Writing in the Dark

The 1999 movie Instinct features a metaphorical scene for writers. Dr. Powell is an anthropologist imprisoned for murdering men who have killed the band of gorillas he was studying. A young psychiatrist, Dr. Theo Calder, is studying Powell, hoping to find a way to free him. In the scene relevant to us, Calder tries to prevent Powell from ending a session early. Calder claims he’s the one in charge. He will decide when it’s over.  Powell deftly locks him into a life-and-death grip, demonstrating that if he chose to he could kill him in an instant. While holding Calder in this crushing arm-lock, Powell urges him to use his free hand and a crayon to write down on a tablet what he has lost … or else.Instinct

Calder quickly scribbles the word, “Control.”

Wrong answer. Powell applies more pressure but gives him another chance.

“My freedom,” he writes. He’s struggling to breathe, his eyes streaming with tears.


One more chance, Powell tells him, and if he doesn’t get it right, his life is over. “What have I taken from you?” Powell demands to know.

With a red crayon, Calder slowly spells out, “My illusions.”

Right answer. Powell lets go. The young psychiatrist had believed that because he was outside the prison and was the one who could help Powell, he was in control. From this experience with Powell, he realizes that much about what he believed he controlled in other areas of his life were illusory as well. He’d become enlightened. Thereafter, he work with Powell succeeds.

So, what does this have to do with writing? To me, it jumped right out. We are Calder and the writing process is Powell. We often believe we’re in control, especially early in our careers (which Calder was). We’re confident in our abilities, we have something outlined, and we believe that, with our mental guidance, it will turned out as exactly as we envision.

Yet when writing is truly imaginative, when a writer lives in it and uses it as a medium of human experience, what’s really in control is that sudden inspiration at the edge of consciousness that makes a story work in an unexpected way. It’s that unbidden image that floats into a daydream. It’s that unexpected flash of a new plot twist that makes it all fall in to place.

Our imagination can take us places we’ve never known. To get there, we must release our illusion of calculated control, like Calder, and let it have its way. We must trust an inner force we can’t fully grasp.

When we immerse and allow, we see more and feel more. There’s an organicity to writing. We live it when we trust it, and it repays us with hidden aspects of character, idea, and plot that already thrives within us. Forcing a mental fence around something that’s inherently wild undermines the very goal we ultimately seek.


Katherine Ramsland has published 54 books and over 1,000 articles. She directs a master’s program in criminal justice and is a professor of forensic psychology. A frequent commentator on crime documentaries, her book about the inspirations of writing is Snap! Seizing your Aha! Moments.