Blog Archives

My “Daemonyx” album available on YouTube

A few months ago I discovered that my entire Daemonyx album has been uploaded to YouTube by CD Baby. This is the same album that accompanied my Dark Awakenings collection when people bought it directly from the publisher, Mythos Books.

In case you’d like to hear it:

The whole thing seems strangely alien to me now. Although playing music is still a very important part of my life, the four-year burst of inspiration and creative obsession / possession that resulted in this particular body of music feels, in retrospect, rather like a dream. I regard such an impression as pretty appropriate given the music’s dominant focus on themes of daimonic inspiration and possession, filtered and refracted through multiple musical styles and emotional wavelengths (primarily beauty, sadness, darkness, and sublime exhilaration). I know these same themes are important to many reader of The Teeming Brain, so maybe you’ll find that the music resonates with you.

Back when I was nearing the end of the project, I solicited a few comments and blurbs from friends and colleagues with similar thematic and creative obsessions. Some of you may have read these previously, but in case not:

Like a soundtrack to a fever dream, the music of Daemonyx plumbs an ever-changing world of mystery, mood, and melodic apparitions. Listen with the lights out and your imagination on.

– Brian Hodge

Daemonyx’s compositions conjure up images of eerie strangeness and awesomely alien worlds that nothing can evoke better than music.

– Ramsey Campbell

“There are many haunting and beautiful compositions that complement or completely make horror films — you know the ones — as well as appeal to listeners who are sensitive to the mystery and dread of life. In its debut album Curse of the Daimon, Daemonyx has offered us thirteen works of such quality.”

– Thomas Ligotti

The overall ambience of the music reminds me a little of the electronica of Klaus Schulze. There’s a similar powerful evocation of vast and terrifying soundscapes. In the song “Daimonica,” I very much like the way the haunting and oppressive music blends with the grim signal motif, “Is there someone inside you?” In “The Gates of Deep Darkness” the ominous martial nature of the music provides a real chill, as of some impending apocalypse.

– Mark Samuels

Intricate, haunting and complex pieces of music, richly creative and inspiring.

– Tim Lebbon

Terri Windling (and Lewis Hyde and Stephen King) on the care and feeding of daemons and muses

Some neat thoughts on inspired creativity drawn from Lewis Hyde and Stephen King, and presented by Terri Windling, whose editorial and authorial contributions to modern fantasy and speculative fiction have been so very valuable:

As Hyde explained in his book, The Gift (1983):

“The task of setting free one’s gifts was a recognized labor in the ancient world. The Romans called a person’s tuletary spirit his genius. In Greece it was called a daemon. Ancient authors tell us that Socrates, for example, had a daemon who would speak up when he was about to do something that did not accord with his true nature. It was believed that each man had his idios daemon, his personal spirit which could be cultivated and developed. . . . According to Apuleius,” he continues, “if a man cultivated his genius through such a sacrifice, it would become a lar, a protective household god, when he died. But if a man ignored his genius, it became a larva or a lemur when he died, a troublesome, restless spook that preys on the living.  The genius or daemon comes to us at birth. It carries with us the fullness of our undeveloped powers. These it offers to us as we grow, and we choose whether or not to accept, which means we choose whether or not to labor in its service. For the genius has need of us. . . .

Stephen King takes a more irreverent approach to daemons and muses in “The Writing Life” (2006):

“There is indeed a half-wild beast that lives in the thickets of each writer’s imagination. It gorges on a half-cooked stew of suppositions, superstitions and half-finished stories. It’s drawn by the stink of the image-making stills writers paint in their heads. The place one calls one’s study or writing room is really no more than a clearing in the woods where one trains the beast (insofar as it can be trained) to come. One doesn’t call it; that doesn’t work. One just goes there and picks up the handiest writing implement (or turns it on) and then waits. It usually comes, drawn by the entrancing odor of hopeful ideas. Some days it only comes as far as the edge of the clearing, relieves itself and disappears again. Other days it darts across to the waiting writer, bites him and then turns tail.”

On the care and feeding of daemons and muses,” October 13, 2015

N.B. I refer to the same sources in A Course in Demonic Creativity, and even include a portion of Hyde’s quoted words above as one of the book’s opening epigraphs.

