Thursday, June 22, 2006

Dubus on Vertical Writing

It's taken me a while, but I finally tracked down a copy of On Writing Short Stories, edited by Tom Bailey. The book as a whole is sort of odd and haphazardly assembled, half essays and half anthology. The anthologized stories are mostly familiar, including (among others) "Bullet in the Brain," "A Rose for Emily," "The Things They Carried," and "Everything That Rises Must Converge." However, among the essays is one by Andre Dubus, titled "The Habit of Writing," which motivated me to look for the book, because it apparently appears nowhere else.

In the essay, Dubus describes his method of writing, a method he arrived at after 25 years of trying. "I gestate," he says.
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.
Dubus tells of writing a story titled "Anna," about a young couple who commit an armed robbery, and how he could not get inside the character of Anna. He struggled.
Then one day or night I decided to try a different approach. I told myself that next day at the desk I would not leave a sentence until I knew precisely what Anna was feeling. I told myself that even if I wrote only fifty words, I would stay with this....

At my desk next morning I held my pen and hunched my shoulders and leaned my head down, physically trying to look more deeply into the page of the notebook.... In that moment I began what I call vertical writing, rather than horizontal. I had never before thought in those terms. But for years I had been writing horizontallly, trying to move forward (those five pages); now I would try to move down, as deeply as I could.
He also speaks of waiting until he sees the first two scenes before he begins to write. When he sees the scenes, "It means it is time. The story is ready for me to receive it." Readers of Dubus will recognize the significance of these words. Receiving communion, or the Eucharist, is a central theme in his work, and one of his better known stories, "The Curse," ends with the line "He wished he were alone so he could kneel to receive it." ("It" being the curse the protagonist feels he deserves for failing to stop the gang rape of a young woman in the bar where he worked.)

Dubus is not alone in his somewhat mystical view of writing. Robert Olen Butler gives similar advice in his book, From Where You Dream. Butler says, somewhat cryptically, that a writer should never start with an idea, or a plot, or a character, or anything other preconceived plan, but should instead tap into the subconscious mind and let the words flow. That sounds a little too new-age to be trusted, perhaps, or maybe it's only meaningful to a writer who has reached the stage of unconscious mastery.