Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Susan Campbell Bartoletti's new book, The Boy Who Dared, writers' dreams and tips

I've pulled forward a comment Sue made in response to a recent post of mine. It's so interesting I wanted to make sure everyone saw it. Authors and dreams.... how do your dreams swim into your writing?

I got to read The Boy Who Dared in galleys. It's an incredible, brave book. One of those books you put down and your world seems somehow altered.

Here's Sue:


What a great question! I just finished a novel that will be out next month: The Boy Who Dared (Scholastic). I encountered the main character's story when I was researching and writing Hitler Youth.

It's a story that kept me awake long after I had finished writing Hitler Youth. That's how I knew I wasn't finished with Helmuth Hübener yet, and in order to understand his courage and strength, I had to write a novel.

Now I'm in the throes of researching and writing -- and nearing the deadline of -- another nonfiction book that's keeping me up. The material gives me nightmares!

But that's not necessarily a bad thing. I've grown to accept the nightmares as an understanding that my subconscious is processing the material in a deep and meaningful way -- or at least that's what I tell myself.

But the dreams must be working because I"m seeing the whole picture now, the thematic threads that must be tugged through the narrative.

I'm curious, Betsy: do you have any thoughts on the value of dreams and the creative process? What does the dream spirit say about dreams -- good and bad -- and creativity?

Susan, who has never blogged before and needs to figure out how to use html tags AND get her full name to show up and so for now will add:
Susan Campbell Bartoletti


anna said...

Given the things Sue writes about I can see why she would have nightmares. The nightmares I have tend to be about the public side of being a writer/illustrator, an up and down ride for sure. The subjects of my writing tend to be lighter fare, not that the process doesn’t still have it’s share of both angst and joy.

Whatever is on our minds, conscious or not, tends to play itself out in our dreams, right? So how could they NOT be a part of our creative process? Whatever I’m working on takes up a lot of mind/heart space no matter what my body happens to be doing. I often think about a story idea or problem just before I fall asleep, and find in the morning, though I may not remember dreaming, that something has shifted or loosened, and I’m eager to get to work.

Also, I think much, if not all, of my best writing comes from a sort of waking dream state, a letting go, and letting be, and letting what comes come.

I’m with Sue, Betsy, with your knowledge of the Hun, what do you think about how dreams play into the creative process?

Elizabeth Partridge said...

The Chinese dream spirit, the Hun, is responsible for our creativity. It lives in the body, and shines out of our eyes in the daytime. At night, it leaves the body to go dreaming. Some people have lots of Hun, others have less. It's balanced out by the Po, or animal spirit. I suspect creative people have a lot of Hun, and also we actively encourage it, rather than ignoring it, or just not having time for it.

Elizabeth Partridge said...

Some people have a lot of Po -- animal spirit. This is someone who is really co-ordinated and graceful in their body movements, with lots of physical chi, or energy. Often people with strong Po encourage their Po -- by taking dance lessons, or working in the building trades climbing all over scaffolding. Their Po gets stronger and stronger.

I've just written an article on the Hun and the Po in the latest issue of Hornbook Magazine. I've asked if they will post it on their site so I can link to it.

Anonymous said...

I cannot remember a solution to a visual problem ever coming to me in a dream. But then I am prone to forgetfulness, awake or asleep.

Solutions seem to come to me more in the way Anna describes. A wakeful openess.

Betsy, I love your descriptions of Hun and Po. Hope they are both with me today.


Elizabeth Partridge said...

A wakeful openness. What a beautiful way to put it. The Hun is said to move sideways, in a swimming motion. I can see that wakeful openness would be perfect for the Hun, as it comes and goes.

Anonymous said...

Here's something I told a friend yesterday, when she asked how the new book is coming along: I groaned and told her I'm still in the non-REM state.

And then I laughed and remembered our discussion here.

The good news is that I can feel myself -- and the book -- moving into the REM state. I have found the narrative and its thematic threads. For longer periods of time, I can block out (most) external stimuli, shut down the self-critic, and let the drama of the narrative unfold as I write.

Susan Campbell Bartoletti

Elizabeth Partridge said...

Sue has put it all in a nutshell. Writers, illustrators, how do you find the narrative thread? By sitting down and doing the work? By taking a walk and seeing what comes up? Once you have that thread, that feel for where you are and where you are going is that what helps block out outside distraction?

Elizabeth Partridge said...

I'm working on this picture book bio of Pete Seeger, and trying, trying to find that narrative thread. Hm... what lens do I want to look at his life through? At this point I always get so overwhelmed, my mind pings around all over the place.
Current technique: pack up my computer and head for the library. Sit down. Plug in computer. Lay out all my drafts. Let the Hun swim around. Trust in the Hun to find the thread....

anna said...

Ah! Getting the narrative thread. That’s the magic moment, isn’t it?

Often those moments happen for me in the quiet of awakening, or gardening, or driving down a long straight empty highway. But those alone-with-my-thoughts times need to be balanced with what Betsy calls, “butt-in-the-chair” time, sitting down in front of a blank page and spilling out words. One feeds the other.

Having finished and submitted a novel on December 31st, I am without a project, a rare occurrence for me as I usually have at least one idea clamoring for attention before I’m ready.

My daughter Sarah, (Sarah Hines Stephens, a fine writer in her own right) says I should take some fallow time. That feels right. Clean out the closets and old computer files, shorten the “to do” list and rid myself of cobwebs. Sooner or later, either an idea will begin to weave its magic, or my urge to create will push me to do the “butt-in-chair” time, and something will begin.

Anonymous said...

I’ve really got to have a chat with that old subconscious of mine. Instead of putting me in my underwear in Times Square, it could be solving plot problems.

When I dream about my work, it’s always in some sort of surreal anxiety situation involving smoking computers or editorial lunches. But I think I must have been listening to be Hun for some time, because years ago I developed a routine of starting work immediately upon awakening. My laptop is right by my bed, and it’s the first thing I reach for. I’ve come to depend on that little space of time, (sometimes as little as twenty minutes because I have a young daughter), where dreams are just on the other side of the pillow.

Sometimes I get a breakthrough. And sometimes it's the best work I do all day. sigh.

Elizabeth Partridge said...

I love these ways Anna and Jud are talking about their dreams. The anxiety dreams and the dreams that are "just on the other side of the pillow," to quote Jud from the message above.

And great writer tips in here -- write first thing in the morning, even if it's only for a few minutes, and give yourself fallow time. time for the dream spirit to nourish, and take in, assimilate.

Susan Campbell said...

"I’ve really got to have a chat with that old subconscious of mine. Instead of putting me in my underwear in Times Square, it could be solving plot problems."

This is one of the funniest lines I've heard lately. Thanks, Jude!

Anna, I love the idea of fallow time.