For a year, I’ve wanted to write a short story about the death of a girl in my town. I started a version of it from the mother’s point of view…I’d read a New Yorker story that led me to this perspective. But after about six or seven pages, I stopped. And the story stayed in my mind.
Then recently, I set a goal to wake up thirty minutes before I normally did and work on the story. I set up the coffee the night before, and I literally wrote in the dark, half awake, for 34 days in a row until I had a solid draft of my story. I went with the early morning because I wanted to try an experiment. I’d been reading From Where You Dream, by Robert Olen Butler. In it, Butler talks about dreamstorming–not brainstorming or dreaming….but dreamstorming. Right out of bed, half awake, Butler suggests:
You’re going to sit or recline in your writing space in your trance, and you’re going to free-float, free-associate, sit with your character, watch your character move around in the potential world of the novel. You’re going to dream around in this novel, one level removed from moment-to-moment writing–that is, at the level of scene.
I did this for a number of days, jotting down only a few words to capture possible scenes or moments in scenes. Some days I was literally in a dream state, or almost a dream state, because I was lying down, laptop on my lap, exhausted and fresh from night dreaming. After I had a list of about 30 scenes and moments, I began to write. I tried not to think too much. Instead, I tried to stay in the scene, in the movie in my mind, and transpose it with sensory detail to the page. Sometimes, I’d get hung up and I’d go back to dreaming again. Then, when the scene came to my imagination, I’d go back to writing.
The results were positive. I found the story came together organically. Parts connected to other parts, themes echoed, and the character and the story unfolded in a natural way. I ended up cutting the first page, doing line edits here and there, and then finishing with a first draft of 16 pages. I’ve let two people read it and they’ve suggested a few minor changes.
Overall, I feel very good about the method and will use it again. Some days I wrote longer than a half hour, but never less. I was tired, but I had my story. To learn more about Butler’s method, I suggest reading From Where You Dream.