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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Elizabeth Gilbert on Joy, Curiosity & Having the Courage to Rejoice in the Marvels & Mysteries of Existence

A writer of buoyant spirit and large-hearted generosity, Gilbert shares her always life-affirmingelizabeth gilbert wisdom in her essay, “In Praise of Stubborn Gladness”— yet another gem from Light the Dark: Writers on Creativity, Inspiration, and the Artistic Process.  When asked what inspires her, Gilbert chose a passage from magnetic, mysterious poet Jack Gilbert, whom she first learned of when she was teaching creative writing at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville— a rotating position that brought a new visiting writer every year.  Coincidentally, the writer before her had been Jack Gilbert (“I started jokingly calling the position The Gilbert Chair,” she laughed to editor Joe Fassler).  Curious about this man who shared both her classroom and her name, Gilbert began to investigate.  Jack Gilbert, she learned, secured renown early in his career: in 1962, his first collection of poems, Views of Jeopardy, won the Yale Prize and was nominated for a Pulitzer alongside such luminaries as Robert Frost and William Carlos Williams.  He soon rose to the status of literary icon, his captivating good looks gracing the pages of Vogue and Glamour.  Then he disappeared.  For twenty years, he wrote but didn’t publish a single line of poetry.  Though he could have led a glittery life of glamour and celebrity, he chose a quiet existence sequestered from the public eye, residing at various times in Denmark, Greece and Italy.  An unrelenting protector of his privacy, Gilbert only did two major interviews in his life, a brilliant one for the Paris Review and another with the legendary editor Gordon Lish.  When Lish asked him how his self-imposed exile had affected his career, Gilbert laughed, “I suppose it’s been fatal, but I don’t really care!”

At the University of Tennessee, Gilbert’s rejection of fame surrounded him with a sort of mystique.  His romantic Whitmanesque poetry along with his Thoreau-like dismissal of modern notions of success captivated students, who left his classroom emboldened to be more daring and authentic.  “Do you have the courage to be a poet?” he supposedly asked one of his graduate students, “The jewels that are hiding inside of you are begging you to say yes!”  Rather than instruct these young literary hopefuls in the practical business of writing— how to get an agent, how to write a query, how to get published— he challenged them to completely immerse themselves in the marvels and mysteries of human experience, both the ecstasy and agony, solace and suffering, contentment and discontentment.

Of all his works, Ms. Gilbert calls “A Brief for the Defense” her favorite.  A poem she describes as “biblical in scope,” “A Brief for the Defense” ponders how we can reconcile life’s beauty with life’s wretchedness — in other words, the question of how we ought to conduct ourselves.  It begins with heartbreaking images— “sorrow,” “slaughter,” “starvation”— that reveal human suffering’s omnipresence:

“Sorrow everywhere.  Slaughter everywhere.  If babies

are not starving someplace, they are starving

somewhere else.  With flies in their nostrils.”

For Gilbert, the beauty of the poem is the way it embraces the paradoxical incongruity of “and” over the simplistic black-and-white thinking of “either/or.”  Unlike the blind optimist, who believes good must always triumph over evil, or the despairing pessimist, who believes the world is wicked and cruel, “A Brief for the Defense” suggests to be human is both joy and misery, the Garden of Eden and Dante’s infernal hell.  Despite the existence of “sorrow” and “starvation” and “slaughter,” there’s still ecstasy and exultation, compassion and connection, love and laughter.  Or as Anne Lamott, writer of breathtaking honesty and woman of whole-hearted wisdom might say, “Periods in the desert or wilderness are not lost time.  You might find life, wildflowers, fossils, sources of water.”

In the end, “A Brief for the Defense” is just that— a defense, a defense of delight and joy though life can be heartless.  Today the line— “We must have the stubbornness to accept our gladness in the ruthless furnace of this world”— has become the first commandment of Gilbert’s personal credo, a kind of mantra she recites to remind herself to maintain her joie de vivre, her sense of play and wonder, despite the seriousness of suffering in the world:

“So it begins with an admission of how devastating the world is, how unfair and how sad.  He goes on to say what he’s seen from a life of watching very carefully: women at the fountain in a famine-stricken town, “laughing together between / the suffering they have known and the awfulness / in their future.”  He describes the “terrible streets” of Calcutta, caged prostitutes in Bombay laughing.  So there’s this human capacity for joy and endurance, even when things are at their worst.  A joy that occurs not despite our suffering, but within it.