Interview with James Fadiman: The Daemon and the Doors of Perception

James_Fadiman
Dr. James Fadiman

Just published and now available here at The Teeming Brain: my interview/conversation with Dr. James Fadiman, one of the pioneers of transpersonal psychology and modern research into the spiritual and therapeutic applications of psychedelics. This has been a long time in coming, for reasons that I explain in the interview’s introduction.

The interview is ten thousand words, so be prepared to settle in. A lot of what we talk about focuses on the practical and philosophical inadequacies of dogmatic scientific materialism in dealing with things like anomalous and paranormal experiences such as inspiration and perceived communication or encounters with supernatural entities. Here’s a key excerpt:

JAMES FADIMAN: The reductionists eventually paint themselves into a corner. Consider the people who talk about the neurophysiology of dreams. They say, “Look, here’s this little part of the brain that turns on when you’re dreaming, and therefore dreams are psychophysiological in nature.” Then we ask, well, what generates a sex dream, a dream where a dead person appears with information, and a dream where you’re seated before a large pizza? And of course they say, “Why don’t you just go away.”

MATT CARDIN: I think you’re raising the basic question of phenomenology as it relates to ontology.

JAMES FADIMAN: But if you take the position that the brain is the place through which consciousness moves, so that it acts kind of like a radio, then all of those different dreams are much more understandable, because we can say they’re coming from different channels, different stations, different gods, different muses. And that makes much more sense. . . . Science’s fundamental error is a religious sort. Science says, “Certain data (since we know it does not exist) you shall not look upon.” Science holds up the story of the church and Galileo to emphasize how dogmatic the church was in its refusal to look at evidence. But if you say to scientists, “What do you know about telepathy? What do you know about clairvoyance? What do you know about near-death experiences?” they say, “Those don’t exist, and I’ve never spent a moment looking at the evidence, because they can’t exist” . . . . Scientism — science as a religion — and science are quite far apart. You see, I think I’m a scientist. That means that anything that happens, whether subjective, objective, sensory or whatever, I look at it. That may be due to my psychedelic experiences, which reminded me that, “Whatever you think the world is made of, James, you have a very limited view.” My muse chimes in and says, “Obviously, if you look at the size of the universe and contrast it with the size of your brain, the chances of your being able to know everything are statistically almost non-existent.”

MORE: “Interview with James Fadiman: The Daemon and the Doors of Perception

 

“Let mystery have its place in you”: Cultivating the artist’s sense of interior privacy

Virginia_Woolf

Virginia Woolf at age 20

Inspired by a reading of Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, Joshua Rothman, writing for The New Yorker, offers some rather enchanting reflections on a profoundly important meaning of privacy that cuts much deeper than the word’s contemporary framing in purely political terms:

These days, when we use the word “privacy,” it usually has a political meaning. We’re concerned with other people and how they might affect us. We think about how they could use information about us for their own ends, or interfere with decisions that are rightfully ours. We’re mindful of the lines that divide public life from private life. We have what you might call a citizen’s sense of privacy.

That’s an important way to think about privacy, obviously. But there are other ways.

. . . Woolf often conceives of life this way: as a gift that you’ve been given, which you must hold onto and treasure but never open. Opening it would dispel the atmosphere, ruin the radiance — and the radiance of life is what makes it worth living. It’s hard to say just what holding onto life without looking at it might mean; that’s one of the puzzles of her books. But it has something to do with preserving life’s mystery; with leaving certain things undescribed, unspecified, and unknown; with savoring certain emotions, such as curiosity, surprise, desire, and anticipation. It depends on an intensified sense of life’s preciousness and fragility, and on a Heisenberg-like notion that, when it comes to our most abstract and spiritual intuitions, looking too closely changes what we feel. It has to do, in other words, with a kind of inner privacy, by means of which you shield yourself not just from others’ prying eyes, but from your own. Call it an artist’s sense of privacy.

. . .[T]he benefits of remaining “impenetrable” can be profound. Clarissa, famously, buys the flowers herself, and that allows her to enjoy the coolness, stillness, and beauty of the flower shop; the same, Woolf suggests, happens in Clarissa’s inner life, where her heightened feelings are allowed to stay pure, untouched. Even Peter, with time, comes to regard himself in this way: “The compensation of growing old,” he thinks, is that “the passions remain as strong as ever, but one has gained — at last! — the power which adds the supreme flavour to existence, — the power of taking hold of experience, of turning it around, slowly, in the light.” By learning to leave your inner life alone, you learn to cultivate and appreciate it.

