Andre Dubus III on Writing as Dreaming, not Thinking

andre dubus III

In yet another restorative essay for the artist’s soul from Light the Dark: Writers on Creativity, Inspiration, and the Artistic Processthe same treasure trove that gave us the encouraging words of Maggie Shipstead, Marilynne Robinson, Yiyun Li, Khaled Hosseini, Hanya Yanagihara, Mary Gaitskill and Elizabeth Gilbert, novelist Andre Dubus III adds his own insights to the storehouse of wisdom on the craft.  After he stumbled upon Richard Bausch’s dictum “Do not think, dream” in the soul-nourishing Letters to a Fiction Writer, a compendium of letters from literary artists as acclaimed as Joyce Carol Oates, Ray Bradbury, and Raymond Carver, it became the bedrock of his writing philosophy.  Today the phrase acts as an eternal reminder that art belongs first and foremost to the imagination, not rationality:

“We’re all born with an imagination.  Everybody gets one.  And I really believe—this is just from years of daily writing—that good fiction comes from the same place as our dreams.  I think the desire to step into someone else’s dream world, is a universal impulse that’s shared by us all.  That’s what fiction is.  As a writing teacher, if I say nothing else to my students, it’s this.

Here’s the distinction.  There’s a profound difference between making something up and imagining it.  You’re making something up when you think out a scene, when you’re being logical about it.  You think, “I need this to happen so some other thing can happen.”  There’s an aspect of controlling the material that I don’t think is artful.  I think it leads to contrived work, frankly, no matter how beautifully written it might be.  You can hear the false note in this kind of writing. 

This was my main problem when I was just starting out: I was trying to say something.  When I began to write, I was deeply self-conscious.  I was writing stories hoping they would say something thematic, or address something that I was wrestling with philosophically.  I’ve learned, for me at least, it’s a dead road.  It’s writing from the outside in instead of the inside out.

But during my very early writing, certainly before I’d published, I began to learn characters will come alive if you back the fuck off.  It was exciting, and even a little terrifying.  If you allow them to do what they’re going to do, think and feel what they’re going to think and feel, things start to happen on their own.  It’s a beautiful and exciting alchemy.  And all these years later, that’s the thrill I write to get: to feel things start to happen on their own.

So I’ve learned over the years to free-fall into what’s happening.  What happens then is, you start writing something you don’t even really want to write about.  Things start to happen under your pencil that you don’t want to happen, or don’t understand.  But that’s when the work starts to have a beating heart.”

As writer, teacher and creativity guru Julia Cameron argues in her transformative The Artist’s Way, writing is about getting something down— not thinking something up.  Andre Dubus III is a devoted adherent to this school of thought.  Rather than consciously manufacture a contrived plot, what Cameron would call “think something up” forcefully from intellect and egotistic self-will, Dubus maintains the novelist must simply listen to the whisperings of inspiration and write down the story as it naturally unfolds.  What does he see in his imagination?  what does he hear?  smell?  Though aspiring writers imagine constructing a novel is a methodical, orderly affair with clearly discrete, delineated steps like they were taught in school, the actual act of writing is a far messier process.  Most accomplished novelists will tell you they rarely have a complete conception of a book when they first get started: they might have an idea of how it will begin and end but how it will ultimately get from point a to point b remains a mystery.  Much like legendary journalist Joan Didion who asserted writing was a voyage of discovery (“I write,” she confessed, “to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means.  What I want and what I fear.”) or Agnes De Mille who claimed to create was a daring act of faith (“The artist never entirely knows,” she wisely observed, “We guess.  We may be wrong, but we take leap after leap in the dark.”), Dubus believes writing requires we relinquish control, embrace uncertainty, and simply trust:

“So you can dream by being curious—by being curious enough to report back what’s in front of your narrative eye.  I love that line from E.L. Doctorow: “Writing a novel is like driving at night.  You can only see as far as your headlights—” but you keep going until you get there.  I’ve learned over the years to just report back anything that I see in front of the headlights: Are they yellow stripes or white?  What’s on the side of the road?  Is there vegetation?  What kind?  What’s the weather?  What are the sounds?  If I capture the experience all along the way, the structure starts to reveal itself.  My guiding force and principle for shaping the story is to just follow the headlights.  That’s how the architecture is revealed.”

Ultimately, there are two distinct stages of the writing process: the “dreaming” and the “thinking”— or the creative and the critical.  The creative phase is formless, freewheeling, disorderly, intuitive, irrational whereas the critical is structured and systematic, analytical and logical.  If the creative phase is brainstorming and free writing, the critical is revising what we initially wrote.  For Dubus, dreaming and thinking are opposing but equally essential parts of the creative process: were we to write without first permitting the fun-loving partygoer of free association and exploratory imagination play, we’d produce only the most stiff ideas and dull cliches— if, that is, we wrote at all.  But if we never unleashed our stern, serious-minded school teacher onto our first drafts, we’d only have sloppy raw material.  The final critical stage is about evaluating what’s there.  Do our words clearly communicate our meaning or is there potential for misunderstanding?  Do we need to cut and condense or elaborate?  Do our style and voice convey the appropriate mood and tone?  After all, if we’re writing to reach the masses, we don’t want to employ the erudite, high-brow vocabulary of the New Yorker.  To write well we have to answer these questions as objectively as possible.

