"Imagination is sacred and divine–I trust it implicitly."
So said Andre Dubus III at his Wordstock reading last weekend. Dubus, best known for House of Sand and Fog, read from his latest novel, The Garden of Last Days, which was inspired by the Florida sojourns of the 9-11 hijackers. After he read from the book, Dubus talked about writing the book. He quoted Flannery O'Connor, who said, "writing is waiting," to make the point that even when you are staring at the computer monitor, you are writing. And then he ripped off this line: "You are summoning, almost like a prayer to an angel, the imagination to give you something."
After hearing that line, I was ready to go buy every book the man ever wrote. He went on the say that if you summon the imagination regularly it will reward you with things to write about. Someone in the audience asked him how difficult it was to get inside the head of one of the September 11 hijackers, and he told how he resisted and resisted it, that he had no interest in making one of them a viewpoint character. But then the novel seemed to sputter and fall flat and he was in danger of losing it completely. He realized that he had to make one of the hijackers a viewpoint character, so he sat and did nothing but read books about the Middle East for five months.
Dubus quoted Mike Nichols, saying that the charge of the storyteller is to share what it is really like to be in the midst of whatever is happening. In character-driven fiction, you want to establish empathy for the characters, not sympathy. As a writer, you do this to the point that there is no other. What you do in writing is to go beyond knowledge of the other to totally be the other.
Interestingly, this is true in fiction, as well as in many other arenas of writing. When you write a press release, there's a certain tone and style that you emulate. In a much more superficial way, you're becoming the other–the PR pro who knows what will grab attention. A blog post sounds different than a web page and an article in a newspaper is dissimilar in tone to a piece in the New Yorker. In each instance the trick for the writer is to figure out the trops and do them. Be the other.
I was discussing this with Mary-Suzanne yesterday in terms of ghostwriting. How does a writer get out of their own skin and into the skin of the person who is supposedly writing the book? Here are some tips (which are applicable to every kind of writing imaginable):
1. Get Over Yourself. Clear the gunk out. Do it however you like, but I think the best way is to write a bunch of crap down on paper. Set a timer and write out all the petty judgments and grievances and even all the things that are making you happy. (You may get some ideas along the way, though that is not the point of this. As an added benefit, you may also improve your mental health along the way.
2. Enter the Dream World. Close your eyes, take some deep breaths, center yourself, do whatever it takes to get yourself calm and zen and relaxed. Listen to music if you need to.
3. Start to Observe. Pull an image of the person you are melding with into your brain. What do they look like, smell like, sound like, feel like? Be aware that in making these observations you are still on the outside looking in.
4. Become the Other. Now, go a step farther and sink deeper into the character. Instead of observing the character, imagine yourself actually going into her head. What does the world look like from inside her viewpoint? Where is she sitting? What is the view outside her window? What does she do when she first gets up in the morning?
5. Trust Your Imagination. Remember, as Dubus says, it is sacred and divine. All you are really doing in this exercise is imagining life through another person's eyes. And, honestly, what could be more important than bridging the gaps between us?