About Me

Friday, June 26, 2009

Carson McCullers - Flowering Dream

Carson McCullers (1917-1967) published her first short story at the age of nineteen, and her first novel, the highly acclaimed The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, at the age of twenty-three. These are excerpts of some of her thoughts on writing, expressed in The Flowering Dream: Notes on Writing, first published by Esquire in 1959:

"The dimensions of a work of art are seldom realized by the author until the work is accomplished. It is like a flowering dream. Ideas grow, budding silently, and there are a thousand illuminations coming day by day as the work progresses. A seed grows in writing as in nature. The seed of the idea is developed by both labor and the unconscious, and the struggle that goes on between them." ~ Carson McCullers

"I understand only particles. I understand the characters, but the novel itself is not in focus. The focus comes at random moments which no one can understand, least of all the author. For me, they usually follow great effort. To me, these illuminations are the grace of labor. All of my work has happened this way. It is at once the hazard and the beauty that a writer has to depend on such illuminations. After months of confusion and labor, when the idea has flowered, the collusion is Divine. It always comes from the subconscious and cannot be controlled." ~ Carson McCullers

"A writer's main asset is intuition; too many facts impede intuition. A writer needs to know so many things, but there are so many things he doesn't need to know -- he needs to know human things even if they aren't "wholesome," as they call it... I become the characters I write. I am so immersed in them that their motives are my own." ~ Carson McCullers

"It is only with imagination and reality that you get to know the thing a novel requires. Reality alone has never been that important to me. A teacher once said that one should write about one's own back yard; and by this, I suppose, she meant one should write about the things that one knows most intimately. But what is more intimate than one's own imagination? The imagination combines memory with insight, combines reality with the dream." ~ Carson McCullers

"The writer by nature of his profession is a dreamer and a conscious dreamer. How, without love and the intuition that comes from love, can a human being place himself in the situation of another human being? He must imagine, and imagination takes humility, love, and great courage. How can you create a character without love and the struggle that goes with love?" ~ Carson McCullers

The quotes are excerpted from the essay, as published in The Mortgaged Heart (Houghton Mifflin, c1971, c2005). To fully appreciate Carson McCullers' ideas, they should be read in their complete context, so I highly recommend locating a copy of this book at your bookstore or local library.

I find her ideas particularly compelling, because they validate my methods and my contention that a true writer is an actor, inhabiting the characters she/he creates. I do not plan my work, but I think about it incessantly, imagining each scene as it progresses, breathing and living for each of my characters, letting them tell me what they will do next. Then, of course, comes all the revision, reliving each line, until you feel you've told your character's stories and all about their world in the best way you can, cutting out the repetition, revealing the core. I can honestly say, in my novels, I love all of my major characters, every one of them, with all of their flaws and their mistakes, and their great capacity for love. I am in that happy place where I am revisiting a novel-in-progress, and moving forward.


  1. I do tend to write what I know about like places and people I've known. But I cannot agree more that writers are dreamers and our imagination is where it all takes place.

    "Labor and the unconscious"--I guess that says is all about writing. About all forms of art.

  2. This is a marvelous post. I love the quotes by Carson McCuller's and I'm definitely going to get the book you mention. I can relate to most of what she's saying here. Thank you so much for this. By the way, I didn't realise she was so young when she wrote that first novel. Amazing!

  3. Hi Lori, Maggie, and Joanne,

    Carson McCullers thought she would become a professional musician when she headed to New York to study music. There's a story about her tuition money being stolen, and her decision to enroll in a writing class instead. She writes from her time and place, the rural South of the 1930s to 1950s, but with a generosity of spirit and an exploration of the human mind and heart. After struggling with alcoholism, her husband's alcoholism and his subsequent suicide, she suffered the last of many strokes, and died young at the age of 50.

    The Mortgaged Heart is a chronicle of her early writing, and her thoughts about writing. For a collection of her best known work I recommend Collected Stories of Carson McCullers, which includes The Member of the Wedding, and the Ballad of the Sad Cafe; and the single volume, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter (which I plan to re-read soon).

  4. Annie... consider this: "My little poems and stories, already born, were now peering out from behind me with curious eyes, wanting to go into the world to try their luck. I was afraid they were all gonna get
    beat up, put down and come limping back to me, rejected, dimmed, with the fire not recognized, denied, beaten out of their emerald eyes." It's from a friend and it's here in e-book form: http://tomcampbellsworld.blogspot.com/

  5. Hi Tom,
    I like the quote. Thanks for the recommendation! ~ Annie

  6. Oh, how I LOVE Carson McCullers! Great quotes! "The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter" is well worth reading again. Her short stories are awesome, too. I'm jealous that she did it all so young, but then again, it's a good thing she did, huh?

    I really like your observations about your novel characters. It sounds like you're making great progress. Didn't you say your character was based on Billy Joe? Or was that a short story? Either way, I look forward to reading it!

  7. Hi Julie,
    I checked The Heart is a Lonely Hunter out of the library two days ago, and a biography on Carson McCullers yesterday. In skipping around through the pages, told without sentimentality, is an account of her husband, Reeves McCullers, at a time when they had gotten back together, and he was not drinking and had a steady job- of him carrying her up and down the six flights of stairs to their apartment, because her illnesses made her so weak. (She was 35). It was a happy time for them, and she was close friends with Tennessee Williams.

    About the novel-in-progress, I picked up one I'd started about two years ago, that does include a character based on a made-up persona, utilizing Billie Joe Armstrong's face, modeled after his vulnerable expression on that photograph on the cover of Rolling Stone, more than any other thing. The book is a fantasy, and the character in that particular novel is not a musician.

    Armstrong is in two other novels-in-progress, one realistic and one fantasy, where the character is a musician. In the fantasy, he is also a spy, and a rogue, and a displaced son of a king. He has no magical powers, but he has an integral role in the story. Like I said before, after whichever one gets finished and published first, for the next one, I'll have to give his character a major physical makeover!

    Sigh. All I need is time to finish them all.