Tuesday, 5 October 2010

Knife-wielding maniacs and man-eating spiders

That's what I dreamed about last night. Seriously. Got no idea where it came from (well, there was a minor spider incident...). When I sat down in front of the keyboard this morning, I had some pretty hefty cobwebs to clear out (ahem, so to speak).

In On Becoming a Novelist, John Gardner talks about writing being a continuous dream. I get that. I have a theory about dreams, that they're a way for our subconscious to trick out emotions from us. Not just the usual ones, the happies and sads and mads -- that's too easy. J.M. Barrie wrote about fairies being so small that they could only ever experience one emotion at the same time, but we big people can fit in a lot more than one. So our dreams do backflips to come up with a rationale for that nagging sense of disappointment twinged with shame, or that overall contentment mixed with a new fear of loss, or the hope that we're vaguely embarrassed to admit to. Not sure exactly where my subconscious picked up on a slasher-movie villain in a rubber mask, but I do know that I woke up wanting to cuddle up to my husband, glad that no baddie had gotten to him. Hmmm, says Mr. Freud.

Writing, for me, is that process in reverse. I'll have the worst time eking out a scene if all I know is what's supposed to happen in it. But if I can grab hold of one of these little nuggets of emotion (there's that staring-at-wall technique again), it feels like a trance when I move my fingers to the keys. Sometimes I'm barely seeing the screen in front of me; my attention is soft-focused on what I can see and feel, what the characters are seeing and feeling. What comes out is like reverse-engineering that little glowing ember of feeling.

It's very much a meditation. A friend of mine who went on a Buddhist retreat came back with a great little mantra to tell yourself if you're having trouble staying in the moment: I am here, it is now. Try saying it a few times; it's immensely comforting. And in a very real sense, that's where I need to be in order to get anything meaningful on the page -- right there, in the scene, in the moment with my characters. Forget plans for the plot (at least for now), forget the fact that I haven't really set up the backstory of that one character. Anne Lamott, in Bird by Bird (last reference, I promise), said she has a one-inch picture frame stuck to her computer monitor. It's there to remind her that she doesn't have to write A Novel right now. All she has to do is write what she can see through a one-inch picture frame. Just that one moment.

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