Structure and Being in TRAIN DREAMS by Denis Johnson

About halfway through the novella, Train Dreams by Denis Johnson, I was inspired to stop reading long enough to draw a picture of the structure of the story. Across the page I drew a straight line representing world history and American history on a continuum of about 100 years. Through that line I drew a curvy line representing the personal history of the main character, Robert Grainier, a man hired by various railroad companies in the western United States for the hard labor of building and repairing tracks and bridges. Where the straight historical line crossed the curvy line of Grainier’s life, I drew X’s. The X’s represented events of natural and regional history of the American northwest and the personal histories of Grainier, his acquaintances, friends, and family. The center point is where the story begins, 1917, when Grainier is thirty-five and has a wife and young daughter.

Reading this beautiful and vivid book and making the diagram inspired me to start my own novella by doing the following: choose what I feel is the most compelling invention, technology, movement, or event in American or world history, and use it as the midpoint or prime of my main character’s life. Extend my research fifty years in either direction for context and setting. Set the story in the regions of Texas I’ve lived, or else in a region in the United States to which I feel connected and about which I want to know more. Make a list of several industries, jobs, and careers in the region. Read first-hand accounts of life, work, family, politics, culture. Keep a running list of the stories I can’t get out of my heart. Let those blend and percolate with the stories I’ve lived, witnessed, heard, read. Let the main character bubble up from the magic creative cauldron and start speaking to me.

I felt Johnson must have done all these things in the writing process.

Yet, as I continued reading the story, Johnson’s imagery spoke to me about those lines I had drawn. Both the straight line and the curvy line reminded me of train tracks. I started feeling the underlying image in the novella, trains, or more specifically, I felt the impact of the first train image affecting the main character, essentially an orphan train that brought Grainier from his birthplace to the home of his uncle at an age before which he can remember nothing. It may be missing from his memory, but it’s the connection to the underlying event shaping his entire life. I’ve heard it said that every myth is actually about what’s missing. The hero or heroine will spend the story finding that which is lost. Train Dreams follows Grainier through a life where he walks along charred pathways, past open windows, and into forest clearings searching for himself by searching for the family that’s missing. The sheer amount of loss this character suffers in the story proper is matched only by his initial forgotten losses. His ability to commune with nature in its elemental vastness and its individual representatives, allows him to find in some form everything that was ever lost to him.

I wondered if Johnson’s inspiration for the story was the poignant reality in our history of orphaned children riding trains toward uncertain futures from 1854 to 1929. If not, I’m convinced it was something equally heartbreaking. Any of the life and death events in Train Dreams could have been the initial inspiration. I’m reminded to undertake writing stories arising from feeling and not just from ideas of structure or research. Structure and research will help me shape the writing process, as long as I’m taking the first step from the heart, because I simply have to. Johnson’s book feels like a foregone conclusion, a myth we’ve all heard told, an experience we’ve all had.

It’s clear why “train” is in the title. In the first paragraph we get a description of the train bridge Grainier and others are repairing. Train imagery fuels the story’s outer events and inner impulses. I wasn’t as clear at first about the “dreams,” but now I know. Two weeks after reading Train Dreams, I recall the story through my own vision, as if remembering my own dream. In the dream I’m Robert Grainier, a laborer, a husband, a father. I’m seeing through the eyes of the human being who lived that life, created those memories, suffered those tragedies. I can feel the pain in my arthritic joints from long years of hard labor. I can see the fluttering wrappers from the chocolates and the fluttering pages of the Holy Bible I imagined my wife holding as long as she could in an attempt to save something while escaping a raging wildfire. And I see the specter of my daughter inside my cabin, or at least my fractured heart, returning to me after I thought she was lost forever. I see all this from my own mind’s eye, as if I’m recalling my own dream. I’m not sure how Johnson managed that. I’ll have to reread the book to find out.

Have you read anything by Denis Johnson? What’s your favorite? What’s your favorite myth and why (movies, books, anything)? If you’re a writer, how do your story ideas come to you?

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