When it comes to developing a worldview, we tend to face this false division: Either you are a realist who says the world is terrible, or a naïve optimist who says the world is wonderful and turns a blind eye.  Gilbert takes this middle way, and I think it’s a far better way: he says the world is terrible and wonderful, and your obligation is to joy.  That’s why the poem is called “A Brief for the Defense”—it’s defending joy.  A real, mature, sincere joy—not a cheaply earned, ignorant joy.  He’s not talking about building a fortress of pleasure against the assault of the world.  He’s talking about the miraculousness of moments of wonder and how it seems to be worth it, after all.  And one line from this poem is the most important piece of writing I’ve ever read for myself:

We must risk delight.  We can do without pleasure,

but not delight.  Not enjoyment.  We must have

the stubbornness to accept our gladness in the ruthless

furnace of this world.

This defines exactly what I want to strive to be—a person who holds onto “stubborn gladness,” even when we dwell in darkness.  I want to be able to contain both of them within me at the same time, remain able to cultivate joy and wonder even at life’s bleakest.”

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For writer of the smash hit Eat, Pray, Love and, more recently, the spirit-emboldening treatise on art, inspiration and creativity, Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear, Gilbert’s poetry radiates with a profound reverence for paying attention—a simple act that, in our hurried, heedless age, seems like a lost art.  Much like the Buddhists, who suggest peace and enlightenment arises from dwelling deeply in the present moment without judgement, Gilbert believes we should savor the full range of human experience, never flinching from what frightens us.  His philosophy of “stubborn gladness” is not just a commitment to joy and wonderment— it’s an unwavering conviction that to be alive is endlessly magnificent.  Every experience— death, destruction, divorce, decay— can be fascinating if we get curious and take notice.  Or to borrow the words of Herman Hesse, all things, even the uninteresting and ugly, have their “vivid aspects”:

“He has another poem that’s a conversation between him and the gods, who offer him a chance to be famous if he would just give up his weird life.  But he doesn’t settle for that.  He says:

Let me fall

in love one last time, I beg them.

Teach me mortality, frighten me

into the present.

Give me something real, he’s asking, and he’s not fooling around.  Who makes a prayer that includes the words “frighten me”?  That’s a bold thing to ask for.  It’s not “frighten” me in the sense of bungee jumping or surfing—it’s wanting to stand on the edge of the abyss and look in, look in carefully with an alert gaze.  It’s a commitment to literature, and a commitment to living.

I saw the same quality in my great aunt Lolly, who has not had an easy life—but she’s the most stubbornly glad person I’ve ever met.  When she was 85, I visited her and she said to me, “Guess what?  Guess what I have, Liz?”

What,” I said.

I have cancer,” she said, and this big grin spread across her face.  “Isn’t that interesting?”

And that’s part of stubborn gladness, too: to regard things, even the hardest things, as—at their base—interesting.  It’s hard to say that without sounding like a Pollyanna, but the people who you know who can really do this are not innocents.  You see it, too, in Steve Job’s last words: Oh wow. Oh wow. Oh wow.

Full-on wonder, even at the moment of death.

Jack Gilbert addresses this experience directly in “A Brief for the Defense”: “If the locomotive of the Lord runs us down,” he writes, “We should give thanks that the end had magnitude.”  That’s another one I always lean on.  At least it was magnificent—you lived and died, that’s magnificent.  To be able to summon some sort of wonder and gratitude for the fact you got to live and die is the highest calling.  It is the best way to go through life—it beats almost any other model of thinking I’ve ever encountered.”

