|Truthful Fictions: How Dreams Can Help You Write
Department of English and Comparative Literature, Goldsmiths, University of London
‘The great function of poetry is to give back to us the situations of our dreams.’ (Gaston Bachelard 1994)
This article makes a case for recording and using dreams in the teaching of writing. Calling on some well-known statements of Freud and on some recent research, I attempt to show how dreams can provide writers with a route to their unconscious. I also illustrate the role of dreams in furnishing writers with inspiration and source material. I provide examples of writing, both my own poems, and extracts from the work of Coleridge, Byatt, Kafka, Blanchot and Murakami amongst others to show how dreams, the experience of dreaming, and dream-like imagery have been used successfully in literature.
Keywords: Creative writing; dreams; surrealism; unconscious
To grow, as a writer, you need to struggle – to look for a way inwards. Without that essential, arduous journey, change or development in the characters of your story maybe missing; understanding or epiphany maybe lacking in your poem. Experiencing this transformation, as writer or reader, is often proof that good writing is taking place. Something is in the process of being uncovered or investigated. It may be a small discovery, but it matters; it slows things down, provokes thought, and is one way for a writer to represent life successfully to readers. This questioning and discovery process can be made more pleasurable, more layered and distilled, with the help of recollections from our dreams. Harvesting stories and pictures from dreams does involve some discipline, even dedication but it is, I believe, what creates a commensurate intensity of emotional response in the reader. Just like the humble tomato, so with the piece of writing; the harder and longer it struggles to grow and feed itself, unaided by artificial stimulants, the more it displays the beauty of its original shape and colour, but most important, its sharp, sweet, spectacular taste.
‘The interpretation of dreams’, Freud famously told us is the ‘royal road to the unconscious activities of the mind’ (Freud 1953, 608). He added that, ‘The poets and philosophers before me discovered the unconscious. What I discovered was the scientific method by which the unconscious can be studied’ (Trilling 2008, 34)(First quoted by Philip R. Lehrman in 'Freud's Contributions to Science' (in the journal 'Harofe Haivri' Vol.1 (1940) and then Quoted by Lionel Trilling in 'The Liberal Imagination: Essays on Literature and Society.Freud and Literature' (in 'The Liberal Imagination' ) Dreams nurtured, recorded, ‘studied’ – a well-spring of the unconscious – then became a crucial part of psychoanalytical work. Freud’s view has been widely confirmed by writers who repeatedly and variously speak about an unconscious or subconscious where many of their best ideas for poems, stories and characters seem to germinate. In an interview with John Harding, Haruki Murakami says:
…The most important means for you to create is your subconscious. Everything important comes from your subconscious. If you plan everything you’d be kidding your subconscious. So I don’t plan anything. I cannot explain why, but I knew this was the right way to approach the story. (Murakami 1994, Bomb Magazine)
In our times, evidence of this unconscious place in our brains and bodies has been furthered through the work of neuroscience. As David Eagleman shows in his book Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain: ‘Freud’s intuition about the unconscious brain was spot on, but he lived decades before the modern blossoming of neuroscience. We can now peer into the human cranium at many levels from electrical spikes in single cells to patterns of activation that traverse the vast territories of the brain’ (Eagleman 2011, 19). After collecting large amounts of hard data and anecdotal evidence, what Eagleman and other researchers’ findings appear to elucidate is that Freud’s descriptions of the unconscious can now be borne out by research that shows that when acting on both the big and small decisions we make in our lives we know v little about ‘the behind-the-scenes operations of the brain’ that make these decisions possible. ‘The mind is like an iceberg, the majority of its mass hidden from sight’ (17). Dreams are like fissures or crevasses in this iceberg down which we can descend to a kind of of shimmering, chaotic Antarctic landscape of beautiful and bizarre shards and sculptures. A rich landscape of wishes, nightmares, puzzles and adventures; a way of entering into and exploring this chaos which Jung called a collective and individual storehouse of the unconscious.
