Dostoevsky's Subconscious Creative Process

Many artists struggle with their work because they don't see how it comes to them and moves through to their canvas. This is a problem that can affect both experienced and inexperienced artists. Ayn Rand suggests the lack of understanding the creative process causes writers block at best, and at its worst contributes to lifelong stagnation, or degeneration, of the artist. “As a rule, he starts rather young; he shows what is called ‘unusual promise’; and in a few years you see him repeating the same thing, less brilliantly and originally each time – and soon he finds that he has nothing to write about.”[1] Fyodor Dostoevsky is a writer who exhibits the exact opposite phenomenon of which Rand speaks. He too initiated with “unusual promise,” but his work, instead of atrophy, improved over the span of his life and culminated in a novel many believe to be his best. For aspiring artists who have felt both promise and stagnation, learning the process of artwork is important, and Dostoevsky seems to be an ideal mentor. It is the goal of this essay to catch a glimpse of the philosophy of writing in the creative laboratory of Dostoevsky so that aspiring artists can understand how they might improve themselves and their work.

At the onset of her book, The Art of Fiction, Rand describes how the subconscious well of the writer, if filled properly, can provide the right thoughts at the right times and enable freedom of exposition. She suggests artistic work is a rational process; the thoughts that find their way to the page are not pulled from thin air, they are not mystically produced. She instead believes there are two elements at work at the time of creation, and they are both elements of the mind. She suggests the conscious mind does not, and cannot, create a work of art alone. The subconscious mind must contain the appropriate ideas at the time of creation. The artist’s spoon of consciousness must dip into the soup of subconscious thoughts and retrieve the right ideas and words. She suggests that if the soup has ideas the spoon will find them and the canvas will fill. If the soup is dry the spoon will find nothing and the canvas will remain empty (writers block).

By imitation more than by understanding, he caught on to the process of writing; he grasped that people can put ideas, feelings, impressions down on paper, and he did so. If he has enough original observations stored in his subconscious, certain literary values might be present in his work for a while (among a lot of meaningless junk). But once he has used up that store of early impressions, he has nothing more to say.[2]

However, this concept can not only explain the difference between finding a word and not, but can also explain the gradient landscape between good artists and great. The more rich the soup is with ideas, the more beautiful the artwork will be. For this reason it is important that the artist continually replenish the soup of subconscious with new ideas and thoughts. The artist should always “think over every aspect of the scene and every connection to anything relevant in the rest of the book.”[3] By continually entering new ideas into the soup and linking them to each other, when the artist finally sits down to create, the artist will produce a finer piece of artwork.

A rational writer can stoke his subconscious just as one puts fuel in a machine. If you keep storing things in your mind for your future writing and keep integrating your choice of theme to your general knowledge, allowing the scope of your writing to grow as your knowledge widens, then you will always have something to say, and you will find ever better ways to say it.[4]

Dostoevsky’s creative process closely resembles Rand’s ideal, and so his subconscious soup continually replenished with new thoughts. His thoughts arrived through personal experience, and those of others, and through reading. These thoughts would churn in his subconscious until they formed, at last, a first ecstasy, an initial inspiration, “in which artistic thoughts flash through the mind,” would spark his creative process. Dostoevsky believed the gravity of this first idea would pull in other similar ideas from the soup and form a, “mental embodiment,” a rough diamond, a “complete image,” from which to work. With the rough diamond then in his soul, he would begin “concrete shaping of the image,” the work of the jeweler, in his journey to complete a finished novel.[5]

He believed his creative process contained three unique steps: inspiration, mental embodiment and artistic fulfillment. The rest of this essay will discuss each step in its turn; however, it’s important to note that though this process is generally linear, that is to say that overall the creative process progressed from one phase to the next, the process, as a whole, is iterative. Dostoevsky, upon reaching the artistic fulfillment stage of the process, would revisit the inspiration and mental embodiment stages. It is also important to note that his earlier novels required significantly more iterations than his later novels. In fact, The Brother’s Karamazov required the fewest iterations of all his work.


The First Ecstasy

The first stage of Dostoevsky’s creative process is inspiration. Inspiration is formed from linking like ideas in the subconscious until a moving, and complex, idea appears. Dostoevsky, in a letter to his brother Mikhail, describes this stage as, “the first, momentary creation of a picture or movement in the soul.”[6]

A poem, in my opinion, is like a natural precious stone, a diamond in the soul of the poet, quite ready-made in all its essence, and just this is the first work of the poet … the first part of creation …[7]

An example for the first ecstasy for The Brother’s Karamazov might have been the “irreconcilable opposition between faith on the one hand, and the empirical and rational on the other.”[8] It is when this inspiration, the initial soul of the artwork, arrives in the conscious mind of the artist that the creation of the full idea, mental embodiment, can begin.

