Monday, March 03, 2008

Dreaming and writing.

When you ask a writer “Where do you get your ideas from?” you may as well ask “Where do you get your dreams from?”

Writing can perhaps be seen as a type of lucid dreaming that the dreamer bothers to record. In lucid dreaming, the dreamer seems to have some control over the dream content. We writers also like to believe we are in control of the material we produce. There’s more to it than that, of course. As writers, we actively seek out the dreams that fuel our fiction, sometimes even inducing them with our own preferred stimulant or ritual, or combination of multiples of the above.

The American writer and writing professor Louis Gallo shared his own particular method for dream inducement with me in an email: “I crave dreams and have studied them for years, mainly the symbolic and archetypal elements. So I try to induce them. I find this concoction to work: a glass of RED wine, a large greenish banana, a piece of ephedra (this is what gives the really vivid dreams) and about half a mg of Ativan, the latter for getting to sleep.”

In case you’re wondering about the banana, Louis explained that they are loaded with melatonin, which apparently leads to an increase in the frequency and vividness of dreams. This is a method for inducing sleeping dreams, which are then used to inform the writing of fiction. Louis’s amazing stories are rich with dream content. But to write, you have to be actually awake. For that activity I have a recipe of my own: a pot of espresso-strength black coffee, drunk fairly rapidly.

Having said that, I wrote my first (published) novel, Taking Comfort, largely without the aid of a coffee pot. At least I didn’t use coffee to kick start the process. I used to set the alarm for an insanely early hour and leap out of bed, dashing straight to the computer, my body still in pyjamas, my head still in dreams. I did not consciously try to incorporate them into the book I was writing; they would have had no place in it. But I was undoubtedly influenced by their spirit and mood. Somehow, this enabled me to access material that I do not think I would otherwise been able to get close to. It may also account for the book’s -- how can I describe it -- idiosyncratic style. The coffee would come later, to keep me awake to continue writing. As you can imagine I was in a state of heightened anxiety and nervousness throughout the writing of the book. Not to mention exhaustion.

Andrew Martin, a writer I greatly admire, once said that when you are writing you become hypnotised by the book you’re working on. This is true. But no matter how free-form, and free-fall it may seem, writing also has to have some involvement of the conscious mind in its creation. Doesn’t it?

This brings us into a debate that recurs regularly on writers’ forums all over the internet: to outline or not? That is to say, should we seek to pre-impose order on our fictive “dreams” or should we simply allow them to come to us, and follow wherever they lead us?

In many ways, I see this as a false dichotomy. If writing is a form of dreaming, or at least related to it, then what we are doing when we write is unlocking the content that is already within us. The story is already there. We just have to find it. And set it down as best we can. If you don’t write an outline, you will find yourself releasing the raw material, and then working and re-working it until you have imposed the shape it needs for it to work as a story. If you do write an outline, you will seek to pre-form its shape, though you may have to be prepared to modify your outline, depending on what material is provided to you. Either way, the content is there. You just have to find it.

For the record, I would describe myself as an outliner. But even when I am outlining -- which seems as though it ought to be a highly conscious and rationally-driven activity – even in the act of outlining itself I am summoning dreams, willing them to form, and, if they consent to do so, groping my way towards them, and mentally placing myself in their midst. It’s a work, primarily, of the imagination, though with whatever logical faculty I possess perched on imagination’s shoulder.

I cannot describe, analyse, or explain how the imagination works. I know only that the word is linked, etymologically, to the same root that provides us with the word magic. The best exposition of this magic that I have encountered comes from Jorge Luis Borges’ lecture "Nightmares" in ‘Seven Nights’. Borges recounts the following dream, or nightmare, as he terms it:

I remember a certain nightmare I had. It took place, I know, on the Calle Serrano, I think at the corner of Serrano and Soler. It did not look like Serrano and Soler -- the landscape was quite different -- but I knew that I was on the old Calle Serrano in the Palermo district. I met a friend, a friend I do not know; I saw him, and he was much changed. I had never seen his face before, but I knew his face could not be like that. He was much changed, and very sad. His face was marked by troubles, by illness, perhaps by guilt. He had his right hand inside his jacket. I couldn't see the hand, which he kept hidden over his heart. I embraced him and felt that I had to help him. "But, my poor Fulano, what has happened? How changed you are!" "Yes," he answered, "I am much changed." Slowly, he withdrew his hand. I could see that it was the claw of a bird.

I first read this many years ago and it astounded me. It still does. In Borges’ telling we feel the dread that the dreamer feels before the terrible hand is revealed, as well as the horror of the revelation. And yet, as Borges goes on to explain:

The strange thing is that from the beginning the man had his hand hidden. Without knowing it, I had paved the way for that invention: that the man had the claw of a bird and that I would see the terrible change, the terrible misfortune, that he was turning into a bird.

Borges comes to the conclusion that dreams are a form of aesthetic expression, perhaps the most ancient. He comments on their “strangely dramatic” form. So is the dreamer the dramatist? More than that, “We are… the theatre, the spectators, the actors, the story.”

I have a feeling this is a topic I may return to. In the meantime, the dream depository is still open for writing-related dreams.


Anonymous said...

What great insight.

Terry Finley

Sharif Khan said...

Fascinating topic. I view dreams as a kind of drama therapy. Borges' dream about his friend turning into a bird seemed to have been quite upsetting...because the friend was not someone he recognized, the dream could actually be relating a message to himself transforming into a bird...which could meaning something encouraging such as reaching a higher perspective or spiritual dimension. Birds can represent both the dark and light nature of the soul.

Sharif Khan
Author of "The Hero Soul"

Bill said...

Thanks. This is very interesting. I seem to remember that there was a lot of work done on lucid dreaming in the 80s.
I dislike bannanas, but I may have one for supper!

Roger Morris said...

Thanks Terry, Sharif and Bill for taking the time to comment.

Sharif, your interpretation of Borges' dream is very interesting. I thought it was significant that Borges described the figure he encountered as a friend, and yet it was a friend he didn't know. There is often a contradictory sense in dreams, I think.

I usually eat my banana in the morning, chopped up on cereal. I've never tried one just before going to bed!

sexy said...