Very few would now argue that dreams are simply random electrical currents or froth released by the brain as a way of getting rid of tension. It seems to me that writers, both budding and experienced, of all ages are losing a vital source of material for their work if they ignore their dreams. We should plough, water, replenish and harvest our dreams as a way of adding crucial components to our imagination and helping our creativity flourish. I want to examine and show, with the help of ideas and examples from other writers, including some poems of my own, how the experience of dreaming and the content of dreams can be mined. None of this is offered as definitive – no such thing really exists in the realm of writing – but rather as an illustration of a method, tested and used by many a successful writer, with which to add depth and width to our practice. And, I want to suggest practical ways of recording and cataloguing dreams as a direct resource for writing, as a way of increasing our understanding of the way our minds function especially in terms of motivational forces and desire. And as a way of staying in touch with and utilizing the often dislocating, surprising and spectacular imagery we get from our dreams.
In Imagining Characters, a book of six conversations about women writers between A S Byatt and the psychoanalyst Ignes Sodre, there is an exchange that gives us an insight into a leading novelist’s engagement with dreams:
‘Sodre: I would be really interested to hear you talk about how something gets transformed in a writer’s mind from the raw material, the basic stuff that’s inside you – emotional experiences and things you know about and think about – into producing a creative work of art.
Byatt: I think I’ve always worked very close to my dream imagery, and I’ve always been very unsatisfied with a a social realist image of what a novel is doing, because I have had this strong sense that poetic images and visionary images and dream-structured narrative are of equal importance …. There are writers and pieces of writing that interest me greatly, particularly Coleridge, who recorded his own dreams vividly in his notebooks, and clearly felt that his greatest poems derived from dream images. (A. S. Byatt and Ignes Sodre 1995, 247)
Byatt begins by talking about prose – her own novelistic methods – and how important it is for her to juxtapose the realism in her novels with scenes where something like the intuition and illogic of a dreamscape or a collage are brought into play. She then goes on to make links with a poet, interestingly, from a different period and gender whose poem, ‘Kubla Khan’, is one of the most celebrated instances of a dream transforming itself into literature.
It wasn’t until I started writing poems some four years ago, that I too began to see how important the years of journal writing and dream notebooks could be in relation to having a bank of resources to tap into. I realised I had at least ten notebooks to draw on from the last fifteen years, but I remembered times when I had despaired - especially when I couldn’t find a way into my novel - that my dreams, stories, conversations and anecdotes recorded in those notebooks were a way of avoiding ‘real’ writing. I was quick to forget, that when the opening for my second novel, One Day, finally appeared three years into my struggles to find the appropriate form and style for it, it came from a dream I had scribbled in my notebook:
I am lying next to a woman in bed. I am reading the first chapter from a book called ‘The Inner Game of Tennis’. The woman next to me is voluptuous and is noisily masturbating. I ignore her and remain immersed in the lines of my tennis book and read aloud the advice offered on how to improve one’s topspin forehand. This was rewritten in the novel and many details were added, but it became an integral part of opening scene of a 24-hour day and night in the life of an interracial couple in turn-of-the-century London.
Later, in the same novel I wrote whole dream sequences from inside the heads of both female and male protagonists and even tried to depict the dreaming state of their three-year-old child. (Something had to happen in the hours when my protagonists were asleep!) I am aware that for more than one reader this was taking things too far and these dreams may have represented the kind of ‘turn-off’ that Josh Cohen describes in his excellent book, The Private Life: ‘Dreams are compelling in an analytic session for precisely the reasons they’re unspeakably tedious at parties’ (Cohen 2013, 187).
There is clearly some truth and common sense to be considered here, and most writers are acutely aware of Henry James’s famous warning: ‘tell a dream lose a reader.’ But, what Cohen goes on to describe in relation to the psychoanalytic session has an analogy with the making of a piece of writing. ‘The private space in which any patient can be alone (that is to say in the presence of someone) recreates the conditions in which the dream can become meaningful once more’ (188). If we replace patient with ‘writer’ the same can be said of the private space in which we write and read. After the initial process of recording the dream, the inner and outer space in which the writer works and thinks, is a space in which he has to include some kind of interpretive, transformative, inter-active, creative movement and struggle for the dream to become engaging and meaningful. Part of this process, is keeping a reader in mind and trying to convince the reader that is presented, in most cases, has a strong correlation with life. Writing and psychoanalysis share the need for an interaction between observation of the outside world and an internal space where dreams and other unconscious material can be gathered and worked on.