At this point there follows the second task of the poet, no longer so profound and mysterious, but only that of the artist: this is, on receiving the diamond, to refine and polish it. Here the poet is just about like a jeweler.[9]


Mental Embodiment

It takes considerable time for the first ecstasy to gather, for additional inspirations to glom on and become a rough diamond of significant weight and necessity. Dostoevsky spends most of his time in this stage, a largely subconscious stage with certain elements of conscious effort, where he searches outward and inward for ways to improve on, and polish, the inspiration. It is in this stage that Dostoevsky most closely embodies the craft of artistic creation suggested by Rand. He busies himself with the stoking of his subconscious by constantly researching new ideas and through contemplation.

One must store up, first of all, one or several strong impressions, really experienced in the heart of the author. Herein is the task of the poet. From this impression there develops a theme, plans, a harmonious whole. Here, now, is the task of the artist[10]

Dostoevsky filled himself with ideas by actively gathering information and anecdotes from the world and people around him. One example of such research occurred when Dostoevsky allowed an old sponger to sponge from him because of the tales he told. Dostoevsky, in another example, maintained friendship with Nikolai Strakhov, a scientist and philosopher, “who kept [Dostoevsky] informed about the developments of current scientific thought.”[11] Upon receiving his inspiration for The Brother’s Karamazov, Dostoevsky wrote his friend V.V. Mikhailov:

I have conceived and shortly will begin a large novel, in which many children and especially young children from about 7 to 16 years of age will take part … write to me about children, what you yourself know (circumstances, habits, sayings and so forth).[12]

Edward Wasiolek, in his introduction to The Notebooks for The Brother’s Karamazov, suggests one of the most dramatic instances of Dostoevsky filling himself with inspiration for a novel can be found during the years leading up to The Brother’s Karamazov, where he traveled around St. Petersburg looking for the soul of Russia. He gathered information and regularly published articles as part of his Diary of a Writer. In it he noted all the elements of Russian life that struck him in his heart, “it allowed [him] to have his say … and he did have his say on every conceivable subject: on politics, religion, criminals, women, spiritualism, drunkenness, children, and peasant life”[13] By placing his effort into understanding St. Petersburg, and the world in general, Dostoevsky directly and subconsciously formed the elements, the mental embodiment, of what would become The Brother’s Karamazov.

The Diary is a chronicle of every imaginable hurt, physical and psychological, of every manner of degradation and ill treatment, culled by Dostoevsky from reading, trial record, courtroom settings, and observation.[14]

The beggars (children) he meets on the streets and the fates he imagines when they return to their parents become in the novel the premises of universal revolt, of mankind against God.[15]

Wasiolek believes so strongly that The Brother’s Karamazov was pulled from the research that went into The Diary of a Writer that he suggests the diary, “reads like the historical correlative … yet seems to have been written so that the history did not have to be included in the novel itself.[16] However, Wasiolek does not stop there; he goes on to suggest that Dostoevsky had been writing the Brother’s Karamazov throughout his entire career. Every event of Dostoevsky’s life, everything he’s read, written, thought and experienced, had stewed in his subconscious mind waiting for the time The Brother’s Karamazov would be written. This concept fits Rand’s model perfectly and, given his concept of polishing the diamond, fits Dostoevsky’s idea of the second stage of his creative process as well.

There is hardly a character type, situation, technique, device or idea that Dostoevsky had not rehearsed before. Ivan’s metaphysical rebellion has its roots in Kirilov, Ippolit, and even in the Underground Man … Alyosha has his prototypes in Dostoevsky’s meek characters … Fyodor Karamazov goes back to the buffoons of the forties, through Levedev, (etc.)[17]


Artistic Fulfillment

The final stage of Dostoevsky’s creative process is the stage he found most difficult. He found that a philosophical dilemma, similar to the problem Rand suggests, exists between the thought of the idea (the dream), and the final written word. It is this stage that he believes he struggles most and where he most frequently returns to, and reflects on, the fruit of the previous stages. It is for this reason that this stage is further divided into two unique sub stages; the first converts the dream into concrete notes and second turns the notes into art.

