Jonathan Franzen on writing (dreams)

In last night’s Consolidating Your Skills class the discussion touched on the use of dream sequences in stories and I was saying that over the years I’ve come to distrust their use. They’re an easy way for an author to indicate the state of mind of a character, and because of that they’re used too often – making them a cliche. Funnily enough, today I came across a Jonathan Franzen interview where he discusses this very subject (it seems he used dream sequences in some of his early fiction but grew out of the habit as his writing matured). I loved his novel Freedom, so as a follow-up to last night I thought I’d quote him here:

‘More and more, I think of novel writing as a kind of deliberate dreaming. John Gardner described novels as “vivid, continuous dreams,” and though I’m not sure Gardner ever wrote a particularly excellent novel, he was right about the notion of the dream . . . If the dreams are falling away in the later books, I’d like to think it’s because I’m getting better at making the book itself the dream. As I ­become more comfortable with accessing the primary psychic stuff inside me, and finding adequate dramatic vehicles for it, the need for the literal dream probably diminishes.’

In other words he feels that the quality of his writing has improved to the point where it takes on all the density and ‘reality’ of a dream, vividly showing a character’s psychology largely through what they do and say and think without resorting to the hokey device of a dream sequence.

You can read the interview here at the Paris Review: – – which is well worth a good trawl as it has loads of other writer interviews, including one with the name-checked Gardner, probably best known for his creative writing guide The Art of Fiction: Notes on Craft for Young Writers. In class we were also talking about the problem of bad technique (including dream sequences) disturbing a reader’s suspension of disbelief (or, if you like, the dream). He says:

‘It has always seemed to me that the main thing you ought to be doing when you write a story is, as Robert Louis Stevenson said, to set a “dream” going in the reader’s mind . . . so that he opens the page, reads about three words, and drops into a sort of trance. He’s seeing Russia instead of his living room . . . I used to think that words and style should be transparent, that no word should call attention to itself in any way; that you could say the plainest thing possible to get the dream going. [But] I realized that you don’t really interfere with the dream by saying things in an interesting way. Performance is an important part of the show. But I don’t think language is of value when it’s opaque, more decorative than communicative.’

I hadn’t looked at the Paris Review for a while and was prompted back to it by a post in Jane Alexander’s excellent blog which can be read here
Jane is a fellow writing tutor and was a writing workshop buddy when we were students on the Glasgow Uni Creative Writing masters course years ago. Her debut novel The Last Treasure Hunt is out now: – do buy!

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