I want now to return to my point that it was not until I began working on my own poems that I began to see how dreams (and other dream-like waking occurences) could be successfully mined from my notebooks. Excavation and exploratory digging are both I think appropriate metaphors for the dream-led writing experience and in an allied way to the actual content of many dreams which can have an explosive quality to them, like dynamite shattering rock to open a path to gold – the royal road – underneath. To explain, here are two of my poems that derive directly from dream narratives recorded in my notebooks:
In the middle of the night
I hear a voice, ‘Dad! Dad. Dad!’
A small voice, pulling me out of the deep,
dragging me out from sleep.
‘Dad! Daaad! ’ he bleats,
tugging my taut arm.
Was it the Chinese cockle pickers
Whose reconstructed plight
I watched on TV last night?
drowning, and so far from home
their SOS, from Morecambe Bay:
‘Rising Water! Help! Rising Water!’
My boy toddles near,
sits on the ledge of our vast bed:
‘I can’t go to school tomorrow, Dad.
My cut is hurting.’
I touch his neck where a long
scar, like a millipede, stretches.
I stroke his cheek, his chin, his waist,
reach my arm around the edges of him.
Who are you? My mind says, stirring.
How strange and sad and weird
to hold something you’ll never have.
I look at myself in the mirror
and find my face covered with zits
each with a visible prick of yellow.
One of the zits is so large,
Someone’s hung a tag on it,
dangling like a long earring.
Something’s scrawled on the tag.
I can’t see what it says -
the light is murky, ochre.
Just then, my wife comes up behind
and reads the label out loud:
‘Where have all the cakes gone?’
There are eruptions at the heart of both these poems. There are also ‘remnants’ from the previous day: the ‘Chinese cockle pickers’, the ‘earring’, the ‘cakes’. ‘No Sonne’ reenacts a dream and wants to take the reader into the ‘deep’ of dreaming. There are revelations that I hope the process of reading the poem encourages, allowing room for the reader to ponder - a kind of joint pondering with the writer on what this poem is saying and where it is taking us. The gentle surprise or twist meant to be conveyed by the title and the last line is that the poet has no son. The title is also a glancing reference to Ben Jonson’s ‘On my First Sonne’ which is about the early loss of a son. Is there evidence in these poems of Freud’s view that dreams are a form of wish fulfilment? I’m not sure, but I do think that questions of motivation and desire are raised. Many will know of the story of the hurrying tide overwhelming the illegal Chinese migrant workers who were collecting whelks and cockles on the Norfolk sands. Poor, badly-paid, and driven to their deaths by unscrupulous Chinese overseers and gang lords, these workers form a kind of backdrop to the poem. The poem points to the way dreaming and drowning, being submerged, being wounded grievously are connected to and felt by our bodies.
