At my Madeline Island retreats each summer, we read sections from Andre Dubus's award-winning novel, House of Sand and Fog, particularly a pivotal scene that takes place in a revolving restaurant in San Francisco.
Dubus chose the setting first, he told me at a writing conference in Manchester, New Hampshire, this past weekend. He started with the revolving rooftop location and then built the event around it. The event he chose perfectly reflects the disorientation of watching a cityscape go by. The two main characters are revealing unsavory truths to each other, making a pact, about to get into trouble. The scene even foreshadows a crime they will commit together at the end of the story.
It was illuminating to be able to ask him this in person. To get inside the thoughts and creative steps a really good writer takes with a story.
Dubus is down-to-earth. He doesn't hesitate to swear or reprimand writers for doing less than they could. As the keynote speaker this past Saturday at Writers' Day, sponsored by the nonprofit New Hampshire Writers' Project, I was among 300 writers who listened to him share his past and present writing process.
Dubus's talk title was unusual: "Making It Up versus Imagining It." I didn't know there was a difference . . . but he showed me otherwise.
Curiosity is what opens the imagination. "Most of us feel like we're faking it and we're going to get caught," he said. Flannery O'Connor wrote about the "certain grain of stupidity the writer can hardly do without, and that is the quality of having to stare." This sense of relaxation and openness is the way in to our natural curiosity. William Faulkner said curiosity was even more important than talent. Dubus said this was a big lesson in his own writing: to be willing to accept anything that came and be willing to fail.
One of my favorite lines from his talk: "You've got to write those ashes first, before the phoenix can rise from them."
How do we become curious? Dubus said it's about accepting whatever comes and being willing to fail. As writers we often come into a piece of writing with an idea of what we want it to be. A sense of wonder and curiosity keeps us open to what the writing itself wants to be. That makes all the difference.
Dubus said that many writers are not curious enough about what they're writing. We have to get to the bottom of an experience, not just "phone it in," say it's good enough, he told us. If we don't get to the bottom of it, we'll end up making up the novel instead of imagining it.
Making it up versus imagining it. Did you know there was a difference?
Once he put it into words, I could see there was. Sometimes I know I'm "making it up": I set down a placeholder in a scene or chapter because I can't yet allow myself to dive deep enough. Maybe because of fear or because of the sheer weight of what that diving will take out of me--it doesn't matter. I need to recognize when this happens and use my imagination and curiosity to go deeper. We all have good reasons for avoiding the depth, its pain and sheer terror--no control there! But eventually we have to dive, if we want our writing to be all it can be.
Often when we follow our imaginations, we fail. We get lost. Dubus advised us to be tolerant of being lost. You don't know what you could discover.
I know that my writing often takes me on a journey of its own. Sometimes I read pages written earlier in the week and I can't even remember writing them. The dream state was so strong, it swept me away during the writing process. When this happens, the writing is a miracle to me.
We ask ourselves: Am I willing to be led? Am I willing to let go of control, of knowing how this will turn out?
It's not all about following our noses. Dubus did acknowledge the need for craft. Two things writers need: We must rekindle our curiosity and we must learn what can be taught, "those precise craft techniques that penetrate the imagination you're born with," he told us.
So embrace those writing conferences, classes, workshops. Develop your craft, improve your skills, practice craft techniques. But don't forget the equally important element of imagination.
When I got home from Writers' Day I was inspired. I gave myself a day to be spacey--Sunday was not a writing day, although I tried. I needed to absorb these new ideas and let my imagination get into gear again. The next day I was able to put in several hours of writing time, following my nose through a scene that had troubled me for weeks.
I kind of liked being lost! Maybe you will too.
This Week's Writing Exercise
1. Set a kitchen timer for 20-30 minutes.
2. Freewrite (no editing or censoring) about being lost.
3. Reflect on what you learned. What kinds of feelings or memories does it bring up? How much are you willing to allow it to happen in your writing?