I had this dream the other night. There were talking cats. An airplane. Several reams of blue tissue paper draped across a grand piano. And it gets weirder from there. Coincidentally I just inserted a dream into my latest short story, and I'm dancing around the strangeness of it all.
Just how odd can a dream be in a story before you completely lose the reader?
In a story dreams ought to have meaning, right? They should push forward the plot or reveal a snippet of the primary character that perhaps remained hidden from the reader. Freud will turn in his grave when I type this, but sometimes dreams don't make sense or hold a deeper meaning other than their cushy face value weirdness. They can be the fantastical, nutty, Lady Gagas of our mind that leave us with a beautiful yet unimportant image rattling around our brain for days. The fun ones are so vivid they wake us up in a cold sweat, and we have no idea which world is real. Or in which world we'd prefer to reside. Dreams in stories rarely function for the fun of it. If they do, they often see the business end of a red pen and never make it to the final draft.
Are dreams worth it in a story? First person dreams are mildly easier, but I'm writing in third person limited which in my opinion makes it trickier. How can I truly represent how the heroine is feeling in a dream sequence where I'm not using the 'I' and on top of that I have to leave out the flying hammers? I don't want this to turn to a point of view discussion. That would take multiple blogs and several days to deal with. I'm just wondering why the dream is there. Was there a gaping hole begging for an information dump? And who ever wants to admit that there are gaping holes in your story? In this particular case I neatly wrapped up the teacher's (yes I'm writing about a teacher, but it's elementary so not autobiographical at all :-) fears and determinations and duties and miseries in a few paragraphs from dreamland. I'm just not that fond of the word dream and neat living together in the same sentence.
Anyway, after I inserted the dream, I went back. I carefully walked through the story and planted details to ensure that the dream made sense. But then the scene stopped being, well, dreamy. I'm not unhappy with it. I guess I just hate editing dreams. Crafting them is fun. It's like flying around in a room with no gravity. Who doesn't love to write when there are no limits, except then reality slaps you in the face and the story has gone drastically off track. It's a dilemma, for sure.
Probably best to go back and study dream sequences that I really admire from my favorite authors. I know that there are people out there who do it just right.
A former student dropped me an intriguing note, and only with her permission and a promise of anonymity do I share it.
"No wonder so many writers used to off themselves. It's so lonely to write. Sometimes I feel like I've dropped in a black hole when I do it. How do I cure this? I've been writing to a lot of other writers, but it doesn't always help. What do you do?"
In response I simply told her thank god for technology. How amazing is it that we can critique each other's works from across continents, post blurbs that receive dozens of instant responses, and speak to industry giants or minimally gather their tweets like gold and tuck them away for future knowledge. There is also a vague comfort in heading online to see other writers locking themselves away to work on projects or edit or revamp (or vamp depending on the genre they specialize in :-) I wonder, though, if losing all the solitude is necessarily a good thing. Does surfing the web and connecting to hundreds and thousands of friends and fans and peers dissolve the writer's mystique? Is there a magical spark when we are left absolutely and entirely alone in our own heads to trip around and find our muse?
By no means do I think we should all vanish into the wilderness Thoreau-style, but the virtual noise can be too much at times. I know, I know, turn off the monitor. It's that simple, right? No. Not to anyone who knows the siren call of the various social networks, blogs, and websites. Writers, for the most part, are collectors. Think A&E Hoarders but with ideas which frankly can be far worse than a stack of 1934 album covers or antique phone parts. (I haven't graduated to Animal Hoarders yet. Too traumatic.) But we stack and sort and dump new books, new words, new authors, new ideas into our heads with a dedication and frequency that I don't think the rest of the population has. And when you place the internet in the hands of people like us, it's unfair. Heck, it's downright dangerous.
I describe a typical computer session for me and only me, although I'm betting a few of you might relate.
I will stop writing only momentarily to check Facebook, and then I notice someone tweeted something interesting. I head to Twitter where they've referenced a brand spanking new blog post. Well the blog post can't be missed. If I don't read it this instant and instead bookmark it, I'll likely never come back. To the blog post, Batman. Wait. The blog post references four websites I have somehow never come across and need to visit. And man is there a profound comment from an author in Anchorage who I must now follow on Twitter, and then I spy it. I have no choice but to follow the cat with three legs, Tripod Kitters, who is not only tweeting but has 800 more followers than I do. How did this cat manage it? Well of course by reading his recent thirty tweets I too will grow my following. I wonder. Does Annie Lamott tweet? No? What about every other favorite author I have. I better investigate.
