On gestating fiction and playing pretend

by look i have opinions

“I have a really hard time falling asleep so to stave off boredom and to lie still so as not to disturb anyone else, I will imagine myself living the story I’m working on.  The more progress I’ve made on a story, the more wholly I can inhabit the story. That’s the best word I can think of. I just pretend. Eventually, I fall asleep but it’s not a great sleep. It’s a waking dream and I remember all of it. A couple hours later, I immediately go to my computer and write down all the story I pretended to be a part of in my shitty sleep. When I’m lucky, the entire story comes out in one sitting after a shitty pretend story sleep. I do this for about three nights and the closer I get to being done, the more I live the story in my head. I even do it when I’m awake at this point and I get really frustrated when I have to stop daydreaming to work and interact with other humans and such. Don’t they see? I’m in my story, working things out. I want to stay there.”

“My Muse Is Shitty Sleep Dreams,” by Roxane Gay (read the whole thing)

This is encouraging to me because for a long time, I resisted daydreaming about anything I was working on, especially if it was exciting for me. I forget why exactly. Maybe somebody told me that daydreaming in advance of writing would kill the creative impulse—the same reason some writers refuse to talk about what they’re working on until it’s done.

No, actually, I know why: it was because of my love-hate relationship with clever endings. In the past I have written stories while daydreaming about the endings, and it never worked. By the time I got to the clever part, the part I was most committed to, the story had taken a different direction and the clever ending no longer fit. From this evidence, I generalized that I shouldn’t daydream too much in advance of writing.

I broke my no-daydreaming rule when I was writing what I considered a throwaway piece, something I could never sell and would only show to a handful of people. It turned out magnificently, and part of the reason was that I had worked out all the important parts in my mind before I put a word on the page. I wasn’t dreaming up clever twists or lines, though; I was dreaming myself deeper into the scene.

Which reminds me of something else that must have influenced my avoidance of daydreaming, an essay I read in school—

“I gestate: for months, often for years. An idea comes to me from wherever they come, and I write it in a notebook. Sometimes I forget it’s there. I don’t think about it. By think I mean plan. I try never to think about where a story will go. This is as hard as writing, maybe harder; I spend most of my waking time doing it; it is hard work, because I want to know what the story will do and how it will end and whether or not I can write it; but I must not know, or I will kill the story by controlling it; I work to surrender.”

—“The Habit of Writing,” by Andre Dubus (read this, too—it can be found in On Writing Short Stories, edited by Tom Bailey, and behind a paywall at Scribd; quote found here)

Dubus struggles not to plot ahead the same way I struggle not to get attached to clever ideas. But I see now that his process and Roxane Gay’s aren’t as different as they appear. Like her, he imagines the opening scenes of his stories before he writes them. Like her, he gets deep inside his characters. She calls it playing pretend and he makes it sound more like a monastic discipline. I am comforted by the thought that I don’t have to choose one or the other.