Failure To Learn To Redream The Dream

When I started teaching creative writing, I thought if I was lucky I'd have perhaps two or three students with potential in a class of twenty. What I found was the opposite. Almost all of my students were loaded with potential.

What I mean by "potential" is this: They have the ability to create characters a reader can believe in, the power to evoke a scene, a good sense of humor, and a flair for colorful language.

But not all of them had it.

The first time I taught at the University of California Extension, a young woman came into my workshop who had, I thought, very little potential. She was planning to write a series of novels about her suburban family, their petty bickerings, their divorces, diseases, and financial troubles. It was all hopelessly dull and dreary.

She was making all the usual mistakes, and even some not so usual ones, with her story. Flat characters, cliché situations, trite dialogue. Her prose style was clumsy to boot, ungrammatical, and often muddled.

The opening of her novel was a description of a woman bored out of her mind with housecleaning. She offered us thirty pages of dusting. The reader became as bored as the housewife. The workshop was brutal with its criticism.

The next time she submitted her work to the workshop she had managed to take out a little of the dull and put in a little more excitement, but her so-called story still resembled a plate of goulash, a mishmash of events and characters that never went anywhere.

I was dismayed when she signed up for a second semester, and I was tempted to tell her to try the photography class across the hall, because the writing game was obviously not for her. But it has always been my policy to let students decide matters like that on their own. My job is to criticize their manuscripts, not give them advice on what to do with their lives.

The second time she took the workshop, her work improved marginally. The other students and I hammered her with criticism, which she took stoically, even though I could tell she was hurting.

She came back again for another session the next quarter, and the next. After four years and several dozen rewrites she finished her novel. She had taken her characters about as far as she could. She sent the manuscript around to agents and scored a well-known New York agent, much to my amazement. The agent gave it a pretty good shot, but she couldn't place the manuscript and subsequently sent it back.

By that time, she was nearly finished with her second novel, which, in my opinion—and the opinion of most of the members of the workshop—is a smash. It's about a young woman in search of her mother who abandoned her when she was five. It's mysterious, warm, touching, and funny. She still needs help with her grammar, but in every other way she's writing like a pro.

Another young woman was also a member of that first workshop I held at U.C. Extension. June had a doctorate in anthropology and was writing a novel about Indians in Peru. I thought of her as having a lot of potential. Her story generated a lot of enthusiasm in the workshop and I thought she would publish within a year or two. It's been several years now, and not very much progress has been made, even though she's mastered the rules of writing fiction and is a pretty fair critic of others' work.

It was in observing these two women and how they approached rewriting that I discovered what was wrong with many of the talented students I'd been teaching who had not achieved their potential. When I asked the successful young woman about her work, she said that upon entering my class she quickly realized that her ambition was far greater than her abilities, and that if she was ever going to write anything worth reading, she would have to learn how to "re-dream the dream."

What she meant by that, she said, was that when she first sat down to write something, she saw it in her mind. And then she wrote it. After she had a lot of people read it and tell her where it failed, she sat down and re-dreamed the dream. In other words, she could see the story unfold in her mind differently than she had the first time she wrote it.

When I asked the other woman about how she approached her work, she thought a while and said that once she saw a scene a certain way, that was it. It was like a memory. How can you change a memory? It's fixed.

I then realized that an inability to re-dream the dream was the very reason I had taken so long to write something worth publishing. I would write a story, bring it to my workshop, have it criticized, and when it came to reworking it, I was not able to re-dream the dream. I would instead replace the dream with a new dream. I was not rewriting—I was throwing out what I had written and starting all over again.

How do you re-dream the dream? It takes hard work and practice. I suggest to my students that when they sit down to rewrite they start the scene earlier and give the characters different objectives in the scene. In other words, have them want something they didn't want the first time it was written. This will start the scene in a new direction.

Even though re-dreaming the dream is a difficult skill to master, it's a deadly mistake not to learn to do it.

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