Ms. Gilbert applies this philosophy of “stubborn gladness” not only to her life but to her art.  Because of our legacy of Christian martyrdom and German romanticism, we in the West tend to conflate art with suffering.  In our cultural consciousness, an artist is a tortured soul, a sensitive Van Gogh tormented by mental illness, a precocious Plath harrowed by manic-depression, a glamorous Sexton so haunted by suicidal thoughts that she locked herself in her garage and asphyxiated herself while dressed in her mother’s fur coat.  An artist, we imagine, is someone so delicate they can’t endure life itself.  Though there are innumerable artists throughout time who have been neither alcoholics nor mentally ill, the myth of the starving artist continues to captivate us, perhaps because there’s a certain allure to the image of a lone genius suffering for some heroic goal.  The theatrics of a turbulent marriage like Scott and Zelda’s, the drama of alcoholism like Hemingway and Faulkner’s, the wild lives of excess led by Led Zeppelin and the Doors: tales of talented if troubled artists are exciting— far more exciting than the day to day reality of writing a novel or recording an album.

Though such romantic notions of the artist’s life are enticing, making art does not have to be a Greek tragedy-level drama.  Creating only becomes painful when we bring our theatrics to the keyboard.  “How many times can you possibly use one word?” we’ll berate ourselves, “Have you ever heard of a thesaurus?”  “Really, you’re going to end your story that way?  Talk about uninspired…”  When we react to our disappointments with histrionics and melodrama, we make writing more distressing than it needs to be.  Instead of simply address the fact that our word choice is imprecise or our ending is only a first draft and a little sloppy, we throw up our hands in defeat.  “Who am I kidding?  I’m too unoriginal to be a writer…guess I better chug this vodka to distract myself from the embarrassment of a novel I’m writing.”  But there is a better way: just as we can remain “stubbornly glad” despite life’s catastrophes and calamities, we can maintain a detached objectivity despite our work’s many shortcomings:

“As someone who struggles with anxiety and cowardice, as we all do, I’m profoundly inspired by this full-on commitment to wonder, to wonder as a response to anguish or difficulty.  It makes everything a puzzle, right?  A catastrophe is nothing but a puzzle with the volume of drama turned up very high.  For now, I’m best with stubborn gladness when taking on the challenges in my writing life.  Because writing can be a very dramatic pursuit, full of catastrophes and disasters and emotion and attempts that fail.  My path as a writer became much more smooth when I learned that, when things aren’t going well, to regard my struggles as curious, not tragic.

So, How do we get through this puzzle?  That’s funny, I thought I could write this book and I can’t, instead of, I have to drink a bottle of gin before 11:00 to numb myself at how horrifying this is.  You could almost call it a spiritual practice I’ve cultivated over the years.  I really worked to create that kind of relationship—so that it’s not a chaotic fight.  I don’t go up against my writing and come out bloody-knuckled.  I don’t wrestle with the muse.  I don’t argue.  I try to get away from self-hatred, and competition, all those things that mark and mar so many writers’ careers and lives.  I try to remain stubborn in my gladness.”  

In the end, Gilbert’s poetry pleads for us to deliver ourselves from the shackles of caution and convention so we can develop into the most authentic expression of ourselves.  To live fully, to sip all the wonderful wines of life, to be unconditionally, unabashedly ourselves— for Gilbert, that was the ultimate goal.  But to write this way, to live this way— his protege reminds us—requires we be brave and bold:

“I have an uncle who’s a great reader of poetry, and I shared Jack Gilbert’s work with him.  He said he didn’t like him, and I asked why.  My uncle said, “I like the poems, but I don’t like the way the poems make me feel I haven’t lived a brave or interesting enough life.”  That’s the pain and pleasure of reading Gilbert.  He offers an uncompromising challenge to his readers: Make the very most of your life, no less.  In this, he holds up a model of something I would so love to be.  Sometimes I brush up against in it sideways ways, and then skirt away from it again—because I long for security and affirmation more than I long for the purity of a life spent in examination of the poetic mysteries.

Do you have the courage to be a poet?” Gilbert asked the graduate student, after all.  We need courage to take ourselves seriously, to look closely and without flinching, to regard the things that frighten us in life and art with wonder.  We tend to surround ourselves with the things that make us feel safe, but can then wall us in.  We’re aspirational, we’re ambitious, we’re insecure, we want comforts.  Live bravely when you’re young, we say.  And maybe again when you retire, if you play your cards right.  

