Lawn Mowing and the Fictive Dream

Cathy claims it’s time we had a riding lawn mower. I’ve been hesitant. Moving away from my walk-behind feels like a concession to the advancing years. Damn it, if I could use that walk-behind last week, I can use it again this week. Cathy says, “What if something happens to you? My knee won’t let me push that mower.”

“What’s going to happen to me?” I ask her.

She arches one eyebrow. “You never know,” she says.

I’m not sure what she’s plotting but there was a mention recently of either getting a riding mower or having to depend on a cabana boy for the lawn care. Again, that arched eyebrow. As if to say, you know what I mean by lawn care. She has me thinking of the Alberta Hunter tune, “My Handy Man Ain’t Handy No More” from the Amtrak Blues album. I’d give anything if you could see the way he handles my front yard. Wink, wink.

So if I don’t want to be traded in for a cabana boy, it’s time to buy that riding lawn mower. Which leads me to choices—choices in style, size, and brand. Sometimes it seems like every question begets another. So much to consider as I try to logically figure out the best purchase. I’m lucky to have a neighbor who knows a good deal about these mowers and is willing to guide me. He’s the sort of wise voice of reason we all long for when we write, the voice telling us exactly what to do as a plot unfolds.

When it comes to writing a first draft, though, that sort of rational voice, can often get in our way. First drafts require our immersion into the subconscious part of our brains—the  dream world of leaps and turns and associations; the world of the imagination. In that world, we can allow ourselves to make all sorts of wild choices as the narrative moves along, knowing we can always go back and make different choices in revision. Knowing that gives us the security we need in order to trust what John Gardner in The Art of Fiction called “the fictive dream.” He’s talking, of course, about the imagined world that, as we write, seems as vivid and as convincing as the real world we occupy in the here-and-now:

. . .in his [the writer’s] imagination, he sees made-up people doing things—sees them clearly—and in the act of wondering what they will do next he sees what they will do next, and all this he writes down in the best, most accurate words he can find, understanding even as he writes that he may have to find better words later, and that a change in the words may mean a sharpening or deepening of the vision, the fictive dream or vision becoming more and more lucid, until reality, by comparison, seems cold, tedious, and dead.

Entering the fictive dream puts us in a world of possibilities, one where husbands can be traded for riding lawn mowers or cabana boys, for instance. We follow the dream wherever it wants to take us. We have to refrain from trying to plan too much in those first drafts. Think of writing as daydreaming on the page. We know we can always go back in revision and make other choices or bolster or eliminate our initial ones. Lawnmowers can cut the grass in a number of patterns—vertical, horizontal, diagonal, circular, squared, rectangular—but they can’t do anything unless you put them into motion. Likewise, writers won’t accomplish much unless they engage the blades of the imagination without the restrictions of the conscious mind.

Leave a Comment