And you gain another, strangely spiritual power: the power to regard yourself abstractly. Instead of getting lost in the details of your life, you hold onto the feelings, the patterns, the tones. You learn to treasure those aspects of life without communicating them, and without ruining them, for yourself, by analyzing them too much. Woolf suggests that those treasured feelings might be the source of charisma: when Peter, seeing Clarissa at her party, asks himself, “What is this terror? what is this ecstasy? … What is it that fills me with extraordinary excitement?,” the answer might be that it’s Clarissa’s radiance, never seen directly, but burning through. Clarissa, meanwhile, lets her spiritual intuitions lift her a little above the moment. Wandering through her lamp-lit garden, she sees her party guests: “She didn’t know their names, but friends she knew they were, friends without names, songs without words, always the best.” That’s the power of an artist’s privacy. It preserves the melodies otherwise drowned out by words, stories, information.

MORE: “Virginia Woolf’s Idea of Privacy

One is reminded of Lewis Thomas’s thesis in his classic essay “The Attic of the Brain” about the importance of preserving the mystery of one’s own mind:

It has been one of the great errors of our time that to think that by thinking about thinking, and then talking about it, we could possibly straighten out and tidy up our minds. There is no delusion more damaging than to get the idea in your head that you understand the functioning of your own brain. Once you acquire such a notion, you run the danger of moving in to take charge, guiding your thoughts, shepherding your mind from place to place, controlling it, making lists of regulations. The human mind is not meant to be governed, certainly not by any book of rules yet written; it is supposed to run itself, and we are obliged to follow it along, trying to keep up with it as best we can. It is all very well to be aware of your awareness, even proud of it, but never try to operate it. You are not up to the job. . . . Attempting to operate one’s own mind, powered by such a magical instrument as the human brain, strikes me as rather like using the world’s biggest computer to add columns of figures, or towing a Rolls-Royce with a nylon rope. . . . We might, by this way [i.e., by deliberately hiding a portion of our psyches from ourselves], regain the kind of spontaneity and zest for ideas, things popping into the mind, uncontrollable and ungovernable thoughts, the feeling that this notion is somehow connected unaccountably with that one.”

One is also reminded of Henri-Frédéric Amiel’s words in his Journal Intime about the need to protect the mystery of one’s inner self by avoiding a too-quick and too-keen attitude of psychological self-awareness:

Let mystery have its place in you; do not be always turning up your whole soil with the plowshare of self-examination, but leave a little fallow corner in your heart ready for any seed the winds may bring, and reserve a nook of shadow for the passing bird; keep a place in your heart for the unexpected guests, an altar for the unknown God. Then if a bird sing among your branches, do not be too eager to tame it. If you are conscious of something new — thought or feeling — wakening in the depths of your being — do not be in a hurry to let in light upon it, to look at it; let the springing germ have the protection of being forgotten, hedge it round with quiet, and do not break in upon its darkness; let it take shape and grow, and not a word of your happiness to any one! Sacred work of nature as it is, all conception should be enwrapped by the triple veil of modesty, silence, and night.

And so we’re back to the discipline of living as if you were (because you are) accompanied by and paired with your own peculiar muse, daemon, or genius.

Photo by George Charles Beresford [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Interview with novelist T. M. Wright: Creativity, the muse, and finding your writer’s voice

Strange_Seed_by_T_M_Wright

When I took down the Demon Muse site in 2012, this did away with the couple of interviews that I had conducted for the site. A few weeks ago I republished the one with John Langan here. Now the circle is complete, because here’s the resurrection of my interview/conversation with T. M. Wright:

An Unleashed Imagination: Conversation with T. M. Wright

Many of you surely know Terry as the author of the classic horror novels Strange Seed (1978) and A Manhattan Ghost Story (1984). In this interview he talks about his creative process and his thoughts on the relationship between muse-like inspiration and hard work. Here’s a sample:

Getting in touch with the creative unconscious is probably a tricky thing to do. After all, it’s the “unconscious” for a reason: it doesn’t want to be gotten in touch with. But to find that true creative voice, my advice would be to forget it’s there, and simply write.  It doesn’t really matter what you write as long as it’s got some kind of flow, strange or otherwise. How much should you write? As much as you can until it becomes drudgery. When that happens, back away.

