Rhian had a dream the other night in which some familiar landmarks--our henhouse and chicken run--had been transformed. Instead of the hardware cloth, plywood, and pressure-treated lumber (sorry, water table) the run is really made of, Rhian's brain had reconfigured it with chain-link fencing and a metal-frame door.
This led to a conversation--why on earth would her mind create this fence at all, let alone in the vivid, fully-imagined detail it appeared to her? The chicken run is a very, very familiar thing to her--she sees it many times each day, and could easily describe its every particular from memory. There's no clear reason for the mind to abandon the familiar and replace it with the vivid and new.
I was reminded of a conversation I was having with a student last week, about dialogue in fiction. All of the characters in her story sounded the same--she needed to listen more carefully to the way people really talk. The fact is, I told her, most conversation is designed to impart information, not personality. Any nonstandard filigrees or strange patterns of speech are disadvantageous to the conveyance of content, and our minds tend to ignore them.
But in fiction, all we care about is who people are, and what they like. So the part of the mind that ignores detail must be turned off, and the part of the mind that creates it must be turned on. It's the same part of the mind, I think, that makes completely new things where the familiar should be. The challenge of writing good fiction is to keep this part of the mind switched on even while awake.
I'm teaching a favorite story of mine this week, Kelly Link's "Stone Animals." (This is for a new class--the undergraduate version of my "Weird Stories" course from last year.) This story works with the logic of a dream--Link's mind, when she wrote it, was likely on an associative tear. It's the perfect example of a writer dreaming while awake, packed as it is with creepy nonsequiturs that somehow seem just right. It isn't the strangeness that's so striking--anybody can be selfconsciously weird. It's the just-rightness that's the trick, and it's the kind of thing that most of us have to be in some kind of trance to accomplish, the dream state that creates memorable fiction. Would that I were able to enter into it more often...
Note: this is our 600th post. Yowza. Image above, BTW, is by Gregory Crewdson.