Thursday, November 4, 2010

From Life to Fiction Part IV: Dreams

I have never found anything worthwhile in a dream. I know it's good to have them, and I've even heard that it is an important function of sleep. But when it comes right down to the act of writing, the idea of a dream is exactly what it is, a dream.

Years ago, Ryan Lamb and I lived together on Poet's Row in Denver's downtown neighborhood of Capital Hill. We lived in the James Russell Lowell. I didn't realized then how cool it was living in a place where all the buildings were named after poets. Anyhow, Ryan was in his last semester of college, and because of it, the economics major that he was, he had to take a psychology 101 class. We had spent years making fun of all the psychology majors mostly because we were mean and they were weird. Being an English major myself, I had spent my time reading Freud. Ryan, for his part, knew an awful lot about psychological factors in regards to economics. Before I go any further, he enjoyed that class immensely, and because of some of his projects, so did I. I became involved with Ryan's psychology class on a Sunday.
“Hey man, I need a favor,” he said from the other room.
Don't blow your nose in the shower, I thought. Wash the dishes with less soap, I thought. I was ready for him to coach me on the ways of the world, after all I had learned not to use the small toaster oven when cooking a potato because we paid for electricity, I had to use the oven which ran on the natural gas of our landlord's tab. “What?” I called back.
“Can I watch you sleep?” he said as he stood in the doorway of my bedroom.
“What? No,” I said.
“Come on, it's for a class project.”
“I don't care if it's for a class project, a life and death moment or creepy curiosity, it's weird,” I said. “What kind of project do you need to watch someone sleep?”
“Well, it's to watch someone dream.”
“Whatever pal, it's still creepy,” I said.
“Yeah,” Ryan said. He looked down at the paper in his hand. I can still see the look of disappointment on his face. Ryan was a very serious student. He wasn't one of those guys who did whatever he had to do to get the grade, no he wasn't one of those students. Ryan was the kind of student who really took the time to learn something, he really took his time with his studies so that he could be the kind of student who learned something. I really admired Ryan and I still really look up to him. “Well, I guess I don't have to watch you sleep, I just have to know when you normally get up, then I'll come in and when you go into REM sleep I'll wake you up.”
“I don't really dream,” I said. He left the room. And as I went back to whatever it was I was doing, I remember a funny feeling that came over me. I felt like I had a sudden responsibility in his grade. “Ryan,” I called. “Hey Ryan, okay, I'll do that.”
We talked about the logistics. We talked about my normal patterns of sleep. Fortunately, during those days, those long ago college days, I had classes everyday of the week at 8 am.

The dream I had on the first day of the 10 day observation was pretty strange. And each day the assignment went on, the stranger they got. But to tell you about them now, well, it isn't that great. I mean, the idea of two young men, college students, turning their apartment into a dream lab is a more interesting idea. Of all the dreams I've had, or all the ones I remember, the only ones worthwhile for an audience were the ten dreams I had during Ryan's physiology class assignment. The only time I felt it was appropriate to talk about dreams, my dreams, was then.

I guess I always felt like the charm, or the strangeness, or the horror of a dream is completely lost during the telling. For some reason the story or the plot of a dream or the detail of a dream wanes in significance when translated into words. Anytime I feel like telling someone about a dream I keep it short: I had a strange dream, and you were there, or I had a strange dream about this. And I leave it at that. If the other person wants details, I simply say that I cannot remember anything but a vague recollection of their appearance or whatever. And likewise, when someone tells me they had dreams about me or a common situation, I always want the shortest statement as possible.

I do not burden my friends and loved ones with my dreams, and I generally hope they feel the same way. When someone feels the need to tell me all about it, I start to think of the snow in the Alps.

Likewise, when a piece of writing is called dream-like or a portrait of a dreamscape, I want to run the other way. Not to say that certain things about dreams cannot be found in fiction. Alan Lightman, a physicist, wrote a beautiful little book called: Einstein's Dreams. The whole premise of the book reads like a dream, I guess, but it's so much more than that. Each dated chapter is another supposition of time, how time might work in the confines of that particular universe. The language is lovely, and so is the book especially when the chapter dates are the days and weeks leading up to release of Einstein's theory of relativity. Also, Eduardo Galeano's book: The Book of Embraces kind of reads like little dreams, or little anecdotes or little, well embraces.

But, the idea of reading page after grueling page, a list or a plot or a description of a dream seems horrible. I find a snippet of a dream here, or a precedent of a dream there less offense.

I've even been known to use an idea of a dream in a story. I say this now only because I want to illustrate a point. I can think of one novel: Undertakers of Rain and a few short stories, namely “Fluid” (see story of the week 11/04/10) and “My Hide” that were inspired from dreams. Now, had I not said anything about the dream part, a reader would have no idea that the original impetus came from a dream. For instance, I dreamed that I was a soldier (this part re-occurs) and that I was in a town of spies. I then was given maps, and had to run and hide. In the hiding place I met a woman who was guarding a stack of jewels. We agreed to hide there for the rest of war. That was the dream. In Undertakers of Rain, I have two sets of three jewel thieves. The first set knock off a few jewelery stores and then run off to fight the Nazis in WWII. The second set of thieves imitate the first. The two aforementioned short stories I used only a feeling I had in their respective dreams and then used a single image to build a set of circumstances for their stories.

Just to simply record a dream is only a record for posterity. Like so many pitfalls in the writing of fiction, a record of dream may be fun to write, but it may not be very interesting to readers.

In this endeavor of life to fiction, be careful with dreams.

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