The perils of literary shamanism and the gothic horror of ‘Melmoth’

Melmoth_the_Wanderer

In a fascinating article from 2008 at The Daily Grail, Aeolas Kephas (a.k.a. Jason Horsely) reflects at some length on the roles of Whitley Strieber and Carlos Castaneda as literary shamans whose dedication to sharing their paranormal experiences, encounters, visions, and insights brought them much trouble:

Both Castaneda and Strieber were apparently singled out by mysterious parties to undergo an extraordinary initiation process and bring account of it to the world. Without the intervention of don Juan Matus and his party of sorcerers, it’s doubtful we would ever have heard of Castaneda, and the same holds true of Strieber. Although he was already a best-selling author (of horror fiction) before his alien encounter of 1985, it was only with the publication of Communion, in 1986, that Strieber established himself as one of the most puzzling and original writers of our time. In the field he has chosen — or been chosen — to write, that of UFOs and alien visitation, Strieber is probably the current leading exponent.

. . . Caught between a strange and deeply threatening new reality and an old reality that no longer offers comfort or assurance, that seems increasingly hollow and illusory, is it any wonder if both Strieber and Castaneda took refuge in writing, and in the grand gestures of prophet-gurus?. . . The very gift for which they were chosen as conveyers of forbidden knowledge would make Castaneda and Strieber outcasts, both in the world of men, and the realm of sorcerers and “aliens.” Like Mercury, the price of being granted free passage between the realms meant that they belonged to neither. Intellect, like the messenger, like language itself, is a means and not an end; it has no place in the primal realms or the supernal spheres: the one is beneath it, the other beyond it. This is the comedy and tragedy of the word, and why a day comes in the life of every writer when he or she is forced to choose between the illusory control of the written word — being the messenger — and the power and freedom of direct experience: becoming the message. He who lives by the pen, dies by the pen.

MORE:
Carlos Castaneda, Whitley Strieber, and the Perils of Literary Shamanism

But of course such dangers, and the existence of people who willingly court and/or accept them by taking on that literary shamanic role, are nothing new. Case in point: Charles Robert Maturin, author of the towering Gothic classic Melmoth the Wanderer, published in 1820. Melmoth is a novel that, with its distinctly Faustian plot of a man who sells his soul to the devil and then spends 150 years trying to undo the deal, has long been recognized as one of the greatest and, as it so happens, appallingly darkest novels of its kind. No less a light than Lovecraft described it as a masterpiece “in which the Gothic tale climbed to altitudes of sheer spiritual fright which it had never known before. . . . No unbiassed reader can doubt that with Melmoth an enormous stride in the evolution of the horror-tale is represented.”

Apropos to Kephas’s words about Castaneda and Strieber above, Maturin’s masterwork gains a resonance that’s all the more riveting when considered in light of the following words from one of his biographers, Robert E. Lougy, who notes that Melmoth arose out of a very real and very deep psychic well of darkness that very nearly undid Maturin when he assented to its opening:

[O]ne has the feeling that Maturin, in writing Melmoth, calls forth a reality that is so powerful, yet so grotesque, so cruel, and so foreign to Maturin’s daily existence, that the dividing line between genius and madness is throughout it very thin. (Indeed, a contemporary account of him during the time he was writing this novel suggests that he was virtually obsessed with his creation.) And Maturin himself frequently alluded to his own creativity in terms of witchcraft — of how he wanted his reader to “sit down by my magic Cauldron, mix my dark ingredients, see the bubbles work, and the spirits rise.” The danger, of course, in evoking spirits is that one can never be certain whether he can control them or of the price they will demand from him. The dangers would appear to be multiplied when one calls upon the spirits in their own territory, as Maturin seems to have done in Melmoth.

For to write such a novel is to probe those areas of knowledge, both “the visions of another world” and the darkest recesses of the human psyche, which strain the endurance of the mind, and to cross, perhaps irrevocably, forbidden boundaries. The writer then becomes isolated from the world around him, having used the incantatory power of the world to bring forth a reality that borders on the irrational and the insane. He is at once the possessor of secrets he will share with those readers who dare to sit down by his “magic Cauldron” and also possessed by those demons whose presence his art will reveal.

For a lengthy excerpt from Lougy’s 1975 monograph that includes this very passage, see the entry on Maturin in Gothic Literature: A Gale Critical Companion.