The dreams that both these poems came from have been worked on a great deal in terms of expression and structure. Nevertheless, I am still unhappy with the last line of ‘Excellent Wretch’. It doesn’t quite have the enigmatic resonance I want, and actually I don’t remember what, if anything, my wife said in the dream. I think, she said something like, ‘you have a perverted mind’. But I might have made that up. Either way, it doesn’t work, it’s a bit too obvious as an ending for the poem. The difficulty I have with this poem is that words like ‘zits’ and ‘dangling’ make it humorous. So, the last line has to fit that self-deprecatory whimsical tone. Quite different then, from the first poem which is a melancholy musing on waste, death and missed opportunities: the tragic end of the Chinese cockle-pickers, their plaintive cries merged with the boy calling for his Dad, the long scar, the missing son – the sad, strange nostalgia of dreaming into being a different gendered child. Could a mother without daughters read this poem and be moved by that vision? I’d be pleased if that were possible. Blanchot’s question in his essay, Reve, Ecrire seems relevant here: ‘Do we not frequently get the impression that we are taking part in a spectacle not meant for us or that we are looking over someone’s shoulder at some unexpected truth?’ (Blanchot 1971, xxiv)
Dreams, in most cases, do not offer themselves up as complete poems or stories. There are no short cuts to the hard work that writing a poem or a story involves. The content, structure and form of the poem have to be felt, constructed, thought through and worked out as you go along. You cannot normally take a dream, cinematic or psychedelic, put it on paper and, bob’s your uncle, there’s your poem! That’s rare. Writers do speak about such experiences. Coleridge described how he wrote ‘Kubla Khan’ in the preface to his collection of poems, Christabel, Kubla Khan, and the Pains of Sleep, published in 1816:
In the summer of the year 1797, the Author, then in ill health, had retired to a lonely farm house between Porlock and Linton, on the Exmoor confines of Somerset and Devonshire. In consequence of a slight indisposition, an anodyne had been prescribed, from the effects of which he fell asleep in his chair at the moment that he was reading the following sentence, or words of the same substance, in ‘Purchas’s Pilgrimage’: ‘Here the Khan Kubla commanded a palace to be built, and a stately garden thereunto: and thus ten miles of fertile ground were inclosed with a wall.’ The Author continued for about three hours in a profound sleep, at least of the external senses, during which time he has the most vivid confidence, that he could not have composed less than from two to three hundred lines; if that indeed can be called composition in which all the images rose up before him as things, with a parallel production of the correspondent expressions, without any sensation or consciousness of effort. On awakening he appeared to himself to have a distinct recollection of the whole, and taking his pen, ink, and paper, instantly and eagerly wrote down the lines that are here preserved.
(S.T. Coleridge 1816)
Coleridge writes of verses of vivid poetry appearing before his eyes, springing up like magic: pictures of a ‘pleasure dome’, a ‘sacred river’, perfumed forests and a ‘deep romantic chasm.’ Crucially, what had disappeared for him when he was disturbed by a ‘messenger from Porlock’ and had to absent himself from writing for more than an hour was both the content of the dream and the dreaming state - ‘like the images on the surface of a stream into which a stone has been cast.’ As a result of this, apart from him being able to add a few lines, this famous poem remains a fragment.
The instant he awoke Coleridge became like a stenographer taking down, or regurgitating the dictated lines from his dream. This conduit remained flowing as long as the connection with his dreaming experience was maintained. It is often the case, as most of us will recognise, that if we don’t write down or recount the dream immediately on waking, it might be lost forever. Coleridge’s experience with ‘Kubla Khan’ shows us that, first and foremost, the dream needs to be scribbled in notebook or diary as soon as possible after waking. This is not about interpretations or psychoanalysis. This is the act of transcribing and describing the actualisations and imaginary places of the self recounted without authorial comment or revision. Later, connections might be found with the stories from our own pasts and with writers and writing, past, present and future. The use a writer can make of a particular dream might show itself immediately, but quite often, there is a gestation period, or even a necessary separation from the overt or manifest content of the dream before we can see how it might create something new or fit into an existing poem or story.
‘The fact that we are not really there in the dream’, writes Blanchot at the start of one of his inspired maze-like circumspections: ‘One could almost say there is nobody in the dream, and therefore, in a certain fashion, that there is nobody to dream it; hence the suspicion that when we are dreaming there is also someone else dreaming, someone who is dreaming us and who in turn is being dreamed by someone else’ (Blanchot 1971, xxv). I think this is what Coleridge meant when he said that he felt no consciousness of effort or control in the composition of lines in his dream. It was as if his thinking ‘self’ had no part to play.
And this, I now think, would also be a true approximation of the experience of my dream that brought on the poem, ‘No Sonne’. An experience that would have been too complicated to explain and pointless to describe in the poem: I dreamed my daughter who was the same age as the boy in my poem, dreaming me. In other words, she dreamed this dream of the boy toddling up to my bed in the middle of the night. Or, another way of putting it would be to say, I dreamed her dream.
