Thursday, December 3, 2009

The Fictional Dream

Writer and teacher John Gardner had a concept he called the fictional dream, which was the idea that fiction does its job by creating a dream state for the reader, and as long as the writer is doing a good job of maintaining that dream state, the reader won't "wake up" from it and will continue to read and believe in the fictional world the writer has created. Gardner argues that this fictional dream first happens in the writer's head, and the writer's job is to write it down for the reader:

“In the writing state—the state of inspiration—the fictive dream springs up fully alive: the writer forgets the words he has written on the page and sees, instead, his characters moving around their rooms, hunting through cupboards, glancing irritably through their mail, setting mousetraps, loading pistols. The dream is as alive and compelling as one’s dreams at night, and when the writer writes down on paper what he has imagined, the words, however inadequate, do not distract his mind from the fictive dream but provide him with a fix on it, so that when the dream flags he can reread what he’s written and find the dream starting up again. This and nothing else is the desperately sought and tragically fragile writer’s process: in his imagination, he sees made-up people doing things—sees them clearly—and in the act of wondering what they will do next he sees what they will do next, and all this he writes down in the best, most accurate words he can find, understanding even as he writes that he may have to find better words later, and that a change in the words may mean a sharpening or deepening of the vision, the fictive dream or vision becoming more and more lucid, until reality, by comparison, seems cold, tedious, and dead.”

For me, at least, this is a pretty accurate description of what writing is like, at least some of the time. As I work my way through the second act of "Cocke & Bull" I am finding that even though I've got a couple of outlines written for the book and I'm accumulating notes to myself about what the second act is all about, the tool upon which I am leaning the most to get the writing done is my imagination. Last night I was trying to write a simple scene in which three people camp out for the night in a pine forest, and when I imagined the scene I found myself imagining all sorts of surprising action and then I found myself describing this action in all sorts of surprising ways. I read back over what I wrote and at one point had to ask myself where a certain symbolic image came from; I didn't remember writing it at all but there it was on the page and it was perfect.

All of which should give me confidence as I move forward through the middle section of the book, but still I feel like I'm taking a white-knuckle ride through the story, because even though I know certain things that have to happen by the end of the second act, in some ways I have no idea at all what's going to happen during the course of this act and I'm still feeling my way blindly through the story even with my pages of notes and outlines and maps and charts (yes, charts). I breathe a sigh of relief at the completion of each chapter, as if I've survived some harrowing experience. Which, you know, I have.


  1. Thanks. I love when writer's write about the writing process. I have a feeling the bulletin board next to my desk is going to acquire another piece of paper.


  2. Great quote, that nails it.

    I outline, too (although not as extensive of a process as your outlining) but I always find the true inspiration and best advancements in the plot come through in the act of writing. I love it when I disappear into the world of my story, and when I revisit it I find something wonderful and inventive that I had no real prior knowledge of until the words spilled from my fingers.

  3. I love John Gardner. I like his Art of Fiction book. It really helped me jump start my first novel. Is that where that quote is from? I can't remember. I should read book again.

    Anyway, yes, I agree with the fictional dream. I don't feel like my book is going anywhere until I've reached the point where each time I open it up I'm inside the dream immediately.

    As far as your not knowing but knowing what's going to happen goes - I am exactly the same way with first drafts. I plan things. I know what's happening, but I don't. I think that's the best way to write. Flexible.

  4. I'm also a fan of Gardner. I've never actually read any of his fiction, but I like what he has to say about writing.

    I think some of my works goes into this mode. Three stories in particular, "Red Man, Blue Man", "The Wild Grass" and "Dolores" just spilled out in the way Gardner describes here. And, all of these stories have something in common, a certain energy that I appreciate. I'm not sure if you have to get into this mode to be successful, but it's one path to success.

    I was once in a writer's group where the leader commented that a particular sentence I had written was inescapable. He meant that it was written in a way that was so vivid that you couldn't see it as words on a page; it always evoked the image. I keep trying to reach that spot again. I think I can catch it at times, but it doesn't always last very long.

  5. Scott: Are you still working on that outline?

    Rick: You should read Gardner's "The Art of Fiction." There's an extended section where he talks about what it's like to be a writer working on a book and making choices about characters and events that is simply brilliant. Though as you say, he nailed it here. There's nothing else like the sort of dream state of writing.

    Michelle: I think the quote is from "Becoming a Writer." It's not from "Art of Fiction." I agree that the book's not going anywhere if you can't fall into the fictional dream each time you go back to work on it. Today I'm struggling with a chapter and I can't find my way into the story. It's annoying. And scary.

    Davin: I've only read Gardner's "Grendel," which I recommend. Keep in mind that even though Gardner talks about the sort of intoxicated/intoxicating experience of writing from the fictional dream while, at the same time, he emphasizes the importance of planning and outlining and knowing the story. He was a funny old guy, that Gardner.