And so on.
And so on.
And I'm lost. Wasn't I doing something a few hours ago? Oh, that's right. I was writing.
Again, I am a huge fan of the power of critique and connection that the internet offers writers. A very social creature by nature, I don't want to think of myself as pursuing a profession that banishes me to a tiny tower that I will never escape from unless I get a book published and attract a million or so fans. But lately I've been struggling to sort out how to balance my time and how to gain a bit more of the writing mystique. I still love late night moments where I scribble a few things down and listen to the silence that surrounds those words. I also admire the writers who maintain studios without anything other than a pen and paper or simple word processor. And maybe a fish. A beta fish.
Although I hear that fish have started Tweeting. It's the thing to do.
As I sit devouring the new anthology Stories, edited by king of kings Neil Gaiman, I keep coming back to one of the shorter and more thought provoking tales, "A Life in Fictions" by Kat Howard. The heroine's boyfriend happens to be a writer (poor gal) and whenever he writes he scoops up her life as fodder for his work, and she loses track of time and reality as she is sucked into his stories. Each time she emerges from one of his narratives, she has lost a slice of her own identity. Not to ruin the ending, but she ultimately sacrifices herself to exist in a good story. The entire anthology has a vaguely creepy and haunting tone, most of the stuff beautifully written. But as I begin a new story, I realize that the plot and idea are precisely taken from a moment in my son's life. And I wonder if this is always the case. Do we forever borrow or snatch the details and lives of those around us for our works? And if so, are there any dangers in doing this or ultimately should we always write we know? Fact of the matter is, we intimately know the people in our lives.
Borrowing is natural. We watch our crazy uncle Bob who insists on making balloon animals after family funerals to lighten the mood, and of COURSE it will translate into a story. There is a woman down the street who only jogs in three-inch heels and it's impossible not to devour the details. The people will never read the stories and connect that it's them, right? I once saw an interview where JK Rowling mentioned that she'd unconsciously stolen names for her characters in Harry Potter, only realizing afterwards that they were living, breathing individuals now forever preserved in her series. (If there is a Dolores Umbridge out there, yikes, and sorry!) As writers we are natural vacuums who suck up details to populate our works, no matter how great our imaginations may be.
Then we cross the line and put something more intimate in. We divulge someone else's personal moments or feelings, someone who absolutely will read our work and slap us for it. Even if it's flattering, it's still inherently someone else's emotional property. Or alternately we put our own perspective in, and suddenly we're very naked in front of our readers. It's a moment that can't be taken back. And if our perspective changes, if we feel differently down the road, there is no erasing written history. Not all stories get published, of course, but the ones that do will find you again, even fifty years down the road. As a teacher I do take pause from time to time as I write and wonder what would happen if a student read what I'm working on.
My children are still very young, but as a parent I wonder, too. Will my son pick up my latest story and question if in fact I'd managed to grab his life for a minute and use it to further my writing. It's touchy business. There are published stories of mine that contain characters I would rather forget, feelings I'd like to toss away, and details that were just plain stolen.
That being said, I also infuse my stories with the best of my friends and family. I listen to what they say, I think to myself how beautiful and intelligent they are, and I devise characters who can only hope to live up to them. I am deeply touched by things my son says late at night when I tuck him in, things that only a child could say. I am humbled when my husband makes an observation that is quiet and intuitive, and I discreetly hand it off to a character to make the internal dialogue stronger. When my parents are gone, something that I hope will not happen for a very, very long time, I will take comfort in the memories I've snatched and saved. Maybe stealing the details is a very selfish process, one that helps us preserve that in life that is too incredible to just let slip away.
Of course harvesting these details can be a dangerous practice. But it's one nearly impossible to avoid, and the benefits, I believe, far outweigh the hazards.
Writing has always been an escape, a passion, and a friend. And I love the fact that in my free time and through my career I can help others discover their voice, too.