Writing a Novel: Prelude to Flight
How is a novel born? Through the act of intentionally dreaming, explains English professor and novelist Scott Elliott.
Novelist and essayist Ann Patchett has likened the transition from idea to actuality in the novel-writing process to an S.U.V. crushing a beautiful butterfly with multicolored, stained-glass wings.
My take on the process is similar but not so extreme. In my experience, during the writing, what makes it onto the page may destroy the perfect idea, but something else—sturdier and good to face the world—Lazuruses from beneath the tires, alive with surprising twists and turns of language and events.
A novel-sustaining idea finds the writer more than it is found; it coalesces from cultural observations; haunting images; telling wisps of dialogue overheard in passing; strange scenes from one’s own life; reading experiences; feelings evoked by other works of art; evocative conversations with loved ones and friends; sensual details taken in by a million receptors in places we know and love and mysterious places, triggering towns, glimpsed in passing out the window.
The fiction writer Haruki Murakami says of writing fiction, “You have to dream intentionally. Most people dream a dream when they are asleep. But to be a writer, you have to dream while you are awake, intentionally.”
It’s a wonderful thing, this intentional, while-you’re-awake dreaming. It allows for the living of a parallel life in which you get to exert more control than in your real life. John Gardner echoes this sense of fiction as a sort of intentional dream created in readers’ minds in The Art of Fiction, when he writes that the fiction writer forges a “continuous dream” for readers.
Some of the writer’s work is unintentional and involves not knowing where something is going when we set out but going anyway, full of hope and faith and the wish to be surprised. In a culture where standardized tests and careful outlining hold sway, this is an odd thing to admit to teaching in a creative writing class:
“Hey students, try not knowing so much. Go without a plan. Keep things inchoate, unformed in your mind. Try to surprise yourself so you can surprise your reader.”
This part of the process involves assigning tasks to our subconscious minds and letting the answers find us, listening to what ideas might come in dreams or when we’re not looking. We’re in the shower, casting a flyline, taking a walk, doing the dishes, and suddenly the solution to a problem we were facing in the work, the way to overcome a seeming-impasse, comes to us—the perfect direction we know the work will take.
In this part of the process, we try to summon the genius of our subconscious mind by getting out of the way. Vladmir Nabokov acknowledges this part of the process when he says:
[The pleasures of writing] “correspond exactly to the pleasures of reading, the bliss, the felicity of a phrase is shared by writer and reader: by the satisfied writer and the grateful reader, or—which is the same thing—by the artist grateful to the unknown force in his mind that has suggested a combination of images and by the artistic reader whom his combination satisfies.”
In addition to being a wonderful description of the interconnectedness of writer and reader—the similarities in their roles when they meet on the page—this is also an apt acknowledgement of the mysteries in the process, the seemingly unintentional dreaming, the providence of that unknown force (italics mine) that yields gifts beyond what we thought we could achieve.
Perhaps a paraphrased quote, sometimes attributed to Gabriel García Márquez, effectively yokes the notion of intentional and unintentional dreaming: “At first the writer pushes the wheelbarrow up the hill, but at some point the wheelbarrow pulls the writer down the other side.”
The intentional hard work of breaking inertia and pushing up the hill yields to a different sort of work, really more a joyful just-keeping-up, as the whole mechanism begins to move, unasked-for gifts springing to life as it goes.
The description of the novel as a magpie’s nest also rings true for me. The novel is a capacious form into which many strands can be woven, and so in writing a novel the writer works a bit like a magpie, a bird known for assembling nests out of random fragments.
The novelist lives within the conscious work of the intentional dream and also accepts gifts from the subconscious mind, in both realms saying, “Yes! I can use that!—I can incorporate that little bit of twine, that solid stick, that bit of shiny tinsel, this little bell, that lost earring, that lonesome train whistle, that opalescent snail shell, that googly eye, into this strange beautiful thing I’m trying to make with words”—this, as Henry James has it, “immense exquisite correspondence with life.”
An idea for my third novel came to me one day. It would be called Sirens and it would be written in seven chapters, each chapter a visit from a different character. The visitors would be women in my protagonist’s mother’s book club. These women would bring him meals, one a day, for seven days. The women would have discussed my protagonist’s first novel two years prior. In the intervening years my protagonist would have lost his job and experienced the dissolution of his marriage. He would have returned home out of necessity, where he hopes to complete work on a new novel that might help him renew his trajectory. My new novel would be comedic. While I finished revisions on my second novel and promoted it in various places, I began to host the idea for the new novel, began living in this world and considering what I already knew and what I needed to learn in order to begin writing it.