For more on the same general theme, see “Shirley Jackson: Witchcraft, madness, and the uncanny dangers of writing.”

Teeming Links – April 25, 2014

FireHead

We’re entering an age of energy impoverishment. Richard Heinberg explains: “It’s hard to overstate just how serious a threat our energy crisis is to every aspect of our current way of life. But the problem is hidden from view by oil and natural gas production numbers that look and feel just fine. . . . Quite simply, we must learn to be successfully and happily poorer. For people in wealthy industrialized countries, this requires a major adjustment in thinking.”

A new stone age by 2114? Jared Diamond ruminates: “In this globalized world, it’s no longer possible for societies to collapse one by one. A collapse that we face, if there is going to be a collapse, it will be a global collapse.”

The zombies are already here — and they’re our digitally addicted children.

Here's_Your_Zombie_Apocalypse

Education is not the answer“It clearly is not the case that plausible increases in education quality and attainment will have a substantial impact on inequality. This will require much deeper structural changes in the economy.”

The secret history of life-hacking: The popular modern cult of self-optimization is, ironically, the descendent of Frederick Taylor’s much-despised “scientific management” of the early 20th century. But today instead of being “managed” at work by iron-fisted supervisors with stopwatches in their hands who enforce a faux gospel of maximum efficiency, we do it to ourselves, everywhere and endlessly.

The alchemy of writing: This recent Expanding Mind interview (click through or use the player below) features some great thoughts on the preternaturally inspired approach to writing from the Reverend Nemu, author of the Nemu’s End trilogy, a three-volume revision of the formerly published single-volume megabook  Nemu’s End: History, Psychology, and Poetry of the Apocalypse.

Jeffrey Kripal on horror and religion (from a great 2012 Skeptiko interview titled “Dr. Jeffrey Kripal on Science Fiction as a Trojan Horse for the Paranormal”):

It’s a common misconception that religion is about the good. It’s about being peaceful and good to each other and holiness is some kind of state of equanimity and all positive things. In fact, if you look at the history of religion, if you even look at the Bible, a lot of encounters with the Divine or the sacred are incredibly terrifying, often very dangerous, and some are actually deadly. So the sacred is not just for good; the sacred is both profoundly attractive but also often terrifying and destructive.

So horror, the modern genre of horror films and horror fiction, are calling up these ancient religious impulses. I think the reason that horror is so powerful is that to get a profound religious experience, you somehow have to suppress the ego function. You somehow have to do something pretty dramatic to the person. One way to do something really dramatic to the person to get them out of themselves, as it were, is to scare the living crap out of them because that’s a form of ecstasy. It’s a mild form of ecstasy. So horror fiction often has these religious qualities to it. I think that’s why some people, lots of people actually, like to go and be terrified watching a movie or reading a book.

 

Image courtesy of Salvatore Vuono / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Is the unconscious the door through which the divine speaks?

Fury_of_Achilles_1737_by_Charles-Antoine_Coypel

From an engaging discussion of Julian Jaynes’ bicameral mind theory by writer and philosophy commentator Jules Evans, at his website Philosophy for Life:

I’m particularly interested in the link between voice-hearing, dissociation and creativity, and in the incidence of voice-hearing among creative individuals like novelists Marilynne Robinson (who occasionally hears a voice inspiring her novels), comedians Graham Linehan and Jonny Vegas (both of whom hear or have heard voices), and musicians like Lady Gaga and David Bowie (the former says she heard voices and started to act them out as personae, while the latter likewise embodied and acted out radically different personalities and has a history of schizophrenia in his family).

Not to mention the dissociative capacity of gifted actors to become other people (Le Carre called Alec Guinness’ ability to become someone else a ‘complete self-enchantment, a controlled schizophrenia’); or all the many poets and song-writers who say their poems came to them from a voice / presence / spirit / muse.

What Jaynes fails to address, I’d suggest, is the value of these ‘vestiges of the bicameral mind’. When we seem to feel or hear messages from the beyond, it’s not just a primitive throwback to Homeric times. These messages sometimes tell us something useful, beautiful and wise, something our ordinary consciousness does not know. They are often sources of moral inspiration or consolation. I’d suggest the right hemisphere is still not entirely accessible to our ordinary consciousness, and there is a value in learning how to access it through things like meditation, trance states or techniques of ecstasy (though of course there are risks as well, particularly if you end up with an inflated or Messianic sense of self).

