything–right now for the first time ever. It’s so much fun. I hope to do a post on the way this process is working for me shortly.

    But I’m not so sure I’d call it intuition. More like an absence of intention. Or an absence of thinking.

    I also agree with Linda that there is no right way to write, that each person just needs to find what works best for him or her.

    Nice post, Jennifer.

    1. “absence of intention” – that is interesting. Hmmm. Do not think I have ever written in this manner, and to be honest cannot wrap myself around such a notion. Look forward to that post from you.
      I am certain this phrase will be floating around in my mind for a while…

  10. Hi Jennifer, great post.
    I do struggle to balance intellect and intuition. As a younger writer I relied almost entirely on intuition. I was prolific to say the least. After studying at university I started to become more motivated by goal and it changed the way I approached writing. I don’t think it was a good thing at all. I tend to edit as a I write now and it’s hard work. With intuitive writing you can get it all out now and edit later.

    1. Hi Sharon. “motivated by goal” – I suffered from this too over the summer! I cannot edit as I write, it cuts my focus on the story. Actually, any form of thinking does so (what a bizarre thing for me to say.)

  11. I wrote a long, impulsive response to this last week but something in my subconscious must have told me it was drivel as I didn’t press the submit button. This was a double triumph for intuition I think.

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