One of my biggest weaknesses as a writer is an overactive sense of control. I guess you could call it the “internal editor,” but it’s not something editing my words so much as something screening my basic ideas. My reception from my subconscious is stilted. So I’m drawn to writing books that talk more about accessing ideas than the actual structuring of a novel or the prose within it.
So several months ago I read From Where You Dream: The Process of Writing Fiction by Robert Olen Butler. What follows is a bunch of notes I took as I read this book. Direct quotes are in quote marks, and are from Butler unless stated otherwise. All other notes are paraphrases/notes/thoughts/responses. (The most important part of the book, the process he recommends for “dreaming” a novel, I will save for next week.)
“To be an artist means never to avert your eyes.”—Japanese film director Akira Kurosawa.
“You need courage, and that’s something I can’t teach you.”
“As an artist, like everyone else on this planet, you encounter the world out there primarily in your bodies, moment to moment through your senses.”
“The artist is comfortable only with going back to the way in which the chaos is first encountered—that is, moment to moment through the senses. Then, selecting from that sensual moment-to-moment experience, picking out bits and pieces of it, reshaping it, she recombines it into an object that a reader in turn encounters as if it were experience itself.”
Don’t say you have an idea for a story. Art does not come from the mind. It comes from where you dream, your unconscious, the white-hot center of you.
“Emotions are experienced in the senses and therefore are best expressed in fiction through the senses.”
They are expressed in five ways:
1) Sensual reaction inside your body: temp., heartbeat, muscle reaction, neural change.
2) Outside of body: posture, gesture, facial expressions, tone of voice.
3) flashes of the past—in images.
4) sensual selectivity—the particular messages from our senses that we do and don’t notice. “Landscape is character.”—Henry James.
“Your past is full of stories that have been composed in a certain way; that’s what memories are. But only when they decompose are you able to recompose them into new works of art.”
“Not only is your mind the enemy, not only is your will, your rational thinking, your analytic thinking the enemy, but yoru literal memories are also the enemy.”
Write every day—makes it easier to get into dreamspace. Same place is helpful—cues the subconscious. Good idea to do it first thing in the morning, “only moments away from a literal dreamspace.” Don’t let ANY language get in your mind between waking up and writing. Music helps many. Do not force it. “If you have the itch to write before inspiration has visited you, spend that time meditating in your unconscious.”
Only one kind of journaling is helpful. Recall an event that evoked an emotion. Record the event in your journal ONLY moment-to-moment through the senses. NEVER name an emotion, explain, analyze or interpret it. Render as a scene, with all the external and internal events, concentrating on those five ways of showing emotion through senses.
“But neither are you brainstorming. Your dreamstorming, inviting the images of moment-to-moment experience through your unconscious.”
“Voice is the embodiment in language of the contents of your unconscious.”
Don’t decide ahead of time to “write a novel.” Is it a short story or a novel? “You have a vision of the world and that vision has a natural form; you don’t know what will turn out to be the natural form of your vision [until you write it].”
“Oftentimes I’ve found that my novels come out of the wedding of two separate visions that seemed to be two different novels, two books that really weren’t working and seemed quite different from each other.”
“Be alert to the fact that you must achieve a trance-like state in order to write from your unconscious.”
Revising: go back and read. The words should thrum. When they don’t (twang!), mark those passages. Then go back and re-dream them. “Rewriting is redreaming. Rewriting is redreaming till it all thrums.”
All the things you remember, everything you’ve learned about craft, all the wonderful fiction you’ve read, goes into the compost heap but they “must first be forgotten—at least while you are in your creative trance—before they can be authentically engaged in the creation of a work of art.”
3 fundamentals of fiction: 1) it’s about human beings, 2) it’s about human emotion, 3) it’s about human yearning.
Plot = the dynamics of desire.
“Until a character with yearning has emerged from your unconscious, I don’t encourage you to write.” (It doesn’t require your understanding, just your intuition.)
You can play around, trying narrator’s voice, exploring character’s attitudes and opinions, while waiting for intuition about your MC’s desire. But once it comes, put that preliminary writing away. Then, dream your way into what might upset the equilibrium of his world. This is the inciting incident. Following the inciting incident (death of Hamlet’s father) is the point of attack (ghost appears to Hamlet). This point introduces the conflict (a manifestation of the character’s yearning).
Make sure that something is at stake.
Good fiction should be like film:
PLOT=basic unit, uninterrupted flow of imagery.
CUT=a form of transition
SCENE=unified action occurring in single time and space, usually composed of shots connected.
SEQUENCE=group of scenes that make a dramatic segment of a film.
MONTAGE=placing two things next to each other. Juxtaposing elements. (Ex.: “She looked out the window. A cat crouched under the picnic table.”—we don’t need to say “she saw a cat crouching . . . “)
Narrative voice can place us at a distance or bring us into intimate proximity according to the choice of detail to show.
In music, “rub” is when an expectation is set up (with rhythm, harmonics, color) and then suddenly the music cuts against the grain (spins harmonics, shifts keys, varies rhythm). THAT’S when you get goosebumps. Try it with character. When you’re inside character’s yearnings, going in one direction, showing certain attitudes, open your subconscious to the opposite, cut against the grain, rub the thing that sounds predictable.
Coming next week: Butler’s strategy for “dreaming” a novel.