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February 5, 2009

the cauldron of fiction

by sven at 2:51 am

I'm studying how to create fiction. Here are three metaphors I'm finding useful –– each of which has to do with water.

the stream of consciousness

There is the conscious mind, and then there is the unconscious mind. The conscious mind can attempt to work things out by logic... But the true source of thought is the unconscious.

I mean this literally: try putting earplugs in your ears. Curiously, even in a silent room there's a lot of background noise. Remove that, and it's astonishing how much easier it is to hear that little voice inside your mind talking to you.

That little voice, with its never-ending commentary -- it originates from the subconscious. In some ways, the voice is that which is most you. And yet, there is still another part of the mind which can simply sit and listen to the voice, observing it. This is a precept of meditation. It is also a precept of stream-of-consciousness writing, where you sit and simply transcribe what the voice says as you listen to it.

The stream-of-consciousness is the source of energy that will power all your creative endeavors. Learn to tap into it with intention.

the pitcher of thought

I've heard it said that the mind can only hold seven thoughts at a time. Whether or not the number is accurate, it matches my experience that I can only consider a limited number of things simultaneously.

In a very literal way, if I can remove one thing from my mind, I make room for something else. I don't worry about failing to get more ideas -- the stream of consciousness will provide. I imagine this like a magic pitcher of water: as quickly as I can pour water out of the pitcher, it will be replaced with more water.

This line of reasoning leads me to proclaim: do not think inside your head! When I try to figure things out just by thinking, it's generally a slow process of transformation. But when I write, I remove thoughts from my brain and see new ones take their place just as fast as I can move my writing hand across a page of paper.

the cauldron of fiction

notebook as cauldron
Fiction is created through the process of listening to your stream-of-consciousness and writing it down on paper as fast as you can. You're allowed to think in ways that are imaginative or in ways that are analytical. You're allowed to keep your mind narrowly on task or to digress for the sake of getting unrelated distractions out of your head. What really matters is that you engage in this physical act of putting words down on the page as quickly as you can.

Whatever notebook or digital document I apply this process within, I liken it to my "cauldron of fiction."

In my opinion, the essence of thought is questions. In the leap from one thought to another thought, I believe there is always a bridge: a question that popped into your mind. The majority of the time, questions occur to us and are answered so quickly that we don't even notice they happened. Speed makes them invisible. But if you make an exercise of generating questions, you will be astounded at how quickly your thoughts begin progressing to new conclusions.

I like to think of this conscious application of questions as "stirring the cauldron."

Before you can cook something in the cauldron, you have to fill it with raw materials. Creativity is not a matter of pulling ideas out of thin air -- it's about taking raw materials and transforming them. Reading plays, watching movies, looking at paintings, doing research, collecting reference photos... These sorts of activities are what some theories of creativity call the "gathering" phase... Or what Julia Cameron calls "filling the well"...

Or what I might call "filling the cauldron with ingredients."

enriching the broth
When you generate fiction, it's useful to remember what Buzz McLaughlin calls "the iceberg principle": only 5% of the world you create will actually appear onstage or in your novel. Through the writing-as-fast-as-you-can and asking-lots-of-questions method, your imagination will begin to develop a rich story world upon which to draw. Oh, you can start ladling out soup as soon as you want... But it's going to be watery fare if you haven't spent a fair amount of time cooking.

Thicken the stock; thicken your plot.

serving portions
There is a difference between the mythology of a story and the text of a story (to borrow terms from Orson Scott Card). The "mythology" is everything that has ever happened in your story universe: the long line of cause and effect, the interrelated histories of individuals, places, and things. The "text," on the other hand, is merely that which the audience gets to see... A brief window of time, a limited number of events, constrained by the POV of the characters.

The soup that you're constantly developing in the cauldron of your notebooks is the mythology of your story world. As wild explorations coalesce into concepts that feel fairly settled-upon, extract these discoveries from the soup and save them as auxiliary documents. Either summarize or cut'n'paste the reference materials directly from your generative cauldron...

"Auxiliary documents" are what you serve up.

the cauldron vs. the bowl
Ultimately, your final salable fiction is merely another auxiliary document! Yes, you'll put extra time and effort into polishing it up... But really it's the mythology in the cauldron -- the 95% of the iceberg -- which is the real story. What you share with the world is merely a fragment of that living broth.

The cauldron is more valuable than the bowl.

posted by sven | February 5, 2009 2:51 AM | categories: writing