To go a step further into the mystical, if we do receive inspiration through the right hemisphere, does that mean the origin is definitely purely material or neurochemical? Could we not consider William James’ hypothesis that the right hemisphere / unconscious is the door through which the divine speaks to us? Such has been the suggestion of various spiritual critics of Jaynes’ theory, from Owen Barfield to Philip K. Dick.

Still, the voice-hearing network is fascinating, from a theological perspective, because in some ways it suggests a very modern attitude to the gods. We hear their commands, and yet we don’t have to obey unquestioningly. We relate to them less as a child to their all-powerful father, and more like a friend to their equal, rather like Lyra’s friendship with her daemon, Pantalaimon, in Philip Pullman’s Dark Materials. Happiness, then, is eudaimonia: having a friendly daemon to keep one company in life and through death.

Very well, says my daemon, looking over my shoulder as I write. But who made the daemons?

MORE: “Gods, Voice-Hearing, and the Bicameral Mind

Image: “The Fury of Achilles,” 1737, by Charles-Antoine Coypel [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Teeming Links – March 21, 2014

FireHeadImage courtesy of Salvatore Vuono / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Why great artists need solitude: because it “heightens artistic receptivity in a way that can be challenging and painful.”

The Obama administration aggressively prosecutes leakers. It electronically spies on those who might speak to journalists. It deploys its own counter-media to confuse and evade scrutiny by the press. It is, in short, “a closed, control freak administration.”

Michael Dirda on the lessons provided by the late Cornell scholar Lane Cooper for both life and literature:

[I am a reader] with a passion for “low” literature, for adventure stories and fantasy and science fiction and mysteries and romance. And yet. And yet. Something in me deeply responds to, even if it cannot wholly emulate, such men as Cooper and Bongiorno. I envy their wisdom, their beautiful souls, their serene and noble spirits. Because of them I try to write about books that matter, whatever their genre, and, as often as possible, to urge the rediscovery or renewed appreciation of great works from the past.

The dystopian death spiral of American higher education: In the age of predatory corporate capitalism, faculty are slave labor and students are lambs for slaughter. “Ours is the generation that stood by gawking while a handful of parasites and billionaires smashed it for their own benefit.”

The Network-Based Interpretation of Dreams: By mapping the links between themes that appear in dreams, network scientists reveal the connections between dreams in different cultures for the first time.

As it turns out, the 2012 apocalypse almost literally happened (but a few months ahead of the putative Mayan schedule) due to a massive solar flare.

The I Ching is an uncertainty machine: “The I Ching repeatedly prompts me to go beyond false certainties and to create new and unexpected possibilities. In this way, divination might not be the enemy of rational thought but could be a means to its fuller flourishing.” (Also see “Meditation, the daimon muse, and the I Ching.“)

Did the U.S. government pay a Hollywood special effects expert to create fake alien bodies for a disinformation campaign against the Soviets? Nick Redfern makes a compellingly suggestive and suggestively compelling case:

So, we have one man claiming to have made alien bodies to fool the Soviets and (in a fictional setting) we have a government creating a monster to fool the Germans. There is a Billy Wilder tie to both issues (in the sense that the source of the above-story worked with Wilder, and Wilder himself directed, produced and co-wrote The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes), and both Wilder and the man behind the “alien dummies” ruse worked with the Psychological Warfare Department on Death Mills. Somewhere, in this convoluted saga, I suspect, there is a big secret just waiting to be uncovered.”

Richard Smoley on Colin Wilson, Faculty X, and waking up from the trance of everyday existence:

It is this self-remembering, this awakening, deliberate or inadvertent, that Wilson discovers in many accounts of mystical experience. Gurdjieff might have agreed. When asked once what higher consciousness was like, he replied, “Everything more vivid.” For Wilson, this awakening is the gateway to what he calls Faculty X, which he calls “the power to grasp reality,” and which “unites the two halves of man’s mind, conscious and unconscious” . . . . If we are to win the war against the sleep of everyday life, it will not come out of technology nor even from political or social reform, as much as this may be needed. It will come from the liberation of individuals who awaken from the dreams that pass across their televisions and computer screens — and their minds — and are able to say, “I – here now.”

 

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

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

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