Entering the fictive dream: The shamanistic, alchemical approach to writing

Andre Dubus III

In On Becoming a Novelist — one of my favorite books about writing — John Gardner emphasizes the centrality of the “fictive dream,” the mental-imaginal movie that novelists are tasked with entering as deeply as possible so that they can channel it onto the page and thus recreate it in the imagination of the reader. “Every writer,” Gardner says, “has experienced at least moments of this strange, magical state. . . . But it is not all magic. Once one knows by experience the ‘feel’ of the state one is after, there are things one can do to encourage its onset. (Some writers, with practice, become able to drop into the creative state at any moment; others have difficulty all their lives.) Every writer must figure out for himself, if he can, how he personally works best.”

I was reminded of these words recently when I read an interview with Andre Dubus III, published last October at The Atlantic, and saw him describing an approach to writing that, as noted by his interviewer, sounds positively shamanistic. Dubus starts from a piece of advice given by novelist Richard Bausch, which he (Dubus) claims as a kind of presiding mantra for his own writing: “Do not think, dream.” (This comes, by the way, from the anthology Letters to a Fiction Writer — another book that has long occupied an important place in my own authorial life, and that I heartily recommend.) He then shares some profound insights drawn from his own practice of writing in this mode:

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.

. . . . [D]uring 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.

. . . It’s very difficult to achieve this dream state, and it requires a lot of courage. And I don’t think it’s going to happen unless you can cultivate two qualities in yourself, which William Stafford, the poet, taught me when he said “The poet must put himself in a state of receptivity before writing.” Stafford said you know you’re being receptive when a) you’re willing to accept anything that comes, no matter what it is, and b) you’re willing to fail. But Americans are very impatient with failure. I think one of the many reasons people don’t end up living their authentic lives is because they’re afraid of failing — they don’t take chances. And I understand it. This is very risky, terrifying territory writing this way. But it’s the only way I can do it. Frankly, I just feel so alive when I write that way.

. . . I really wrestle with religious faith, but I don’t wrestle with this. I used to think I had no religious faith of any kind. I’ve been a father of three for years, and I never prayed until I became a father for the first time at the age of 33. 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.

. . . 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.

(Incidentally, the quote from William Stafford, coming on the heels of the line from Bausch, makes me wonder if Dubus has somehow been sneaking into my house and snatching books off my shelf.)

Full story: “The Case for Writing a Story Before Knowing How It Ends

Image by Wes Washington (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

About Matt Cardin


Posted on February 19, 2014, in Writing & Creativity and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.

  1. Have you read Stephen King’s Under The Dome or watched the tv show yet? I don’t normally like Stephen King but I was very surprised by the TV show I think it might be my favourite of his work adapted into film. I’ve never really actually read any of his work though.

    • Yes, I’ve both read the book and watched the series. The latter is far better than the former. Despite the novel’s enormous physical size, it was, in my opinion, almost shockingly flat, slight, and insignificant seeming, and I say this as someone who has read — and enjoyed — a great deal of King’s other work. UNDER THE DOME, the novel, possessed all of the ingredients that, coming from the pen of King, should have added up to a really entertaining novel with really intriguing philosophical undertones, but the end result was tedious and unspired. By contrast, UNDER THE DOME, the television series, struck me as more and more interesting with each passing episode, despite the somewhat cartoonish tone of some of it.

      You should be aware that, other than the presiding “high concept” premise of a small town being cut off from the rest of the world by a mysterious, clear, impermeable dome, and other than the fact that some of the characters share the same names and (roughly) the same personalities and functions as they do in the novel, the series basically left off having anything at all to do with the book after about the fourth or fifth episode. And this began from elements that were introduced in the first couple of scenes of the first episode. It’s only a slight overstatement to say that the show, by season’s end, had almost nothing to do with the book.

      This includes the supernatural and — as it seems appropriate to call them — daimonic/daemonic aspects of it that I’m thinking may be what called the series to mind for you in the context of the present post about the fictive dream and the shamanistic approach to writing. I discussed each episode of the show with one of my friends and coworkers every week last summer, and we were both really intrigued by the running theme, which became more intense over the course of the season’s progressive story arc, that the thoughts, emotions, perceptions, words, and actions of the townspeople were being directly and preternaturally influenced by some force emanating from the dome itself, or perhaps from whoever or whatever made it. I’ll be interested to see how this continues to develop in season 2.

      • I’ve really enjoyed watching this and S.Korean dramas with my wife . We were watching Under the Dome with her mom as well because she’s a Stephen King fanatic . It was a bowling ball for her mother’s birthday lol I wanted to see it, she hadn’t seen it, and I knew she’d like it and we just watched one or two episodes day after day now it is over and we’re sad. My partner is cold on paranormal things even though she really loves all the same stuff I do especially anything genre , she doesn’t get the buzz that I get from it, and so I’ve been wondering watching shows like this will they ever get it? It’s the most interesting show on TV I’ve seen since watching Korean dramas in terms of legit paranormal numinosity and brazenness . S.Korean television really puts alchemy and shamanism out there depicting house shrines and really overall what it is like, then this is marketed to a huge amount of people that are expected to follow along and get it. I’ve been fascinated by what Korean television expects audiences to be clued in on. Under the Dome reminds me of a similar phenomenon of american television.. three young kids experimenting with the numinous and pushing and testing against its noetic quality.. what is this what is this poke poke poke thats happening in N.America today with many young people. All the cool kids are doing it. It’s a truly apocalyptic show I see it as a turning point.

  2. Great article, and a great comeback from the long hiatus. Very inspiring.

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