A man crawls across the top of a dune. He is dying. He is doomed. The sun is so hot here and the wind so dry that a human body stands no chance without a ingeniously designed suit that protects the skin and reclaims the body’s precious water. This is Arakis, a desert planet in a fictional universe invented by a man who is, I think, one of the greatest writers of the 20th century.
The man who is dying on the lip of the dune is not just an ordinary man, he’s a visionary. He’s spent his entire life on this forsaken planet, studying its complex ecology, as his father had done before him. The man loves Arakis. He understands the planet like no other. He is, ostensibly, the Imperial Planetary Ecologist of Arakis, serving a ruthless and insidious emperor who exploits a mysterious and extremely valuable planetary resource – the spice Melangé, which has the power to extend human life and fold space/time.
The man crawling across the lip of the dune has been cast into the desert that he serves and loves. He has been condemned to die there. He is perhaps sixty years old.
In his lifetime on Arakis he has become the leader of a furtive and highly resourceful indigenous population of warrior-nomads known as the Fremen. With their help, he has set in motion a plan to tip the planet’s ecology so as to bring back plant-life and thus water to Arakis, which is also known as Dune. It has not rained on Arakis, anywhere, in recorded history.
But this is not a review of Frank Herbert’s masterpiece. This is not a testimonial for Dune. This is about dying. This is about vision. This is about the subtle connections of a life system that make up a whole human being.
Writing is living. You listen, you observe, you take it all in and then you let it seep into your soul. What comes out, in the form of words, is an understanding, a striving for meaning. Writing is distilled living.
There is so much to learn from Dune. It is an astounding accomplishment in storytelling and craft. I am reading it now for the second time, and this time I am reading it aloud to my daughters. The writing is so sparse, so crisp. The restraint Herbert shows is truly amazing. Dune has become a bible for me as a writer, as a storyteller and as a living being. If you study this book you need not study any other. Dune is a textbook on writing and a textbook on living. Dune is an MFA. Structure. Character. Dialog. Tension. Language. Allegory. It’s all here.
The man crawling across the lip of the dune is named Liet-Kynes. He is, in his final moments, delirious. His body is pressed against the sand of the dune. The heat of that sand, the texture of it, its shifting, evolving, abrasive quality is very much apparent to him as he struggles on his belly to move a few inches at a time. And the irony of his predicament is not lost on him. I am the steward of this land, he whispers. I am the steward of this sand.
Here I am. Crawling on my belly in an alphabet desert. Words, letters, shifting ideas. I am my own planet with its own potential and I mine my own spice. I must remain calm. I must not fear. I must not become overwhelmed with words and expectations. I must conserve movement. I must exercise restraint. And I must stick to my vision. Remember, I tell myself, that you had a vision when all this began.
There are great human beings rendered in Dune. Great characters who go so far beyond character. There is not a single individual in this story who you don’t perceive viscerally as real as any living human being you’ve met. They each have distinct voices. They each have distinct arcs. They each have distinct philosophies.
Dune is, among so many things, a treatise on philosophy.
There is, in Dune, an order of female soothsayers, a great school of intellect and psycho-political power called the Bené Gesserit. They are called witches by some, holy mothers by others. They are a little bit of both. The Bené Gesserit have mastered the arts of war and statesmanship. Among their many mind disciplines of mind there is a litany, a prayer-like saying designed to instill calm in the face of terror.
Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past me I will turn to see fear’s path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.
This they recite as a means of quelling fear and of understanding what it is – a creation of our own mind. I will face my fear.
Sitting down before the blank page every day is the discipline required, not just to get the work done, but to face the buried truth of who I am and what I’ve felt and seen. Writing is difficult because feeling is difficult. Confronting the truth, every day, is difficult. Writing, for me, is about exposing hidden truths – some of it buried by myself, some of it obscured by the world. It can be a painful, torturous slog. It is, sometimes, like crawling on your belly across the lip of a dune.
The scene in Dune where Liet-Kynes crawls across the sand is brilliant. He is so weak that he cannot even move away from a dangerous pocket of explosive gas that he senses building up beneath him. At one point a hawk lands beside him, waiting to eat him. At another, he hears the voice of his father speaking to him from the other side, from death. In this exchange – between the son and the dead father – we learn much about the man and much about the planet. It is a masterpiece of exposition that should be studied by any writer who cares about maintaining the fictional dream.
Dune, of course, is an ingenious metaphor. Written in 1965, (the year I was born) it offers an uncannily prescient vision of our own planet’s collision course with doom. Dune is, above all other things, a manifesto on ecology. Which the ghost voice of Kynes’ father sums up beautifully:
“The highest function of ecology is understanding consequences.”
Writing shares this function. We live a life. Things happen to us. Sometimes they are imposed on us, against our will, and sometimes we invite them in, we give consent. Living is about making decisions. A million little decisions, most of them in secret, in our minds. When we write, we expose our secrets, if we are writing our truth. Writing, for me, is about discovering truth through the lens of people, places and events that are quasi-fictional. They don’t literally exist as written, but pull back the curtain just a bit. I am there.
As a writer, my first and most important goal is to reveal truth to myself. I have to live it, believe it, feel it in order to get it. I am a reader first, and a writer second. That means the fiction has to work on me, before I can expect it to work in you. My goal as a writer, my vision, is to explore the meaning of being human, memory, time, the various physical senses, the mysteries of the human heart and the energy of the natural world. I don’t understand us. I don’t understand myself. But stories contain clues.
As Kynes nears death on the dune, his father speaks one last time:
“We must depend not so much on the bravery of individuals, you see, as upon the bravery of a whole population.”
“Where is my population now when I need it most?” Kynes sputters.
A few weeks ago I posted a piece titled I Am the Sugar Man. I posted that for myself because I needed to hear it. At that time I had no followers, no likes. It was just something I wrote because I felt compelled to understand.
Publishing, for me, is an act of courage, not a means of glory. The reaction I received from that post was overwhelming. So many writers and artists voicing their love and support. The funny thing is I prayed to God to please take away my need for affirmation. I prayed to surrender my self. I’m just a feeble man who hasn’t yet found his sea legs, but so many strangers came out to steady me. You, whoever you are, are my population, and I am yours.
It was less than two weeks ago that I had thought that perhaps death was a good option for me now. At this crossroads. I had never given permission for that thought to germinate before. But I had suffered the great loss of a great love and it was my own doing. And I wanted to stop living. But I don’t feel that anymore. I want to live. I want to love. I want to read and see and write through to understanding. My story is not over. I will not die on the lip of this dune.