Dostoevsky’s notes, sometimes loosely and sometimes carefully, detail the theme of the novel, the ideas in, and psychology of, the characters, the plot, the settings, etc. The notes are the sandbox in which his novels took form, in which he played with, arranged, and rearranged his ideas until he felt they expressed the story he wished to tell. In his notes for his earlier works (before The Brother’s Karamazov), Dostoevsky exhibits an iterative hunt for the soul of the novel.

The notes for The Idiot, The Possessed, and A Raw Youth, and to a lesser extent the notes for Crime and Punishment show us a Dostoevsky in search of his theme, narrative structure, and the identity of his major characters.[18]

The distance between notes and novels is greatest in these earlier works where he shows, also, the greatest struggle between thought and idea. He created notes and revised them constantly, likely because he did not allow his diamond to be significantly polished (as polished as for The Brother’s Karamazov) in his subconscious prior to starting the notebook stage.

He revised The Idiot eight times … he kept tearing up what he had written [The Devils] and starting all over again: he changed his plan at least ten times, drafted a huge number of variations, lost his reference files in the mountain of paper he had covered with writing, and at times was in complete despair at the complexity of the novel he had conceived.[19]

The note taking process, however complex and painful, was always essential. The notes served as his external subconscious, and enabled him to further perfect his mental embodiment of the image of the story. The ideas in his notes are overt, and fractured, versions of the scenes and characters that exist in the final creations, but without them, he would have no idea where to begin or end.

With the note sub-stage of artistic fulfillment complete, Dostoevsky would enter into the final effort of his creative process; turning notes into art. Here again he dipped into his subconscious mind in order to flesh out the ideas that found themselves in the notes. It is here, finally, that every thought connected to the dream, and every skill he had as an artist was utilized all at once, and where he found his greatest difficulty, “the direct fulfillment of the creative tasks he set out to resolve, the precise shaping of the material of life he observed in his mind’s eye.”[20] In a letter to Strakhov, Dostoevsky admits his final trouble with creation, that of pulling the appropriate thoughts to his conscious mind and forming them properly on the page, he says:

A multiplicity of separate novels and tales simultaneously are squeezed by me into one, so that there is neither measure nor harmony ... I undertake to express an artistic idea that is beyond my strength.[21]

Certainly, however, Dostoevsky’s grand ideas were not beyond his strength, nor beyond his time. Perhaps his ideas could not be finalized as perfectly as he wished, but there is an infinite well of thoughts, and a comparably minute, and finite, well of words they can be squeezed into. In this final step of his process, from notes to art, an important element of his creativity can be found, that of subtlety. As suggested earlier, his notes unambiguously expressed the elements that would inhabit the scenes of his novels. The journey from notes to artistic fulfillment is where we can catch a glimpse of his artistry.

Between the semantic gap, between the notes for The Brother’s Karamazov and the novel, his final novel, we find Dostoevsky at his best. He, “knows what he is writing about; the subject is firm, the identities of the chief characters are fixed, and the basic dramatic situation is clear.”[22] The distance between notes and art are considerably less than for any of his previous works; his subconscious soup was rich and his conscious spoon was well aimed. “Some of the scenes sketched in the notebooks are almost identical, even linguistically, with those of the final version … In the notes we have ‘Perhaps a four-year-old memory, ray of sunlight, pulpit and mother.’ The scene in the notes is abstract, fragmentary and undramatic; it has no people, emotions, drama, time.”[23] In the book the following fully realized, fully expressed, and final version exists:

He remembered a quiet summer evening, an open window, the slanting rays of the setting sun (these slanting rays he remembered most of all), an icon in the corner of the room, a lighted oil-lamp in front of it, and before the icon, on her knees, his mother, sobbing as if in hysterics, with shrieks and cries, seizing him in her arms, hugging him so tightly that it hurt, and pleading for him to the Mother of God, holding him out from her embrace with both arms towards the icon, as if under the protection of the Mother of God … and suddenly a nurse rushes in and snatches him from her in fear.

“The passage in the final version adds people, drama and action, time, space, tactile pressure, and emotions.”[24] The difference between the notes and novel are not dramatic in their change of content, but in the wealth of the features of the content. Wasiolek points out another section where notes and novel differ, but in this section, where a rich quantity exists in the notes, the difference instead resides in the subtle change of content.

