Writing Right with Dmitri - Fiction as Teacher
The pen is the tongue of the mind. – Miguel de Cervantes
The wise man who said that was the ancestor of all modern fiction writers. He also said, 'Facts are the enemy of truth.' That is a profound statement. If you look only at a collection of 'facts', you'll never see the bigger pattern – the one that could get you out of your dilemma. Cervantes, as I said, was a very wise man.
I suspect very strongly that Cervantes knew what I'm about to tell you. Even though I'm going to use some terms to explain it that he, a contemporary of Shakespeare, would not have known. I'm going to talk about what writing fiction has to teach you, the writer. Never mind the audience this time: what can you get out of telling yourself a story?
So let's talk about Einstein.
The world as we have created it is a process of our thinking. It cannot be changed without changing our thinking. – Albert Einstein
Albert Einstein paid a lot of attention to his dreams. Not in the narcissistic way so many people do, trying to take his own psychological pulse. No, Einstein used his dreams to solve problems. He said he often dreamed in music. This was a man looking for patterns.
When Einstein wanted to understand relativity, he dreamed a story about some cows, a Swiss farmer, and an electric fence. When he wanted to understand what happened when you approached the speed of light, he dreamed he was sledding down a hill very fast, and saw the stars elongate. You get the idea. Einstein's dreams would give most people a headache.
Dreams are stories we tell ourselves. As writers, we can do better than our dreams: we can make up stories on paper – or virtual paper. We can run these kinds of thought experiments using both sides of our brains, because we do them while awake. At least, sort of awake, if you're like me.
The important thing about these thought experiments, though, is to learn to let go. If you try to control the story, you'll never learn anything. If you prescribe the situation and behaviours according to what you already know, you'll miss the lesson fiction has to teach you. You've got to give it space and time. As Cervantes says, 'Time ripens all things; no man is born wise.' You hear that? You aren't born wise. You've got things to learn. Yes, you – no matter how wise you think you are.
The Leap of Faith
The first dream I can remember having was when I was eight years old. The dream took place in an animated cartoon landscape. I found this hostile, because I have always hated animated cartoons, which were forced down our throats by early television. The landscape itself was 'picture-perfect': suburban sidewalks, well-manicured lawns, flowers, a steepled church in the background. Then a cartoon bee came buzzing in my direction.
The bee was oversized, as in most cartoons, and comical. It had a yellow-and-black striped 'shirt' on, and its tail was a black bulb, like an old-fashioned bicycle horn. Then the bee did a surprising thing: it backed into my mouth. The 'tail' tasted rubbery, just as I would have expected a bicycle horn to taste, if I had been dumb enough to put one in my mouth. At this point, there was a voiceover (note to self: stop watching cartoons): NOW YOU ARE GOING TO DIE. I woke up in a sweat.
This dream stayed with me for years. I was grown before I realized that my eight-year-old unconscious had a subversive streak. There was a hidden punchline in that dream. The bee had no stinger. 'Oh Death, where is thy sting?' (And yes, I knew that quote at eight. I was a Bible reader.)
I still don't know what that dream was trying to say. I'm a bit like the heroine of DH Thomas' The White Hotel in that respect. But unlike her, I'm not going to let Dr Freud talk me into anything.
Following the stories you tell yourself is a leap of faith: you've got to let the story go where it wants to. Then it will lead you somewhere surprising. Relinquish control, and you might find yourself on Einstein's sled.
About the same time as my first dream, I had another, just as puzzling, but less metaphysical. It was shortly after the beginning of the Kennedy Administration. I dreamed I was in the White House. Everybody was calling me 'Mr President', and I was expected to figure out how to handle Nikita Krushchev, whom I could barely spell. I thought, 'Gee, what happens when they find out I'm only eight? I don't think this is legal.' (It isn't, it's unconstitutional to have an eight-year-old President.) I waffled my way through a Cabinet meeting before I woke up, worried.
Now, dreaming that you're Quantum Leaping your way into the White House could mean many things. But it probably reflected a residual anxiety that the adults might have been fairly clueless about the international situation. After all, it wasn't long before they brought us within a hair's-breadth of global annihilation. And only the grace of God and the cool headedness of Bobby Kennedy kept it from happening. Maybe an eight-year-old could have helped.
See what I mean? You can learn a lot from your thought experiments. But you have to pay attention. Writers have a gift: they can make up their own stories, without waiting for dreams to strike. But as you do your waking dreaming, please keep in mind: let your imagination go where it wants to go. Slacken the reins a bit. Don't assume you know the answers. Sooner or later, your unconscious will surprise you with what it has to teach.
Your assignment, if you want one: tell yourself a story. Start with an ordinary situation, and let it get out of hand. Or, start with an absurd one, and let it run until it normalises or blows up. Then tell us about it.
We might learn something, too.
There is no book so bad...that it does not have something good in it. – Miguel de Cervantes