To emerge from these esoteric ‘wheels within wheels’ into the well-lit everyday activities of the classroom or workshop, what I recommend to writers and teachers of writing is that they ask budding authors, of any age, to place a notebook and a pencil by their bed every night. Teachers may prescribe this for three or four nights, as an exercise for their students to snare and record whatever part of their dream they can recall as soon as they wake, or even to wake up whenever they want in the middle of the night and write the dream down in the notebook at hand. (I am guilty of many a bedroom disturbance, both in my own home and by recommending this practice to my students.) Some students begin by complaining, ‘but I don’t have any dreams’, or, ‘I can’t remember any of my dreams’, but when they had adopted the habit of keeping a pad and pencil by their beds for a few weeks, most of them found that they had more dreams to describe than they thought. I should say I never force anyone to read out their dreams or even to use them in their writing. The choice of whether they want to share or air dreams to the class or group is always left up to them.
Putting that notebook there, under the bed, or on the bedside table, is akin to the experience of being able to remember and talk about dreams were you to see a therapist or psychoanalyst. It will produce dreams. It is like laying down seeds in the soil. When you wake, dreams flower, beanstalks grow in the brain, the mind becomes trained to retrieve and retain dreams, like the mind of a practicing London Cabbie who has the pages of the A-Z imprinted in his head. The habit can get addictive: pages of narrative and imagery flaming from your pen before the first sip of tea or coffee. The notebook produces dreams; dreams produce writing, writing gives birth to more writing. As the protagonist in Sylvia Plath’s story, Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams found:
Dream by dream I am educating myself to become that rare character, rarer, in truth than any member of the Psychoanalytic Institute, a dream connoisseur. Not a dream-stopper, a dream-explainer, an exploiter of dreams for the crass practical ends of health and happiness, but an unsordid collector of dreams for themselves alone. (Plath 1977, 17)
I see this as Plath’s ironic recommendation to all writers. Become a dream connoisseur, a dream collector, but take heed, there is a health warning! Plath’s protagonist ends up strapped to a gurney, bright lights in her eyes, electrodes suckered onto her temples, wired to a machine because her whole world ‘asleep and awake’ is ruled by the ‘dog-face, devil-face, whore-face, panic in capital letters with no face at all…Johnny Panic’ (18).
In truth, many dreams are ruled by panic, fears and warnings as in the famous example from Hitchcock’s Spellbound where the truth about the central crime in the film is revealed to us through a symbolic dream, designed and choreographed by none other than the god of surrealist painting, Salvador Dali. In a collaboration with Luis Bunuel, Dali also made a renowned and original short film, Un Chien Andalou, a surrealist masterpiece governed by dream-imagery.
Surrealism was also a mainstay, in the early part of his career, for the French writer Michel Leiris who was associated with the leading lights of the movement in Paris to whom he contributed written recordings of his nocturnal life, which were published from 1925-6 by Andre Breton and Pierre Naville in the review, La Revolution Surrealiste. Leiris, a Montaigne-like figure in the world of French literature and Art, wrote poetry, ethnography, political tracts, novels. His four-volume autobiography, Regle du Jeu spanned the period 1930 – 1970. His work followed on from the French poet Nerval, whose intense involvement with dreams in his poetry is His debt to the French poet Nerval is clear from the Nerval quotation – ‘Le reve est une seconde vie’ – Leiris used as epigraph for his book of dreams, which he published in 1961, ‘Nights as Day, Days as Night’, a selection of his recorded dreams compiled over a twenty-year period.
The dreams are presented by Leiris with admirable restraint. Authorial interpretation or comment is avoided unless it is communicated to us as part of the dreamer’s thoughts. The dreams are often beautifully simple, lucent and precise. This mode of transcribing dreams is one I have followed and advocate to my students to follow when recalling and writing their dreams, or for that matter their dream-like recollections from waking life. Here are a couple of examples from Leiris’s book. The second extract, ‘July, 1929’ is an example of what Keats might have called a ‘waking dream’.
