Monday, April 18, 2011

Desire and Humility: A Glimpse in the Mirror

Two books you have to read: How Fiction Works by James Wood, because it does exactly that, and From Where You Dream by Robert Olen Butler because I have never, ever, ever seen anyone explain the intuitive level of fiction-writing the way Butler does in this book.

If Wood is mostly--and exactingly, almost painfully, absorbingly--concerned with the mechanics of fiction, Butler is concerned with its alchemy: "Please get out of the habit of saying that you've got an idea for a short story," Butler says in the first chapter, "Art does not come from idea. Art does not come from the mind. Art comes from the place where you dream. Art comes from your unconscious; it comes from the white-hot center of you."

Fiction is a most magical, true artform. It has to come from a magical, true place.

And yet, there's trouble here: if fiction comes from dreams, its origins are as mysterious as dreams' origins are. Which are as mysterious and unexplainable as the human psyche itself.

Butler says we must write from where we dream, but where is that? It reminds me of birthing class. The instructor tells expectant mothers on how to push the baby out: "Push from the same place you use to blow up a balloon." Excellent advice. But, then, how do we isolate that muscle and call on it specifically when there is no balloon to blow up? It's different from ordinary breathing, even ordinary blowing--it's more focused--but it's very difficult to pinpoint exactly how it's different. Or where, precisely, that muscle is.

In the same way, how do you locate--and write from--"the place where you dream" in waking life?

Butler discusses at length what "the zone" is--this white-hot center of the writer--and how to get there, and he outlines a very doable approach. How to literally take notes from the musings and impulses of your intuition. He also explains, in chapter three, titled "Yearning," what we're, in our first drafts, looking for: "Once you have that link to your character's yearning, only then does the real work of literary fiction begin."

Desire. In both real-life and fiction, our most basic, most gutteral desires are the truest expressions of our deepest selves.

And this is where we need to pause and realize just what an act of humility fiction-writing is, or what it should be. I believe that in order to identify and really grasp that yearning in our character, we have to humble ourselves, own up to our humanity.

We go about our lives with a trained aversion to looking down, into our murky, odd-smelling desires. We don't want to glimpse the things that are way down deep there, our most embarrassing selves. This aversion to looking--the keeping of our gaze at a comfortable level--protects us. It keeps us from going crazy. To carry out the tasks of our day-to-day lives, we need to avoid looking down. And yet, as fiction-writers, we also have to go there. We have to look. I believe this is one facet to Doctorow's assertion that writers are "not just people who sit down and write." Instead, he says, "Writers hazard themselves."

I'll give you an example I've used in this blog before. Frank Wheeler, in the opening chapters of Richard Yates's Revolutionary Road goes in to comfort his wife, who has just bombed on the stage of community theater, and he casually, unconsciously, resorts to pampering his own ego. He is standing behind his wife April who is seated at her mirror, removing her makeup: "He looked at himself in the mirror, tightening his jaw and turning his head a little to one side to give it a leaner, more commanding look, the face he had given himself in mirrors since boyhood and which no photograph had ever quite achieved, until with a start he found that she was watching him. Her own eyes were there in the mirror, trained on his for an uncomfortable moment before she lowered them to stare at the middle button of his coat."

Here is desire in a character that only a writer who has allowed his own eyes to slip down--to see himself--can portray. This is bald, embarrassing humanity.

Because we've all done it, haven't we? Made faces in the mirror? Looked for just the right angle, the exact right tilt of the head, the wrinkle in the forehead, the precise somberness that renders us beautiful?

I haven't got it entirely figured out. How the dream-self ties into desire in the character which in turn ties into desire in the writer which is only accessible to the writer through the writer's humanity which is in turn accessed largely through the writer's humility.

I know that humility is a tricky blessing. Hard to want, good to possess.

And, what do you think? Does this morning's rambling make any sense??

6 comments:

cathykidman.com said...

"To carry out the tasks of our day-to-day lives, we need to avoid looking down. And yet, as fiction-writers, we also have to go there. We have to look...'Writers hazard themselves.'"

I kept forgetting that you were writing about fiction, not memoir, until that 'fiction' word would pop back in! I'm going to pick up the Butler book.

Shawn said...

You ask the last 2 questions as if you are an ordinary person blogging about the cheesecake they baked last night. Of course it makes sense, you are brilliant. TLO

Susan Woodring said...

Cathy, yes, I can see how this can work for CNF as well. Do get the book, you won't regret it...

Susan Woodring said...

TLO, thank you, and ha! Funny!!

Can't wait to see you and the kiddos on Fri...

towriteistowrite said...

I started to write a comment about Butler's book, but it started to look like a blog post. So I think I'll see what comes of it in another venue. But first I need to read it again.

Susan Woodring said...

Can't wait to see what you come up with...