Borges’ Birdman and the Roots of Story

by | Jul 17, 2012 | The Writing Life | 16 comments

As I recover from Comic-Con I’m thrilled to have a guest post by the incredibly talented Daniel José Older, who I had the pleasure of working with while I was an agent. Daniel’s short story collection, Salsa Nocturna, was recently released by Crossed Genres Publications. Check it out!

This is how I write:

I go and go and go and don’t look back, don’t overthink, make up or skim over troubling details. I fill the prose with characters and situations that are pregnant with possibility for shenanigans later on, but I don’t know how and don’t stop to wonder. And when I realize a change I’ve made will cause ripples all the way back to the beginning, I jot it down in a separate document so that it’s not pestering my imagination and then I keep moving. I don’t argue with characters when they want to run off in other directions; I let them go a bit, maybe we tussle back and forth but I get veto power, which is to say: the story is Queen, and sometimes the people inside it suffer the consequences.

When the seeds I planted turn out to have grown towards each other, those glowing moments when I realize what’s needed is some last minute interference from a skillful pianist and it just so happens one of my characters used to play ragtime in a New Orleans bordello, well, that’s when I know all that conjuring I’ve been doing is working. Something organic grows, amidst the back and forth of plot considerations and gathering tension. 

Jorge Luis Borges, that most enigmatic of blind Argentine librarian poets, once dreamt of a man who kept his right hand concealed within his jacket (or dreamt with, since he was presumably dreaming in Spanish). He asks the man how he’s been and the man replies, Not well, and then reveals that his hand is in fact a bird’s claw. Borges (of course) marvels not at the novelty of a man becoming a bird, but at the literary device implicit within the structure of the dream: “Without knowing it, I had prepared the invention.” The man is turning into a bird, but the seed of that transformation, the first clue to the mystery, the foreshadow, happens in the subtlety of his concealed hand. The shift is gradual: a narrative. 
“Dreams ask us something,” Borges says. “And we don’t know the answer; they give us the answer, and we are astonished.” The answer doesn’t fit within our concept of reality – it’s a dream, laden with all those gooey layers of symbolism, but within its own dreamtime logic, it makes sense. “Everything has been prepared.” Dreams, Borges concludes, are the most ancient aesthetic activity; the roots of narrative. 
Here’s the writing process brought to life. Our stories ask questions. We puzzle our way to an answer and we are astonished. It makes a certain wild sense within the rules and world we have created, and somehow, it has transformed us, our vision. We can read divinity into it, the guidance of muses or the churning subconscious. Whatever you call it, something clicks into place. It’s delicious and far beyond our ability to fathom; a reminder that no matter how hard we try to rationalize and regulate the process, storytelling takes root in the ancient stirrings of the human mind.

Daniel José Older’s first book, Salsa Nocturna was just released from Crossed Genres Publications. Daniel is a writer, composer and paramedic living in Brooklyn, New York. He has facilitated workshops on music and anti-oppression organizing at public schools, religious houses, universities, and prisons. His soul band Ghost Star performs original multimedia theater productions about New York history around the city.

His short stories have appeared in Strange Horizons, Flash Fiction, Crossed Genres, The Innsmouth Free Press, and the anthology Subversion: Science Fiction & Fantasy tales of challenging the norm. He has been a featured reader at The New York Review of Science Fiction and Sheree Renée Thomas Black Pot Mojo Reading Series. Daniel is currently working towards his MFA in Creative Writing at Antioch University, Los Angeles.

You can read his ridiculous and true ambulance adventures, hear his music and find out more about his fiction at 


  1. Ama Braxton

    I believe the same strategy of going, going, going can work for the avid outliner, as well. In my reference bible, I write the details of my characters' world without looking back. I impregnate every character with their own, individual background, and by the time I'm in the midst of the actual writing process, the characters–due to their predetermined pasts–have started to lead me, to guide the plot to meaningful and symbolic narrative twists that I never could have forseen.

  2. Roberto

    Great insight. He's just put into words my own belief about writing.

  3. D.G. Hudson

    Interesting post. It's how I try to write, but my perfectionism gets in the way.

    I'll try harder with the new WIP to integrate different tactics.

  4. Rick Pieters

    Amazing timing. I just read Borges' The Circular Ruins yesterday. It was both beautiful and obscure, in the way of dreams, and I told a friend that while my mind was having a hard time, something deeper was "gettin it." And then that final line.

    This post reminds me that we need to be watchful that our intellects don't get in our way. Though we must use them and use them well, we have to, at the same time, let go.

    Those moments are where the "magic" (muses, the churning subconscious, whatever) happens in writing.

    What's more delicious than characters and curves coming together with a surprise we never would have come up with. Except we did. Was that a dream? It's there on the page.

  5. abc

    Wow! I'm in.

  6. Anonymous

    Daniel, I'm an instant fan. You write of the real deal. I seek others who can put into words the inner core, the depth of this writing life, and you can do it in a way that is fresh and breathtaking. Your words resonate truth, depth and man, I relate!! Brilliant. I subscribed to your blog and added your website to my bookmarks. Wanna hear more…:-)

    Yvette Carol

  7. Jan Rider Newman

    Like D.G. Hudson, my perfectionism intrudes and intrudes and intrudes. But this post inspires me to write through no matter what and find the story where it lives.

  8. Mira

    For all those plotters out there, this is the best example (and defense) of pantser writing I've seen.

    Plunging in, trusting and following your unconscious as it unfolds. Wonderful writing in this post.

    Thank you!

  9. Jeremy Bates

    Speaking of ComicCon, did you occasion to see the 8 minutes of Quentin Tarrantino's upcoming film, "Django?"

  10. Marilyn Peake

    Your voice really shines through in this post. Wow, brilliant writing!

  11. kilikinachappell

    Beautifully said, and thoroughly inspiring — thanks for this bit of magical insight.

  12. Bryan Russell

    I was introduced to Daniel's stuff a couple years ago and just love it. The man can write.

  13. Marlena Amkraut

    Nathan, what do you think of writing a detailed outline before you begin a book? Does it help or hinder you?

  14. DanielJose

    Thank you all, I'm very humbled by your words and glad to hear my thoughts on process resonated. Had this Borges musing wandering around my subconscious for literally years so I'm happy it came out and i had a chance to share it.

  15. Carolyn

    I felt, reading this, that someone I didn't know knew how to describe me and the way I write better than I could describe me and the way I write.

    I've always gone with the paleontological dig analogy – you're sweeping away the dust and here is this bit and that bit, but you have to sweep all the dust away before the way they connect is completely revealed.

    But this – When the seeds I planted turn out to have grown towards each other – this is better. Because they aren't dried out bits of bone in the ground. They are growing.

    Beautifully done.

    Thanks to Nathan for sharing this with us.

  16. Tracy

    I find my writing is only hindered by my ability to type fast enough to get it all down. This is especially true when i am "in-the-zone", putting 3-5k words down in a sitting.

    I can hit 100wpm in full stride, but i just cant sustain it. My brain wants to jot down a thousand words in that little span.

    It's depressing.


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Hi, I’m Nathan. I’m the author of How to Write a Novel and the Jacob Wonderbar series, which was published by Penguin. I used to be a literary agent at Curtis Brown Ltd. and I’m dedicated to helping authors chase their dreams. Let me help you with your book!

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