The Canadian Writers' Collective

Writing, and writerly tangents

Monday, December 04, 2006

Yeah, In Your Dreams

By Tamara Lee

Over the past ten years my dreams have started to haunt me. Not only the usual flying alligators and freaky minotaur stuff, but also dreams that unfold like stories, full of interesting, sometimes recurring, characters and conflicts; stories with a beginning, middle and end, possessing a bit of back story, a dramatic climax, and even themes.

For a while, I didn’t bother too much about them, and often flat-out ignored them. Seemed to me the dream only had value if I woke up remembering it.

Packed with so much cinematic detail, they seemed only to be there for my viewing pleasure and seemed more interesting than anything I’d ever write. Until it occurred to me that if I was dreaming them, I could probably write them. I’m not always a quick study when it comes to the subconscious.

The experience is not like lucid dreaming, which I’m sort of able to do, too. To change the story of the dream as it happens. I usually only try this when it’s a nightmare which, thankfully, I don’t have too often. These story-dreams, though, are never edited or altered; they're like little movies for my subconscious self, settling down with a bowl of popcorn, an audience of one, not knowing what’s going to happen next.

Eventually I decided to try rolling over and turning on my lamp—with little regard for the time or bed-partner—to write the damn stories out before I completely wake up. It’s become one of my favourite mental states, that place of split consciousness, when I’m able to relive the just-passed dream yet remain mindful enough of the present to write the words that both describe and evoke the essence of the dream.

Now I’ve a drawer full of dreamed-up stories jotted down over the years that I haven’t done much with. Some of the more interesting ones I can recall like any story I’ve written. Some I reacquaint myself with on those rare days I flip through old journals, wondering if the characters will ever see the light of a computer screen.

A couple months ago, some characters revisited me for a third time. I’d not thought of them for over a year, so when I dreamed about them, it was like reuniting with old friends. It was nice to see how they’d gotten on. The one boy was older and wiser from the experiences of the previous dreams, and there were new characters and storylines woven in and connecting to the original dream that have given more texture to the tale.

And still I have not written this story beyond those middle-of-the night scrawls. Maybe I’m afraid to touch it, to ruin the weave of its fragile structure. Maybe I sense the story just isn’t as interesting as it seems on paper. Maybe not writing the stories that keep haunting me implies something else.

To be honest, I’ve no idea where these story-dreams come from, and I'm not interested in researching the psychology or new-agey magic or juju behind their recurrence. Too much research can be a “big clunker,” as Michael Ondaatje discusses in this interview. He also describes how his creative process is to investigate the meaning and story behind a haunting single image. Perhaps the story-dreams are now a part of my creative process. I know I look forward to them, it’s just I never know if I should do anything with them afterwards.

It’s possible this three-part dream wants to be a novel. Novel writing is new to me, having moved through poetry to flash fiction and short stories, and short scripts to feature-length scripts. But I’m overwhelmed by the scope of story required for novels. The other genres all allow quick first-drafts, stories I can get out in a day, a week, or at most a month. And their revisions are more about tightening up the story, not necessarily expanding it.

Understanding how the big stories need the freedom to breathe and explore, to go skinny-dipping and dumpster diving on the same day, has been a slow learning. And I wonder if starting from scratch is easier, exploring the meaning of a single image, instead of trying to wrench out a story from a fully formed dream.

Whatever the answer, it’s sure to include the act of turning on a light and writing, with little regard for time, and at least some cursory acknowledgement of that consummate bed-partner, the popcorn-stuffed subconscious.


Blogger Tricia Dower said...

Fascinating stuff, Tamara. Especially the fact that your dream characters grow older in subsequent dreams. I've never heard of that. I kept a dream diary for years and occasionally, still, write down one that intrigues me. I've considered using some of the "plots" for stories but it hasn't materialized so far. Mostly, I look at my dreams as reflections of the state of my subconscious.

Mon Dec 04, 12:18:00 pm GMT-5  
Blogger tamara said...

Thanks, Tricia. It sort of freaked me out, actually, when I realised it was the same character. I think a lot of people write down their dreams, but I don't know of anyone who actually turns them into stories. I wonder why.

Mon Dec 04, 02:40:00 pm GMT-5  
Blogger Anne C. said...

Because usually when you read them later they make very little sense?

Mon Dec 04, 02:48:00 pm GMT-5  
Blogger tamara said...

Fair enough, Anne. I won't be turning my flying alligator dreams into a story anytime soon. I think that's why I don't do anything with this on-going midnight drama of mine... Are all dreams shite for subject material? Perhaps...

Mon Dec 04, 03:00:00 pm GMT-5  
Blogger Anne C. said...

I meant my dreams, not yours! Yours sound much more promising.

Mon Dec 04, 03:21:00 pm GMT-5  
Blogger Andrew Tibbetts said...

I kept a dream journal too for awhile. It was so great. The more attention I paid my dreams the more elaborate they got, or the more of them I remembered. It was great fun. I took three of them and turned them into an opera "Never Shop Hungry". I wrote the first act, but the second act got only as far as the libretto and third act remains just an entry in my dream journal.

One day I will finish it.

You've inspired me to try this again. I also love the Michael Ondaajte bit, in your post. I'm going to try his technique.

Mon Dec 04, 04:12:00 pm GMT-5  
Blogger Patricia said...

this is really interesting, I'd love to hear what you have so far. I seldom remember my dreams anymore, unless I have a nap during the day and then they're very vivid, this is very cool, keep with it..xo

Tue Dec 05, 11:47:00 am GMT-5  
Blogger tamara said...

Seems about right, Andrew, that the more attention paid to them, the more elaborate they become. One day, PP, maybe I'll have a draft of something to show, just to see if it's worth pursuing. Thanks :)

Tue Dec 05, 07:04:00 pm GMT-5  
Blogger J.A. McDougall said...

I never write that stuff down and I should! This post is gorgeous, Tamara, thanks for the inspiration.

Tue Dec 05, 10:32:00 pm GMT-5  

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