Jack Gilbert refused that argument: No, I’m just going to live that way every single day of my life, thanks.  And he did, by all accounts.”

Light the Dark: Writers on Creativity, Inspiration, and the Artistic Process remains a must-read for writers hungry for inspiration or anyone fascinated by the mysterious workings of the muse.  For more wisdom on art, literature and life, explore the rest of the collection, especially the illuminating essays of Maggie Shipstead, Marilynne Robinson, Yiyun Li, Khaled Hosseini, Andre Dubus III, Hanya Yanagihara, and Mary Gaitskill.

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Yiyun Li on Seeing, Staring & the Necessity of Looking Closer

yiyun liThroughout human history, heedful observation has been the first step to deciphering the mysteries of the universe: Copernicus only realized the planets in our solar system revolved around the sun after countless hours staring through a telescope whereas Darwin only formulated his paradigm-shifting theory of evolution after rigorously studying the breathtaking diversity of the Galapagos.  Art, too, begins with observation.  The novelist, the photographer, the painter, the poet: before he can represent reality, he must see it, which requires he dispense with all preconception and prejudice.  To discover truth, whether as an artist or scientist, we must be willing to look closer— and be courageous enough to see things as they actually are.

The necessity of looking closer is what Yiyun Li, author of the heartbreaking autobiographical novel, Where Reasons End, ponders in her perceptive essay “Strangers on a Train,” one of forty six thought-provoking pieces that compose Light the Dark: Writers on Creativity, Inspiration, and the Artistic Process.  Complied of the best essays from the Atlantic’s much-beloved “By Heart” column, Light the Dark asks literature’s leading lights one question: what inspires you?   They then choose a passage that was formative to their development as writers.  The result?  An engrossing compendium of wisdom from authors as diverse as Mary Gaitskill, Maggie Shipstead, Marilynne Robinson, Khaled Hosseini, Andre Dubus III, Hanya Yanagihara, and Elizabeth Gilbert.  

When asked what inspires her, Li chose an excerpt from Elizabeth Bowen’s novel The Death of Heart.  The passage describes Portia Quayne, a sixteen-year-old orphan who’s learned to evade people’s gaze:

Portia had learnt one dare never look for long.  She had those eyes that seem to be welcome nowhere, that learnt shyness from the alarm they precipitate.  Such eyes are always turning away or being humbly lowered…You most often meet or, rather, avoid meeting such eyes in a child’s face— what becomes of that child later you do not know.”

For Li, this passage captures an essential fact of human nature: most of us are embarrassed to be known.  Terrified of being seen for who we are, we avert our eyes from lingering glances and hide from intimacy behind self-imposed walls.  When others attempt to penetrate our defenses, we fortify our strongholds, remaining as remote as an island thousands of miles from the coast.  Not even our dearest friends are permitted unrestricted access to our hearts.  After all, if we lay bare our authentic selves, whether it be to casual acquaintances or to our closest confidantes, we risk being rejected and ridiculed: 

This passage describes an averted gaze— eyes we ‘avoid meeting’ because they are so revealing, so full of feeling, and the way these eyes themselves learn to turn away because they cause such alarm.  I think it’s a very cutting insight into human nature.  How often do we turn away from knowing another person fully as we could, avoiding even the eyes of the people we’re closest to?  And how often do we hide ourselves, afraid of being really looked into and seen?” 

 In a funny moment, Li confesses that— unlike Bowen’s timid Portia— she loves to stare, mostly because observing is how one begins to understand another’s soul:

I relate to this because I’m a starer; I’m interested in looking at people very closely.  I look at people I know, but I also look at people I don’t know.  It does make strangers uncomfortable— which, of course, I understand.  I’ve noticed that, in New York City, you’re not supposed to stare at people.  No one has enough space, and when people are in public, they’re trying to maintain anonymity.  But I stare at people all the time, because I like to imagine their lives by looking into their faces, looking at their eyes.  You can tell so much just from a person’s face.”

