I had a dream recently about being inhabited by a fictional character, a poor, troubled young woman. I was able to reel off her sad story in great detail. I loved the experience and realized that I suddenly understood what it would take to write fiction. Unfortunately, when I woke up the character was no longer with me.
The dream reminded me that I have always wanted to write fiction, but the desire is a bit strange because what I really want is to want to write fiction. I am a chain-reader of novels but I don’t have a strong desire to write one. Some essential motivation has been missing. The dream told me what that is. The missing ingredient is that kind of deep empathetic imagination, the experience of being inhabited by a character. If a character came to me that strongly in waking life I would be willing to put in the work of building a story around her.
I’m guessing that doesn’t happen automatically or every time to fiction writers, that you have to cultivate receptivity, empathy, and imagination; that such imagination is not just a magical gift but also the result of practice. I don’t know. I haven’t done the work but I have also never felt like I had the gift. I admire and envy the gift of imagination. It seems like a superpower that belongs to some writers and not to others. I’d be willing to work at it if I thought practice would make it happen.
That is perhaps the explanation for my dream this morning, in which I had enrolled in a Master of Fine Arts program at a prestigious university, Columbia, I think, because I was going off to New York City armed with recommendations, grants, and all the requirements. I was going to school to learn to write fiction.
I do pay attention to my dreams but this does not seem like a realistic plan at this stage of my life. For one thing, it would take more than a single dream to convince me that I have a gift that has not shown up in waking life.
But I wonder, what is the invitation? Who was that poor young woman? What mastery in fine arts might lie ahead of me and how shall I pursue it? I am sitting here a long time today, repeatedly, between loads of wash and dealing with a bureaucracy and lunch, trying to figure this out. It will not be figured out like this. I need to get away from my desk and get exercise.
Devoid of novel-worthy imagination, I seem to be stuck in the folds of my own brain, my own life, my own dreams. It’s pretty interesting, but a great novel it is not.
Do you ever want to want something?