Very Old Dream
In front of a crowd of gawking spectators – of whom I am one – a series of executions is being carried out, and this rivets my attention. Up until the moment the executioner and his attendants direct themselves toward me because it is my turn now. Which comes as a complete and terrifying surprise. (Leiris 1987, 5)
The scene takes place in a zoo that is also a menagerie. Before my very eyes, a lion leaps out of an ornamental pool and claws its trainer. The scene resembles a heraldic figure, or, better yet, a symbolic image in a book of alchemy.
In the morning I learn that during the previous night a tiger had escaped from the Amar circus, whose tent was at that point pitched not far from my house. (1987, 61)
There is so much to say here about these dreams, so much to interpret, examine, analyse. But foremost, I’d urge you to stop and admire them, read them again, take them in for what they are, beautiful resonant prose poems about life. Dreams as fieldwork of the self. The first one speaks of the guillotine. A fear of the destructive or self-destructive impulse which one is witness to without the ability to stop the dark force from cutting you down, until it is too late. A totemic fear of castration perhaps. A sudden and catastrophic turn of events that quite literally in this case, sweeps the ground from under your feet.
As Sodre says to Byatt in their conversation about dreams, ‘You are obviously interested in your dreams because you know they are ‘truthful fictions’, not ‘lies’. (A.S. Byatt and I. Sodre 1993, 232)
Both the Leiris dreams I’ve quoted above have echoes in the work of Kafka, another writer whose work is intimately connected and influenced by dreams. The ‘Very Old Dream’ reminds me of Kafka’s phantasmorgic story, ‘In The Penal Colony’ which centres on an explorer who observes the gruesome execution of a soldier on an island. The officer in charge also initiates him into the judicial system on which the colony operates: ‘Guilt is always beyond question’. As in Leiris’s dreams the guillotine comes down with cruel and unstoppable force. Culpability, reason, law and justice are replaced by a nightmare world in which seemingly random, cruel acts of violence and murder are the norm. And the second Leiris dream reminds me of an image, or perhaps it is a kind of aphorism or emblematic narrative, from Kafka’s notebooks: ‘Leopards break into the temple and drink all the sacrificial vessels dry; it keeps happening; in the end, it can be calculated in advance and is incorporated into the ritual’ (Kafka 1917-19). In both narratives fierce, predatory animals are pictured. Both stories have that explosive, boundary-breaking quality so typical of dreams. Perhaps Kafka and Leiris are pointing to the fact that we cannot escape this animal force, therefore we must make it part of our existence, part of the ‘ritual’.
It is almost a commonplace to say that so many of Kafka’s stories, such as ‘A Country Doctor’, approximate to a nightmarish landscape of the mind; a hallucinatory descent into ineluctable imprisonment or disaster characteristic of so many dreams. The opening scene when the country doctor is called out to a patient and tries to get his horses out of the stable is a an excellent example:
I was in a quandary: my presence was urgently required; a gravely ill man was waiting for me in a village ten miles distant; a blizzard filled the space between me and my goal; I had a carriage, light, high-wheeled, eminently suited to our country roads; wrapped in my fur, with my Gladstone bag in my hand, I stood in the courtyard all ready to go; but the horse was missing, there was no horse. My own horse had died the previous night, on account of its over-exertions in the current icy winter; now my maid was running from pillar to post to look for a replacement; but it was hopeless, I knew it, and, with the snow falling on me, I stood there increasingly rooted to the spot, and more and more aware of the pointlessness of it. The girl appeared in the gateway, alone, waving a lantern; of course, who would lend out his horse for such a ride? (Kafka 2012, 1)
The way that the reality and immediacy of a catastrophic dream scenario is actualised in the first few lines; the urgency, and anonymity of the request; the way the snow turns into the ‘blizzard’ in the doctor’s head is typical of Kafka’s most compelling stories. The unlikely ‘light and high-wheeled’ carriage perfect for the journey set against the puzzlement and the frustration of the ‘missing horse’ takes the reader back to the forlorn puzzlement and loss so characteristic of the absurd, but very real quandary we often find ourselves in when dreaming.