By the end of my most recent sabbatical, I had about 120 solid pages toward the manuscript. All seven women had come into focus; I knew who they were and what they sounded like and that they called their book club The Lionesses. I had learned more about the particular circumstances of my protagonist Daniel’s downfall. I had learned that the major themes I was taking up included but were not limited to the following: nostalgia, dangers and delights; American literary culture and its discontents; going home, notions of home; the uses of literature and how it operates in private lives (lots of literary quotes); book club culture and gender; architectural notions of/metaphors for the self and for literature; authorship and the role of the literary artist; best laid plans in a life and how they go astray; notions of the American Dream and success; the long formation of the self; gaps and expectations in gender and age roles; America’s political and class divide(s); addiction to glory; not so often considered relations between men and women; the primal and the mannered; suffering, loss and recovery; and much else.
Once 100 and more pages are up and running in the world of a novel, other ideas come suddenly into focus with greater ease. Walking across campus one morning I suddenly realize my protagonist went to Kenyon College. What this will mean for the novel, I have no idea. Perhaps Kenyon College’s literary legacy will play a role.
Reading an article in the Oxford American magazine about the setting and some of the people on whom William Faulkner based characters in his novella The Bear, I suddenly know that the protagonist of the novel my protagonist is writing will visit with a group of other men the place, no longer forest, where Faulkner set The Bear. Once this detail is incorporated, it will help me explore a theme of shifting masculinity in the novel.
Did I know when I set out that this new novel would include a quote from Gaston Bachelard’s Poetics of Space? I certainly did not. But suddenly an architect in my novel named Allistair Slote famed for designing houses with lots of stairs (all is stair) shows up in my protagonist’s dream (it’s also suggested this could have been the visitation of a ghost) quoting Bachelard as follows:
“Sometimes, the house of the future is better built, lighter, and larger than all the houses of the past, so that the image of the dream house is opposed to that of the childhood home. Late in life, with indomitable courage, we continue to say we are going to do what we have not yet done: we are going to build a house. It will be our dream house and we consider it until the day we die.”
Oddly, my protagonist is not aware of having ever read Bachelard. Once the quote is in place, lots of possibilities involving architectural notions of the lifelong formation of the self and architectural metaphors for authorship pop into sudden possible relevance, resonating with other things already in place.
Now, too, the phrase “the house of the future,” which had not been in the novel at all before now, is a possible title, competing with Sirens, the formerly unopposed working title.
The competing titles square off along a fault line. One of them (The House of the Future) emphasizes the formation of the self throughout an entire life; the other (Sirens) emphasizes these women, whom Daniel respects and loves and fears, connected with a past he’d meant to leave behind.
This little essay isn’t about all the obstacles that swoop in to get in the way and that sometimes feel like dead ends in a labyrinth when one is writing a novel.
This essay isn’t about the decisions one must make about the back story and the front story; it’s not about deciding upon the best point of view; or about how many pages of carefully wrought work will need to be cut as those pages turn into scaffolding—work that had seemed essential but in the end only helped you get to what the novel really needed you to write about.
We won’t get into the stained-glass-window-winged-butterfly-crushing S.U.V. of trying to actually be funny as opposed to planning for something to be funny or of trying to contain an entire novel within seven in-scene chapters in which characters are essentially only dropping off dinner or of trying to write seven complex, three-dimensional, fully-formed female characters.
We won’t get into any of that except to say that, as with any ambitious undertaking with many moving parts, lots of challenges present themselves seemingly out of nowhere—the flip-side of the subconscious gifts from the unknown force—obstacles that leer and snarl, entangle, and initially pretend to be just what the novel needs.
We won’t get into those here.
Three, four hours at the writing desk evaporate like mist. The world is coming into being; these characters, who did not exist before we summoned them, or accepted them from the unknown force, are coming to life. It took a while, but they’re talking and acting, grumbling, growling and laughing within this world that’s also starting to feel viable, their vibrations resonating with other things already in place.
At a certain point the whole apparatus, as if from hundreds of vibrations brought about through careful attention to small details that seemed not to matter but now prove that they do, begins to lift off the ground. Who knows what else we may be compelled to take up and weave in as the novel takes us up into the air?
Scott Elliott’s Temple Grove (University of Washington Press, 2013) was a finalist for the 2014 Washington State Book Award in fiction. About Temple Grove, The Oregonian wrote, “Just as axes find the oldest wood, so does the novel find its characters’ oldest secrets… A roaming third-person narration allows many back stories, current desires and preoccupations to form a robust canopy in the novel. This makes the climax not just a single moment of action or revelation, but the playing out of each character’s story, their confrontations with themselves and each other, secrets at the fore, no more illusions.” www.scottelliott.net