The book From Where You Dream by Robert Olen Butler opens with a quote by Akira Kurosawa. “To be an artist means never to avert your eyes.” Butler employs a startling analogy to explain this observation. He exhorts the reader to look at Michael Jordan of the Chicago Bulls playing in a winning game. He is in the zone. He is not thinking about what he is doing. Butler says, “every time he shoots, in order to make a basket Michael Jordan would have to confront, without flinching, the moment when his father’s chest was blown apart by the shotgun held by his kidnapper…Without flinching.” The unconscious is as “scary as hell,” and it’s no wonder that most inexperienced writers stay clear of it.

At the heart of things is chaos. Behind the chaos, behind the flow of “moment-to-moment” experience is a deep and abiding order. The writer has to go back to the way in which the chaos is first encountered, “moment-to- moment,” through the senses. Then he must select bits and pieces, reshape it into an art object and present it as if it were life itself. There is no room for generalisation, analysis, interpretation, abstraction, or summary.

To illustrate exactly what he means, participants in Butler’s writing class retell an anecdote, not necessarily an actual event. They are asked to draw on their sense memory, not on their literal memory, “the thing that made you good at school.” He warns that working from your literal memory will keep you out of your unconscious, out of the zone you must enter in order to write a good novel. Art, he believes does not come from ideas, from the mind, from the intellect, but from the place where you dream. It comes from your unconscious, from the “white-hot centre” of you.

You have to write for an hour every day, you have to visit your unconscious every day, preferably at the same time. Butler tells you to write about an event that sparked an emotion in you. He asks you not to name the emotion, but only to use signals inside the body, signals outside the body, flashes of the past, flashes of the future, and finally sensual selectivity.

What exactly does sensual selectivity mean? We, and therefore our characters, are constantly bombarded with sensual cues. Our emotions decide which of these hundreds of cues impinge on our consciousness.

Poets don’t invent poems
The poem is somewhere behind
It’s been there for a long time
The poet merely discovers it.
~ Jan Skacel

Beyond – and behind – the senses

Try this writing prompt from The Art of Fiction by John Gardner. Describe a barn as seen by a man whose son has just been killed in a war. The images of death and loss that rise from your unconscious and seep into your writing are totally unexpected, because they have come from your “white-hot centre,” the place where untrammeled truth resides.

To Milan Kundera in The Art of the Novel, writing means breaking through a wall behind which something immutable lies in darkness. The tale about Tamina on the children’s island in the Book of Laughter and Forgetting began as a dream. Its meaning did not precede the dream, the dream preceded the meaning. The novelist, says Kundera, makes no great issue of his ideas. He is an explorer, a wool-gatherer, feeling his way in an effort to reveal some unknown aspect of existence.

To train your unconscious to kick in for you creatively, Anne Lamott, in Bird by Bird, like Butler and a host of other writers, advocates sitting down to write every day, at approximately the same time. To stop the chatter in your head, she says, isolate one voice. Imagine this person squeaking like a mouse. Pick it up and drop it into a jar. Drop all the squeaking mice into the jar.

In her irreverent way, Lamott says, “drop in any high-maintenance parental units, drop in any contractors, lawyers, colleagues, children, anyone who is whining in your head.” Turn the volume control button all the way down and start writing.

“Don’t look at your feet to see if you’re doing it right. Just dance,” says Lamott. You never know where freewriting will lead you. You’re writing about school lunches, and all of a sudden you see the kid against the fence. The boy appears out of nowhere. Tomorrow when you sit down to work on your story, he will be someone who matters to you. Your unconscious will transform the stock character into a real, flesh and blood, believable person.

Plato believed that poets were divinely inspired. They did not write from any intrinsic knowledge, but because they were enraptured by the Muses. In the words of Socrates in Plato’s Ion: “A poet is an airy thing, winged and holy, and he is not able to make poetry until he becomes inspired and goes out of his mind and his intellect is no longer in him.”

Dreams and fears

Stephen King fell asleep on a plane going to London. He dreamed about a popular writer who fell into the clutches of a psychotic fan. When King woke up, he wrote down fragments of the dream on an American Airlines cocktail napkin. Back at the hotel he wrote sixteen pages in longhand in a notebook. On the plane, in his dream, he had located the “fossil.” The novel would consist of careful excavation.

King’s muse does not come “fluttering down and scatter creative dust over his computer” or notebook.  He lives in the ground. While King does all the hard work, the muse just sits there and “smokes cigars.” But the “guy with the cigar and the little wings has got a bag of magic. A bag of magic that can change your life.”

Ray Bradbury asks, “What can we writers learn from lizards, lift from birds? See the hummingbird, there, not there. In quickness is truth. The faster you blurt, the more swiftly you write, the more honest you are. In hesitation is thought. In delay comes the effort for a style, instead of leaping upon truth which is the only style worth deadfalling or tiger-trapping.”

V.S. Naipaul in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech, Two Worlds, speaks of his trust in intuition in the writing process. “I have an idea when I start, I have a shape; but I will fully understand what I have written only after some years,’ he says.

As a boy, Bradbury had a fear of the dark, of something lurking at the top of the stairs. Years later he typed at the top of a page, “The Stairs.” He stood aside, and let his fingers, his body, his blood and his heart do. He tasted the darkness, and alerted his unconscious. He wrote down any old word that jumped out of his nerves. The fear held in place in arctic cold and darkness, the fear held in place for sixty years finally climbed down through the writer’s fingertips and into the readers bloodstream.

Allow yourself to wonder at the results of freewriting, of writing from your secret self, from your unconscious. You may not even recognise the words as having emerged from your own pen. They may not seem remotely familiar to you. And yet the work is indubitably yours.

Free association

And it’s as simple as opening your dictionary and selecting a random word. I wrote “penguin” at the top of the page – I needed to write for a minute – not think, just write. One minute is a long time. I blanked on the movie I had watched with my children about penguins. I couldn’t even remember the name.

Penguins, I visualised them on icy reefs at the bottom of the world, Tierra del Fuego. My brain raked up the location. Magellan, a voice whispered in my ear. I continued to associate, to give my unconscious free rein. Magellan, whose sailors all perished, or almost all, Columbus, and then I wandered closer to home. Vasco da Gama, I wrote. He sailed from Portugal to Goa around the Cape of Storms. The Cape of Good Hope. I set my novel in Portugal and in Goa.

V.S. Naipaul ends his Nobel Prize acceptance speech with a Proustian flourish. “ ‘The beautiful things we shall write if we have talent,’ Proust says ‘are inside us, indistinct, like the memory of a melody which delights us….. those who are obsessed by the blurred memory of truths they have never known are the men who are gifted. Talent is like a sort of memory which will enable them finally to bring this indistinct music closer to them, to hear it clearly, to note it down…’ ”

Next week: How to develop a voice when writing.

A lifelong reader and writer, Debika Lahiri has written a novel. She conducts nature walks in Delhi's gardens and parks.