Kafka’s doctor and his hapless maid are then confronted by the nightmarish appearance of a stable lad ‘crawling out on his hands and knees’ from the ‘flapping doors of the pig sty’ out of which ‘warm air and horsey smells’ emerge. The same mysterious stable lad somehow emerges with a pair of horses in tow who like jacks-in-a-box appear to concertina up towards us, shimmying out of the tiny doorway, exploding upright; their ‘solid bodies steaming in the snow’. This passage, I would argue, could not have been written by a writer who was not working intimately and concretely, with the pictures and possibilities, the bizarre twists and turns of his dreams and nightmares.
Dreams as artifacts, as symbolic images, as ‘heraldic symbols in a book of alchemy’, as real and truthful-feeling incidents, these are some of the ways that this huge resource available to us as writers can be used, a resource that that one of our finest and most innovative contemporary writers, Lydia Davis, uses extremely well. Dreams and their relation to fictional reality are of direct concern in her diverse, masterful, quirky short stories. As part of her work as an acclaimed translator of Flaubert, Proust and Blanchot amongst others, Davis recently reworked Leiris’s dream project in her own fashion in, Swimming In Egypt: Dreams While Awake and Asleep. In this collection of short pieces the reader is challenged to guess which narratives are fiction and which are dreams:
We are about to leave a place that has a large flower garden and a fountain. I look out of the window and see our dog lying on a gurney in the doorway of a sort of shed. His back is to us. He is lying still – he is probably dead. There are two cut flowers placed on his neck, one red and one white. I look away and then back – I want to see him one last time. But in that one moment he has vanished: the doorway of the shed is empty. A moment too soon, they have wheeled him away. (Davis 2012, 40)
The irony here is that in trying to tease out which is dream and which is fiction, one comes to realise how the two modes of being and imagining infiltrate each other. Whilst ‘The Dog’ has all the bizarre and detailed ingredients of a dream – the window appearing in the midst of the garden, the ‘sort of shed’, the gurney, the two flowers, one red one white - it also captures something of the multi-dimensional quality of Davis’s best fiction which attempts to make us believe in the veracity of what is being described. This is achieved through the short phrase ‘ I look out of the window and see our dog’. For this reason, despite the title, which makes it seem like fiction, my guess is that this is a dream. What we don’t know, neither does the dreamer, is whether the dog has died or is still alive when she had this dream in which Davis writes ‘he is probably dead.’ And yet, I wonder how much this uncertainty matters. ‘The Dog’ successfully touches on recognizable elements of loss, memory and death. Themes that Davis also explores in her haunting, clever short stories which range in length from one line to twenty-five pages. The suddenness of departure, the incompleteness and pain of separation and leave-taking is expressed through the swift wheels of the gurney that cause the disappearance of their beloved dog. The picture painted is suffused with feelings of gentleness, loyalty and homage through the repeated image of flowers, the garden and the fountain of love that the dreamer feels towards this departed dog. An altogether different picture from the ravenous, predatory animals that leap out at us from the Leiris and Kafka stories.
There can be no conclusion to this vastly fecund topic, but it seems important to reiterate, that I am not suggesting that our dreams are simply transferable to stories or poems, or even paintings and films in any wholesale or easy way. Sometimes a dream may work as a catalyst for a story, or as a crucial emblem of figurative meaning in a novel or, as a crucial missing element of a plot as was the case in Hitchcock’s Spellbound. What I am encouraging and proposing for writers is the retrieving, transcribing, and transforming of our remembered dreams; opening up and sharing dreams, allowing them to come alive in the world of our writing. To do this we require doggedness. To paraphrase Murakami, we need to dedicate ourselves to whatever our private routines of working are. Clearly, we also need to show commitment to the nuts and bolts of the craft: structure, form, character development and editing. But mere attention to craft or technique is unlikely to suffice. We need help in the awakening and sustaining of our imagination.