But how can we reach the peak of objectivity necessary to survey the land of our own ideas?  Dubus, much like Zadie Smith and Brenda Ueland, recommends letting some time elapse between the two stages as distance helps us regain a level of impartiality toward our work.  When we’re immersed in the task of writing, toiling at the page day after day, we naturally become attached to what we’ve written.  There’s a reason for the widespread metaphor of writing as childbirth: our writing is our baby, a fragile, delicate, shrieking thing we labored to create and therefore want to protect.  In much the same way our water breaks at the most inconvenient moment, an idea whispers into our ear begging (sometimes demanding) to be brought into existence.  So we obey the muse and write.  Like childbirth, the actual process of articulating ourselves is excruciating.  As we endeavor for months, sometimes years, to birth our idea, our yet born child wrenches our insides until we’re in so much pain we’re shouting obscenities at blameless nurses and cursing God as we race through emergency room corridors.  When the agony of labor is finally over and we’re gazing at our angelic child in the peaceful quiet of a white hospital room, we’re overcome by indescribable gratitude: we, mere mortals, miraculously created this living, breathing thing, a sentient being with consciousness and ten toes and fingers!  Is it any wonder we find it difficult to dispassionately evaluate our words?

No matter how unbearable it feels to “kill your darlings” as the oft repeated advice counsels, Dubus argues the difference between a good book and a great book is a ruthless attitude toward our work.  No matter how burdensome a word or laborious a line was to bring into being, no matter how strong our affection for a particularly graceful turn-of-phrase, we have to be willing to part with any sentence that doesn’t further our aim:

“Now, dreaming your way through a story is very useful at first—for the first draft, maybe the first two drafts.  But once the revision process begins, you’ve got to change your approach.  Bausch would be the first to say that once you dream it through, try to look at the result the way a doctor looks at an X-ray.  You’ve got to be terribly smart about it.  In the secondary period, you get more rational and logical about what you’ve dreamt—while still cooperating with the deeper truths of what you’ve made.

So once I have a beginning, middle, and end, I walk away from it for at least six months and don’t look at it.  At least six months.  To revise means “to see again”—well, how can you see again when you just looked at it 10 days ago?  No.  Have two seasons go between you.  And then when you pick it up and read it, you actually forget some of what happens in the story.  You forget how hard it was to write those 12 pages.  And you become tougher on it.  You see closer to what the reader is going to see.

What I look for at this point is dramatic tension, forward movement, and, frankly, beauty.  I try to make it as truly itself as possible.  And that’s when the major plotting comes in—plot, not as a noun but as a verb—the ordering of events and material.  I get really merciless.  I don’t care if I spent a year writing pages 1 through 96.  If I feel some real energy on page 93, and I think that should be page 1?  Those first 92 pages are fucking gone.  A merciless reviser is in a much better position to write a really good book than one who hasn’t got the stomach for it.  That may be the distinction between what makes a really good book and a great book.”

Though Dubus would never call himself a religious man, writing has convinced him something is out there— not God, a word too narrow a linguistic box to allow for mystery and too overburdened with intolerance and bloodshed, but some sort of higher power.  The imagination, the subconscious, the universal life force, fate, destiny, the almighty infinite spirit, the holy ghost, God: whatever term we prefer, Dubus believes creativity is a way of making contact with the unknowable.  Speaking of his opera Madame Butterfly, Puccini confessed, “The music was dictated to me by God.  I was merely instrumental in getting it on paper and communicating it to the public.”  Even the most adamantly secular among us can admit we too have had the mystical experience of being a vessel, of our words coming not from our own minds but from somewhere else.  For Dubus, being an artist requires we simply transcribe what is dictated to us—  we don’t need to know exactly where we’re going or how it’ll turn out.  Because we live in a scientific age where we exalt definitive answers, merely having faith that page after page will order itself into something comprehensible seems stupid, borderline absurd.  Just “trust in the process”?  Ha!  It sounds like a bunch of hokey New Age nonsense.  We want assurance that all our efforts will lead to a finished product.  But art, Dubus believes, demands we take leap after leap in the dark:

“I don’t believe in God, but I believe in something: Something’s out there.  And the main reason I believe that something’s out there—something mysterious and invisible but real—largely has come from my daily practice of writing.  There’s a great line from an ancient anonymous Chinese poet: We poets knock upon the silence for an answering music.  The way I write, the way I encourage people I work with to try to write is exactly this: Trust your imagination.  Free fall into it.  See where it brings you to.  It’s scary, it’s unorganized, and you’re going to have to prepare yourself for some major fucking rewriting—and maybe cut two years of work.

I know, putting up this kind of uncertainty is very difficult.  We bring ourselves into these rooms.  We bring all of our hopes, all of our longings, all of our shadows.  What writing asks of us is the opposite of what being in the American culture asks of us.  You’re supposed to have a five-year plan.  Young people now are so cautious.  Oh, we can’t get married until we have a house.  Oh, we can’t have a baby until we have 20 grand in the bank.  These crazy, careful people!  You know, look: Life is short if you live a hundred years.  Better to die naked and reckless and with passion—and not be afraid to fuck up and fail.”

With a rebellious spirit reminiscent of Cheryl Strayed, who once told a disheartened aspiring writer “you don’t have a career, you have a life,” Dubus concludes by affirming writing is not about agents or royalties or book deals- it’s about the writing itself:

“I think one of the downsides of MFA programs is they make people really career-conscious.  Fuck career.  Let me tell you something: I’m so grateful to have had a publishing career so far.  It’s how I make most of my living.  It’s been an incredible blessing.  It’s helped me take better care of my family than I could have ever thought possible.  But I do not ever think about career when I’m in my writing cave.  I do not.  I try not to think; I dream.  It’s my mantra.  I just get in there and try to be these people.  It’s not so I can write a book and get paid and have another book tour—though those are good problems to have.  It’s because I feel an almost sacred obligation to these spirits who came before: to sit with them and write their tale.”

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