The notes for chapter V, “The Grand Inquisitor,” are quite full and in most respects parallel what we have in the final version, but with some interesting exceptions. The aggression of the Grand Inquisitor against Christ is much stronger in the notes than in the novel … in the notes – and not in the novel – the Grand Inquisitor speaks of Christ having been “disgorged from Hell”; he calls him a sinner: “if there is a Single Sinner, then it is you yourself.” Most of this is implied in the novel, but it is not stated explicitly as it is in the notes.[25]


Writers Laziness

While remaining, to all appearances, idle, he, in fact, was working indefatigably …[26]


There is one final philosophical connection between Rand’s and Dostoevsky’s vision of the subconscious role of the creative process, and this connection rests with what Strakhov describes as “writer’s laziness.” He suggests that writers like Dostoevsky and Rand are never idle; they consistently work on their writing even when asleep. They work tirelessly until the idea is fully formed within them and requires a cathartic release. Writing for Dostoevsky was, “almost always an interruption of inner labor, an exposition of something that might have been developed still further to the point of a full perfection of imagery.”[27]

[Dostoevsky] often dreamed of what splendid things he might work out if he had the leisure; however, as he would say himself, the best pages of his works were created at once, without revisions – of course, as the consequence of an already matured thought.[28]

Rand similarly states that,

That is the happiest state a writer can reach and the most wonderful experience. You come to a scene and you feel as if somebody else is dictating it: you do not know what is coming, it is surprising you as it comes, you write almost in a blind trance – and afterward, when you reread it, it is almost perfect.[29]



The process of creating art is not easy. Rand and Dostoevsky show that creation requires in depth knowledge of not only the artwork itself, but also of the world. Without the appropriate tools, and without knowing oneself and the features of the surrounding environment, art might not find its way out the soul and onto the canvas. Rand and Dostoevsky suggest that one of the most important tools of any artist is the subconscious mind from which ideas spring. They suggest it’s important to constantly replenish it with ideas. With the subconscious full and vibrant it will be easy to combine disparate thoughts into the inspiration, and inspiration into the image, and the image into a work of art.



List of Works Cited

  • Jackson, Robert L. Dostoevsky’s Quest for Form, A Study of His Philosophy of Art. Connecticut: Connecticut Printers, Inc., 1966
  • Gocsik, Karen., “The Man and his Times.” (12 Dec 2006)
  • Rand, Ayn. The Art of Fiction, A Guide for Writers and Readers. New York: Penguin Putnam, Inc., 2000
  • Kaladiouk, Anna S. “On ‘Sticking to the Fact’ and ‘Understanding Nothing’: Dostoevsky and the Scientific Method.” The Russian Review, Vol. 65 Issue 3. Oxford, Blackwell Publishing Limited, Jul 2006
  • Wasiolek, Edward. The Notebooks for The Brother’s Karamazov. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1971

[1] The Art of Fiction, Page 7   [2] The Art of Fiction, Page 7   [3] The Art of Fiction, Page 5  [4] The Art of Fiction, Page 7  [5] Dostoevsky’s Quest for Form, Page 164  [6] Dostoevsky’s Quest for Form, page 163  [7] Dostoevsky’s Quest for Form, page 165  [8] Dostoevsky and the Scientific Method, page 420  [9] Dostoevsky’s Quest for Form, page 166  [10] Dostoevsky’s Quest for Form, page 167  [11] Dostoevsky and the Scientific Method, page 423  [12] The Notebooks for The Brother’s Karamazov, page 1  [13] The Notebooks for The Brother’s Karamazov, page 6  [14] The Notebooks for The Brother’s Karamazov, page 8  [15] The Notebooks for The Brother’s Karamazov, Page 6  [16] The Notebooks for The Brother’s Karamazov, Page 9  [17] The Notebooks for The Brother’s Karamazov, page 2  [18] The Notebooks for The Brother’s Karamazov, page 12  [19] The Man and his Times, online  [20] Dostoevsky’s Quest for Form, page 169  [21] Dostoevsky’s Quest for Form, page 168  [22] The Notebooks for The Brother’s Karamazov, page 13  [23] The Notebooks for The Brother’s Karamazov, page 13  [24] The Notebooks for The Brother’s Karamazov, page 13  [25] The Notebooks for The Brother’s Karamazov, page 63  [26] Dostoevsky’s Quest for Form, page 172  [27] The Notebooks for The Brother’s Karamazov, page 172  [28] The Notebooks for The Brother’s Karamazov, page 172  [29] The Art of Fiction, page 6