Monday, September 7, 2009

The Generative Power of Dreams

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.

9 comments:

Gary said...

May I be the first to congratulate you on your 600th post, and what good posts they are. I was struck by your saying to your student that 'most conversation is designed to impart information' - is that really true? I'm reminded of what Pinter said, - 'I think that we communicate only too well, in our silence, in what is unsaid, and that what takes place is a continual evasion, desperate rear-guard attempts to keep ourselves to ourselves. Communication is too alarming. To enter into someone else's life is too frightening. To disclose the poverty within us is too fearsome a possibility.' And even if you cant go this far with Pinter, when we speak arent we often trying at least to communicate something other than what we say - both in real life and in fiction?

jrlennon said...

Perhaps--I think most of what we communicate, though, we communicate inadvertently.

Besides, Pinter hears conversation like a writer, and so do you.

jrlennon said...

Oh and thank you for the congrats! We've been at it two and a half years...

rmellis said...

I just find it very strange that houses, in particular, are always altered in dreams, usually radically. How many times have you heard someone say, when describing a dream, "It was my house, but it wasn't..."?

I wonder about the henhouse dream... was my mind just unable to recall, for whatever reason, the actual henhouse, so it rebuilt a reasonable facsimile? Because for the plot of the dream (leopards eating the hens) any kind of henhouse would have done the job. The road, the field, the position of the henhouse were all realistic. The chickens and the cat were realistic. Was it just TOO familiar -- I had to generate something novel in order for the dream to have power?

Also amazing -- how does the dreaming mind come up with so much vivid detail?

rmellis said...

One more question: WHEN will I stop having dreams about missing my college classes???

Zach Cole said...

rmellis: You're kidding, right? I'm still a student, and had hopes that those nightmares would go away. Darn.

JRL: Can you think of any stories/novels where the dialogue has a dream-like quality? Not stilted, but subtly off-kilter.

jrlennon said...

Kazuo Ishiguro's "The Unconsoled" is basically just one long dream sequence. And that whole long scene in The magic Mountain when Hans Castorp has the painting on his lap in the doctor's apartment...

Anonymous said...

Flann O'Brien's The Third Policeman....

jon said...

Finnegans Wake