Andre Dubus III: Years ago, I read a book called Letters to a Fiction Writer, which asked about 20 established writers to send their best advice out into the world. There were a lot of heavy hitters in there offering truly wise and helpful advice. But the one that’s stayed with me over the years, from Richard Bausch, has become a sort of mantra for me:
Do not think, dream.
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.
OK, I know: It’s one thing to quote Bausch. But what does it fucking mean, “dream with language?” I think this is what happens. Habits of writing can be learned. We can to choose concrete language over overly abstract language. We can learn to use active verbs instead of passive verbs. To bring in at least three of the five senses to activate a scene. All these things we can be taught, or learn on our own from reading. These are all part of your toolbox—but that toolbox will always remain locked if the writer is not genuinely curious about what he or she is writing about. To me, that is the essential ingredient. Late in his life, Faulkner was asked what quality a writer most needs—and he said not talent, but curiosity. I know the exact quote by heart: “Insight, curiosity, to wonder, to mull and to muse why it is that man what does what he does. And if you have that, talent makes no difference, whether you’ve got it or not.”