I keep wanting to talk to you guys about id-related writing stuff, but it’s such a pseudo-concept Cat and I half-invented to discuss a certain kind of writing, that I’m going to have to explain it first.

Leave all actual psychological understanding of the term at the door.

Cat, who has a degree in psychology, was going to write me a post about it. Then she decided that to do the actual psychological concept of id justice she would need to write a PHD thesis on it. Which hopefully she is actually going to do.

So here’s the made-up version:

I’ve been using the word “id” a lot recently – mostly to describe the quality in writing that I most enjoy. My over-eager use of the word has led to quite a few of those awkward moments where someone more honest than I looks at me a little confused and says, “What exactly is id writing?”


Good question.

My loose understanding of the concept is this: You know when you come across a scene in a book, or a premise for a story, and the emotion of it grabs you by the guts? It doesn’t have to be sophisticated, and it certainly doesn’t have to be an emotion or moral you would agree with. But something about it is primal and captivating, and there’s no question that the idea of it grabbed the writer and wouldn’t let go until it was written down.

For me, that is id writing. The thing that appeals to you on your most basic level – often in ways that are confronting, or that you wouldn’t expect, or that contradict what you rationally look to for fulfilment. It is the satisfaction of a childish emotional urge that cannot be reasoned with.

I decided, after a few too many of those awkward looks, to do a wee bit of id research (i.e. look it up on wikipedia). It’s fascinating reading. It all begins, of course, with Freud.

According to Freud (and now I feel like I’m back at uni) the id is the instinctual part of the human mind, whose only master is the pleasure principle. It’s a powerful drive for self-gratification that’s free of moral conscience. Contradictory impulses exist without negating each other; it is “the great reservoir of libido”, and it houses the “death instinct”.

We’re born id-ridden. We are all animal, all instinct. The heart wants what the heart wants.

Then, as reality starts making itself felt, we develop ego. Ego is the realist. It takes the desires and drives of the id and manages them in relation to reality. It compromises and goes into damage control. It lies to the id about reality, to make it more palatable.

The ego is where we develop defence mechanisms. The id runs into disaster – the ego makes a plan for how to stop that from happening next time.

The last of the trifecta is super-ego, the idealist and perfectionist. The super-ego has all the conscience, and it deals out punishment in the form of guilt when the ego hasn’t managed the mediate the contradictory goals of id and super-ego. The super-ego is what makes our behaviour socially acceptable.

So when I describe writing as coming from the id, you can start to get a picture of what that means. It’s writing that strips away the layers of sociable behaviour, then strips away the acceptable reality of the ego, and taps into the pure instinctive drive towards pleasure and destruction.

A good sign that you’ve tapped into an id-idea – you feel extremely confronted by it. And that doesn’t even mean it’s a full-on idea, objectively. Just that, to you, there’s something taboo about expressing it.

It’s fascinating, actually, discussing someone else’s id-idea with them. You can see it in their face, hear it in their voice, how difficult it is to even bring themselves to speak it – even though the idea itself is more often than not something completely innocuous to the listener.

One friend had to almost whisper the idea that her two characters might cook each other dinner and take care of each other.

Sounds like nothing, right? But when someone feels it that deeply – when it’s such a subversive, breathless idea to them – you can be sure that scene is going to be breathless and subversive to read.

This is where you risk something, when you write.

It’s why I went so deep into fan fiction. Fan fiction is all id. The only reason you would take characters from a world and explore them deeper is because something about them or the world-premise grabbed you right where your most instinctive desires and pleasures are, and wouldn’t let go. And because you’re not writing to a market, you can express every single one of those ideas without censorship.

Censorship is pretty much the antidote to id. Which is why those self-published novels that are badly written and unedited are doing so well. I’d bet good money on them being chockers full of id.

Once you start paying attention, you can spot id. Sometimes it’s overt – the Japanese have id coming out their ears, so almost any anime will be full of id. The character premise and relationships – and especially the way you can be sure whatever the premise, they’ll explore it to its most extreme end. The first book I read where there was no moving for id was Anne Bishop’s Daughter of the Blood. Her anti-hero is Daemon Sadi, the fallen son of Satan, who has spent centuries as a pleasure slave. He’s controlled by a magical cock-ring that hasn’t always been strong enough to contain his rage. But often it’s less crazy-obvious.

If our id is the animal part of us, then reading id writing is something like a hand brushed rough and good through our fur.

Cat and I have discussed id so often, and gotten so good at spotting it in each other, that now when one of us is confronted by an idea our first reaction is: “You have to write that.”

So next time you get a glimmer of an idea that terrifies you, or you think up a line of dialogue that makes you blush and go, “No way could I ever write that! Writing that would crack the world open!” – write. Explore. Be brave. It’ll be worth it.

Comments 5 Responses

    1. anna cowan Post author

      I read almost exclusively id. I think of “worthy” books as being more ego, which isn’t entirely fair, probably :-). Although I’ve noticed that the historical romances I’m more drawn to these days aren’t as id-tastic – I like the thoughtful, complex, gritty ones (though they certainly have their id moments, too. I guess the very idea of romantic love comes squarely from the id).

  1. bleuet

    This is such a vast and interesting topic!
    So do you think beauty of language itself can be an id idea? What about the struggle of characters to overcome *their* id part with ego? Doesn’t the *wish* to be able to control oneself also come from the id? I mean, how do you classify where an impulse came from in the first place? And what about perfectionists? The need to follow one’s ideals can be extremely emotional – so, wouldn’t that be id also (?_?)
    Well, the topic is not only ineresting but confusing, too 🙂
    In any case, I think this idea of yours is very worthy of furter exploration… keep us updated if you have any new ideas!
    Also, how is your young adult novel coming along?

    1. anna cowan Post author

      So many interesting questions! The Arts Major part of me wants to say, Yes, all things can be understood in the framework of id. But the writer part of me is going to say – I don’t think they can. Beautiful language, for example. It is deeply satisfying to read – it does, without a doubt, touch some instinctive part of us. But to me it feels more bound up in consciousness and learning. More ego or even super-ego, the perfectionist. (And again – all my knowledge comes from reading Wikipedia, so this is mostly made up! 🙂 ) The super-ego has as much pull on the ego as the id, so I would say the desire for perfection comes from super-ego. There’s something refining/restraining/planning/wishing about perfectionism that doesn’t feel like it comes from the animal desire for immediate gratification (I guess the distinction here is: emotion isn’t only tied to the id).

      That being said, coming across the id in writing wouldn’t have the effect it has without ego. It’s because ego tells us to curb these desires that they become taboo, and powerful. And as you say – this struggle in a character in a book is super interesting, too! To me, romance is all about characters overcoming the defence mechanisms of the ego and acknowledging what the id wants.

      Here’s hoping Cat writes that PHD thesis, right?

      The YA novel’s coming along! I just had my first meeting with my editors, so there are some pretty massive rewrites in my immediate future. Will post about it soon.

  2. Pingback: reading while academic: or id, ego, superego | diary of a(n accidental) housewife

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