From Where I Dream – Part One

I have written a lot of terrible fiction. Things I would not stand behind today. Things to which I would not sign my name. A lot of bad fiction; the characters crawling, deformed, from the pages.

It took me a long time to call myself a writer. Others did, faintly. I shook the remarks like bad karma. “I want to be a writer…” one day, I’d say in that callow, when-I-grow-up sort of way.

But, of course, I am a writer. Since I was six, held up in a tent I made from a sheet suspended between two sticky dining room chairs. I wanted to read this story that had never been written. It is the story I will write all my life.

“If there’s a book you really want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.” – Toni Morrison

It took me most of my years to respect my writing, and the writing process. I took a creative writing class my second year of college. I didn’t read the books; barely wrote a word I cared about. I got a C.

One such book, From Where You Dream by Robert Olen Butler, has become scripture to me, once I came around to reading it. It has brought meaning, purpose, to my fingers. It has taught the unteachable. Has made me understand what I was doing wrong, precisely. I have been able to clarify my process.

Robert Olen Butler has been published too many times to count; has won the Pulitzer. Intimidated, I thought I could learn nothing from this accomplished writer. Before the cover, I was purely amateur.

The book contains too much to discuss in just one post, so I will stick to Chapter One, appropriately titled, “Boot Camp.”

Great Expectations of Self

It was not a long journey through paper before I came to the reassuring verse:

“You must, [to be in this class], have the highest aspirations for yourselves as writers – the desire to create works of fiction that will endure, that reflect and articulate the deepest truth about the human condition.”

Though strongly worded, the highest ambition a writer could fathom, it seemed…achievable. I felt this sage author was speaking directly to me. Saying firmly: You have to want it; you have to want it all.

The Artist’s Trembling Eyes

The second wonderful thing R.O.B. bestowed upon me was treating me like an artist… and informing me of the responsibility embedded within that calling.

“To be an artist means never to avert your eyes.” – Akira Kurosawa

The white-hot center, he calls it. The place from which you create. Your dreams. It is everything; bound to be are the things you don’t want to see. Don’t want to remember. The things you wish you could remove from yourself. You’re going to want to look away.

“You’re going to be, and probably always have been, led to avert your eyes. But turning from that path is what it means to be an artist. You need courage, and that’s something I can’t teach you. I can each you that you’ve got to have it.”

So it is courage, and a zenith to aspire to, that will be with you through every word. Not to guide you – there is no map. It is to lie in your skin, only to emerge in the most desperate moment. In times you want more than anything to quit. To be anything but what you are. From that chaos in your head and heart will come meaning.

Who you are, why you have been through what you have, why you write.

Part Two will be along shortly. For the next few days, the novel will be my only focus.


About Anna Dawes

Writer. Blogger. Vegetarian. I have two dogs that make me a little insane. I'm a nursing student. I read a lot of feminist literature; I negate it by obsessing over fashion magazines. I listen mostly to lovely lady singers, read mostly female authors, and spend most of my days surrounded by beautiful women. I consider words to be a delicate medium that only the most willing artist can bring to light. In another life I was a classic thespian. I have a purple office.
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5 Responses to From Where I Dream – Part One

  1. Liza says:

    This is basically my writing process: writing from where I dream (plus dreams have special significance to me, which is why I like to attribute “dreamer” to myself).
    I had the pleasure of reading this book last year, and it was nice to have a name for the process rather than just calling it stream of consciousness.
    My morning writing, and overall process for writing, I call “active dreaming” and it’s been an ongoing exercise for me to be able to remember snippets from my subconscious/dreaming self to better connect with my writing process and write immediate fiction.
    My favorite part of that book (though admittedly I only read the first third and skimmed the rest) is the beginning with the visualization exercises: being able to recount a specific, distinct memory using only sensory words rather than meta/editorial language. I really appreciate that and meta language is one of the first things I cull from my own writing and notice in other works that I’m critting: cut the meta! (My version of show, don’t tell!)
    (sorry to ramble, and if I don’t make sense: I’m on my iPhone and can’t see way I’ve written) 😉

    • Anna Dawes says:

      My favorite part of his explanation of process is that it will seem like “it” came from nowhere. You resist ideas. You resist thinking. You resist conscious thought. You just sit there like a buoy, waiting to be moved. I like that. Because of the things I have written that I am proud of, this has been essential. Pieces have just some to me.

      I often have trouble explaining something I am writing to others, particularly non-writers. “What’s your novel about?” I never know how to faithfully answer that question. I try to explain that, it is like the story has already been written, and it is stowed away inside of me. I can only access it carefully, and it is fickle. I can’t simply “make up” what happens next. It doesn’t work that way.

      For instance, I had a good bit of trouble realizing my protagonist’s mother’s cause of death. I thought of every conceivable disease, accident and crime, but none of them were correct. I could not just insert the logically and/or best sounding deathly plot in there to satisfy the void. I waited. It finally came to me. It was already there, I just did not know it yet.

      Now I feel I am making little since. Talking about this stuff is all very meta. That’s why I find Robert Olen Butler’s lecture so laudable. He teaches the unteachable.

  2. demery says:

    Inspiring… thank you!

  3. Sometimes, I read something and realize it was exactly what I needed to read today. This post was one of those. Thanks, Anna!
    Looking forward to part two.

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