Other than our instinctual fear of ridicule, we avoid gazing too intensely in others’ eyes because we fear the secrets we’ll unearth.  Human beings are as unfathomable as the furthest reaches of the universe: we can launch satellites into space but can never unravel all the enigmas that lie beyond our own limited frontier.  

And therein lies the dilemma— we can never truly know people.  Our mother, our best friend, our lover: if we look at any of them too closely, we’ll realize they’re as unfamiliar as strangers in a subway car.  On the surface, our mother may seem unadventurous but, if we plumb the depths of her past, we might discover she once gallivanted around the globe, sunbathing in Santorini and dancing all night at the Brazilian carnival.  Our best friend may seem vivacious and charismatic, so convivial she can effortlessly strike up a conversation with most people but, beneath her facade of sociability, she might prefer to be left alone.  Even after years together, some terrain of our lover’s character might remain unexplored.  Our kind, gentle husband might shock us when he loses his temper and smashes a plate against the wall.  Or a casual conversation about abortion might reveal he holds an opinion in direct conflict with our own.  Nothing is more mysterious than the human heart.  Though we tend to classify people into neat and tidy categories of semantic description (“mother,” “father,” “enemy,” “friend”), human beings contain “multitudes” to borrow the enduring words of Walt Whitman— they can’t be collapsed into a box.  When we look steadily at our loved ones, Li writes, we realize what we see is but a small fraction of who they are:

When I was studying fiction at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop years ago, Marilynne Robinson used an example to demonstrate the inexplicableness of human beings.  I forget the context, and I’m paraphrasing, but she would say something like this: 

Sometimes, when you get home and your mother looks up, her eyes are so unfamiliar, and for a moment it’s as though she’s looking at you as a stranger on a New York subway would do.

I loved that idea— your eyes surprise your mother’s eyes, and for that split second everything is there: a whole emotional world that you don’t know well, so foreign and hidden that she briefly becomes a stranger.  Then she transforms, she becomes the mother you know again, and life goes on.  But, in that brief instant of eye contact, something is caught.  This is what we learn by looking at another person’s face— and also what makes us want to turn away.”

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No matter how terrified we are of seeing and being seen, the only way to unveil the truth of people— and the world— is to look closer.  This is especially true in writing.  In the words of Susan Sontag, “a writer is someone who pays attention to the world— a writer is a professional observer.”  For Lin, to write is to stare: to truly see characters in all their contradictions and complexities, we can’t flinch from what’s there.  As in real life, characters lie to us: they wear a public face, they weave stories about who they are.  And just as in real life, we must unravel our characters from the myths they tell.  Life is a masquerade ball where we disguise ourselves in more acceptable costumes.  If we are to find the man behind the mask, the person behind the persona, we have to strip away the endless shrouds of affectation and facade until we can see others uncut and uncensored:

“Writing fiction is kind of like staring, too.  You have to stare at your characters, like you would a stranger on a train, but for much longer than is comfortable for both of you.  This way, you get to know characters layer by layer, until any dishonesty is stripped away.  I believe all characters try to trick us.  They lie to us.  It’s just like when you meet someone in the real world— no one’s going to be 100 percent honest.  They’re not going to tell you the whole story about themselves; in fact, the stories they do tell will say more about how they want to be perceived than how they actually are.  There’s always a certain resistance with being known, and that’s true of characters and real people.  People don’t want to tell you their secrets.  Or they lie to themselves, or they lie to you.

[…]

That’s why I stare at my characters.  Not physically— I can’t really see them physically— but in an act of imagination that’s similar to the way I stare at people in real life.  It can be harsh, but I think I like the harsh, true things you see when you don’t turn away.  The writer must never look away.  You can feel it in a book when a writer flinches away from seeing too deeply into his characters.  You really have to strip your characters naked, every single layer, to finally understand them.”

