On a recommendation from Donald Maass’s Writing 21st Century Fiction, I picked up From Where You Dream by Robert Olen Butler, a book he advocates as helpful to pantsers like me. A pantser is someone who writes without a concrete idea of where the story is going. They may have a few big places in the plot they know will happen, but unlike plotters, they don’t know how they’ll get there until they arrive. It’s an intuitive way of writing.
From Where You Dream had some great ideas in it, but for today, I’m going to focus on just one that is crucial for every writer if he wants to ensure that a story has a soul: writing from the place where you dream.
Essentially, the trick to this is very simple. You merely have to bypass your conscious, doubting mind and access your unconscious where your brain stores sensation, experience, desires, emotions, and all that stuff we hide behind our masks. The challenge is that getting there can be quite difficult. We spend so much of our time trying to conform to one thing or another, masking our intense emotions, keeping our secrets, and often not even letting ourselves in on what we’re really feeling. We have so much practice throwing up shields that it’s very challenging and often terrifying to let them down.
Yet fiction carries the essence of the unconscious because it explores and reveals human experience and because, especially in today’s styles of writing, it seeks to give the reader a glimpse or a whole ride under the skins of the characters. To be able to write that, we need to access our deeper layers.
In my experience and from what I’ve heard many writers say, some of the best fiction comes when an author lets down his walls and lets things flow. This cannot be done if he’s second-guessing himself or worried about how readers, an editor, or a critique partner is going to respond to the story. It cannot be done if a writer is fixing every sentence as he writes. A writer cannot be creator and critic simultaneously. Nor can it be accomplished if a writer ignores his instincts.
So how do you tap into the unconscious and write from the place where you dream? Here are a few tips.
1. Write every day. This one Butler is adamant about, and you will hear practically every published author advocate. It’s because it works on so many levels. It helps you access your unconscious, but it also helps you stay productive and improve your skills. All in all, it’s one of the best things a writer can do.
2. Give it time. This is probably the most difficult. Few of us are patient enough, but it’s a skill, like most others, that takes lots of time and practice.
3. Have things that you keep in your environment or associate with the act of writing. I almost always play music in the background, specifically music that has a lot of emotional undertones.
4. Similar to three, be aware of what helps you sink into your dreamspace, as Butler calls it. I write best at night, after sunset. I also do best with a pillow or blanket to cuddle into.
5. Relax. This will come with habit, but tension can get in the way of accessing the unconscious. After all, the unconscious is where we more acutely feel whatever is stressing us out. Physical relaxation will encourage mental relaxation. Try deep breathing, stretching, or sitting somewhere you find comfortable.
6. Face your fears and feel them. This can also be applied to any other emotion: anger, hurt, joy, envy. Letting yourself feel these emotions as you write and the story taps into them will allow you to effectively translate them onto the page.
7. Let your characters lead the way. Characters that are forced onto a path they would not normally travel tend to sabotage stories. The caveat to this is that, for this method to be effective, characters must have developed motivations, desires, and inner worlds. Without such, they cannot lead.
A note to plotters: Butler’s book focuses on methods that swing very much to the pantser end of the spectrum. However, I believe these techniques can also be used from the plotting side. While you may be methodical about setting out the structure of your scenes and story, as you write, tapping into your unconscious can help make what you put on the page that much more gripping.
Good luck and happy writing!