Dreams are one available avenue of imaginative sustenance; their nourishment awaits us as proof of the power of our imagination to create worlds in which the colour and complexities of our lives are given full reign. Freud had it that we all become artists when we recount and record our dreams because in their representation of our deepest, sometimes forbidden motivations they also alert us to ethical considerations that might help us make better, stronger decisions in our waking lives. In other words with the awareness of dark forces in our psyches - leopards breaking into the temple - we awaken to the layers of thought and feeling that lie buried in us. This heightened knowledge of ourselves, Freud believed might lead to other creations. It will, I believe, help us to create a sense of reality in our work; more layered, more nuanced, and more engaging.
‘Just as in dreams, when we read novels we are sometimes so powerfully struck by the extraordinary nature of the things we encounter that we forget where we are and envision ourselves in the midst of the imaginary events and people we are witnessing’ (Pamuk 2011, 1). Would the best writers, indeed all creative artists, know how to do this so convincingly if they did not have access to the dreams that teach us how to recreate these real-feeling and complex worlds replete with the faces and places we feel we know and recognize?
Bachelard, G. 1992. The Poetics of Space, London: Beacon Press.
Byatt, A.S and Sodre, I. 1995. Imagining Characters: Six Conversations about Women Writers edited by Rebecca Swift. London: Chatto &Windus.
Cohen, J. 2013. The Private Life. Granta: London.
Coleridge, S.T. 1816. Christabel; Kubla Khan, a vision; The Pains of Sleep. H.Didier: London. (Also available on Google Books at http://archive.org/details/christabelkubla00colegoog)
Davis, L. 2012. Proust, Blanchot and the Woman in Red. Sylph Editions, Cahier Series No 5: American University in Paris.
Eagleman, D. 2011. The Secret Lives of The Brain. London: Canongate.
Freud, S. 1959. The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud: Volume 5 (1953) The Interpretation of Dreams. London : The Hogarth Press and the Institute of Psychoanalysis.
Kafka, F. 1917-19. The Blue Octavo Notebooks. Google Books: https://docs.google.com/document/d/1gD981HZ190BUJF-3czZNX3DsFWvqp3cq-Z4QS4d-9gw/edit?hl=en&pli=1
Kafka, F. 2012 (1919). A Country Doctor. Translated by Michael Hoffman. http://thespace.lrb.co.uk/article/a-country-doctor-by-franz-kafka-translated-by-michael-hofmann/
Leiris, M. 1987. Nights as Day, Days as Night. Introduction by Roger Shattuck and Roland Simon. Translated by Richard Sieburth with an essay ‘Dreaming, Writing’ by Maurice Blanchot, 1971. Eridanos Press: Colorado.
Murakami, H. 1994. Interview by John Wesley Harding, Bomb Magazine Winter 1994. New York. http://bombsite.com/issues/46/articles/1737
Pamuk, O. (2011) The Naïve and the Sentimental Novelist: Understanding What Happens When We Write and Read Novels (New York, Vingtage International).
Phillips, A. 1993. On Kissing, Tickling and Being Bored. Faber and Faber: London.
Plath, S. 1979. Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams. Faber and Faber: London.
Rose, J. 2004. On Not Being Able To Sleep: Psychoanalysis and the Modern World. Vintage: London.
Trilling, T. 2008. The Liberal Imagination. NYBR Classics.
Vakil, A. 2003. One Day. London: Hamish Hamilton.
Note on contributor
Ardashir Vakil taught English in London schools for twenty years. Since 2006 he has been teaching creative writing both to undergraduate and postgraduate students at Goldsmiths College, University of London. In partnership with the Education Department at Goldsmiths he devised a flagship programme, MA Writer/Teacher, which began its second year in September 2013. He is a novelist, poet and short story writer who has published two award-winning novels – Beach Boy (Penguin, 1998) and One Day (Penguin, 2003) – and his story, ‘Darius and Xerxes’, commissioned by and read at the New Imago Conference 2012, was published in the American journal, Raritan, in the Fall 2013 issue.