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Mary Gaitskill on How Books Help Us Penetrate Outward Personas & See the Person Beneath the Exterior

“Some books are toolkits you take up to fix things,” remarked Rebecca Solnit, “from the most mary gaitskill - Version 2practical to the most mysterious, from your house to your heart, or to make things, from cakes to ships.  Some books are wings.  Some are horses that run away with you.  Some are parties to which you are invited, full of friends who are there even when you have no friends…Some books are medicine, bitter but clarifying.  Some books are puzzles, mazes, tangles, jungles.  Some long books are journeys, and at the end you are not the same person you were at the beginning.”  For Eudora Welty, the miracle of books was their ability to liberate us from the limitations of our own personality: “a reader lives a thousand lives before he dies,” she said, but “the man who never reads lives only one.”  Whereas for Joyce Carol Oates, reading was the sole means by which we could slip into “another’s skin, another’s voice, another’s soul.”

The humanizing power of books to infiltrate the ordinarily impenetrable barrier between “us” and “them” is what Mary Gaitskill ponders in her lovely essay “I Don’t Know Anymore,” one of forty six stunning pieces that compose Light the Dark: Writers on Creativity, Inspiration, and the Artistic Process.  Complied of the best essays from the Atlantic’s much-beloved “By Heart” column, Light the Dark asks literature’s leading lights one question: what inspires you?   They then choose a passage that was formative to their development as writers.  The result?  A delightful trove of wisdom from authors as diverse as Yiyun Li, Khaled Hosseini, Andre Dubus III, Hanya Yanagihara, and Elizabeth Gilbert.  As reassuring as good conversation and a cup of coffee, Light the Dark offers insight and inspiration not only to aspiring writers but to anyone who’s been enthralled by the imaginary world of books.  

When asked what inspires her, Gaitskill chose a passage from Leo Tolstoy’s masterpiece Anna Karenina.  Anna, a passionate, sophisticated woman, has just left her husband Karenin for another man.  After getting deathly ill, she writes to Karenin begging for his forgiveness.  At the height of her fever, she confesses to him, “There is another woman in me, I’m afraid of her— she fell in love with that man, and I wanted to hate you and couldn’t forget the other one who was there before.  The one who is not me.  Now I’m real, I’m whole.”  For Gaitskill, what’s remarkable about this exchange is how both Anna and Karenin behave in way that’s totally out of character:

“Anna’s speaking about the decisions she’s made in the third person— as if the person who betrayed Karenin was a stranger.  And she does seem to be transformed here, as though she’s become a different person.  I was so surprised by that.  I think of it as a very modern insight, Tolstoy’s idea that there may be two, or more, different people inside of us.  

And it’s not just Anna.  As his wife tells him she loves him, begging his forgiveness, Karenin transforms, too.  The man we’d thought could never be anything but stiff and dull turns out to have this entirely different side to him.”  

Though this moment gives us hope for the estranged couple, their reconciliation doesn’t endure: Anna never talks about the “other woman” inside her again.  So which, Gaitskill wonders, is “the real Anna, and which is the real Karenin: the people they are at the tender bedside moment, or the people they become afterward?”  Tolstoy never offers a definitive answer.  Perhaps the regretful Anna who displays remorse for her wrongdoings, Gaitskill speculates, is the “truer part of herself.”  Perhaps death has a way of dispelling the falsehoods we tell.  Who knows?  

What’s genius about Anna Karenina is the way it probes the complexities of the self.  Like all great characters, Anna and Karenin reveal man is as multi-dimensional as a Russian nesting doll: he projects an outward public persona that conceals countless other selves.  Rather than confine his characters to shallow and superficial categories, Tolstoy agrees with champion of the human spirit and paradox-embracing poet Walt Whitman’s belief that man is “large and contains multitudes.”  Anna is both the unfaithful wife and the repentant cheater just as Karenin is both a spiteful husband betrayed and a man willing to forgive her.  By granting us access to a character’s inner self, a self often at odds with the facade he presents to the world, books remind us every person has an interior life we’re not privy to.  Like us, others suffer from fear and insecurity.  And like us, others possess yearnings so intense they don’t dare be uttered.  Literature’s humanizing power lies in its ability to bridge this seemingly unbridgeable abyss between self and other.  As Gaitskill concludes, “the truest parts of people can be buried”— we must be more empathetic and largehearted toward each other.