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Readable Dreams

Three journal entries by Chris Wayan from 1989-92... on the problems of making dream-writing readable in a culture believing dreams are nonsense.

Sketch of a Victorian flower fairy, drunk on dew, by Wayan. Click to enlarge.

How to write dreams for others, not just myself? I've been trying. But I think I've been mimicking fiction writers. And they're all in love with a technique popularized by Twain in "Huckleberry Finn": using a narrative voice native to the fictional universe, who takes its rules for granted, sucking the reader in. Writers hide themselves inside their characters, say things deadpan. Literary Botox!

All the pros do it. God forbid you should intervene, explain, preach! At least in rich countries. Only in backwaters where oral storytelling survives (or is at least still twitching) are narrators unashamed to narrate.

I grew up reading Samuel Delany's theories about science fiction (which dreams, after all, do resemble. Alternate worlds!) He agrees science fiction prose should take for granted the fictional world--that generates a harmonic or chord between our world and the story world--like the virtual chord generated in a jazz standard, between the played note and the expected one. It works, too--I've felt it. It's a fictional device of great power.

But dreams aren't fiction! They're autobiography. Why pretend I don't know there's another universe? Even when awake, I faintly sense other worlds hovering at the edge of possibility. In dreams, I'm not always lucid in the dreamworker's sense ("Oh! I'm dreaming, this is unreal, I can do what I want!") as much as in the emotional sense--I know that however I label this universe I've found myself in, it's flexible; what matters is lucidity about who I am, what I want, and why. That's what makes for transformations, that's what lets you fly. Reality principle? Ha! Reality's just a big-budget dream with spellchecking. (That is, the bouncer checks most magic at the door. But you can sneak small miracles in.)

Multiple worlds are a given in my life--the life of any serious dreamworker. But how do we convey this sense of endless dreamworlds to others who haven't experienced it? How much to explain?

Annie Dillard says "What you should write about is what fascinates only you--what you never see others write." Sounds good, but she goes too far, excluding things you like that others already know about. "If you ride in a plane or eat a hamburger you will spare the reader this." Oh yeah? Anything's an adventure if lived firsthand... and may be fascinating to readers in centuries to come. It may be exactly hamburgers or planes they wish we'd written of, not taken for granted. How's it feel to eat a corpse? Did you like the sky, back when it was blue? Gulfs of time and culture can make any life look eerie as a dream.

If others will need background to understand what I'm feeling, AND the background stuff is interesting TO ME, then I can put in both things safely. But how do I tell how much context is needed? My writer friends say I put so much in my dream-stories that they get lost in details. No center. Well, I often feel that way. But in fact my life always has a center, moment to moment. The apparent density comes from compressing many different moments' centers into one tale. Like a slice of tissue seen thru a microscope with too thick a depth of field! I live in a narrow depth-of-field, the present, and move the focus around freely. That's probably why I recall dreams easily, and why predictive dreams don't scare me; time's not linear to me. More like... elbow room at a crowded party, or in thick brush. Step by step... But the sum or integral or cumulation of all this clear transparent momentary living comes out thick, dark & murky. False to the experiences that make it up! My writing ends up like smoky amber. My life's not like that. Nor are my dreams.

If the background is dull but needed to explain a dream, maybe I should skip the dream too. If I can't make it all alive, throw out the dead bits AND WHATEVER STICKS TO THEM. But be sure the dead stuff is dead because I don't care, not because I'm misreporting stuff I haven't really understood.

I try hard to stay close to my experience, but there's still pretense in my writing. It's that literary influence creeping in. As if the dream-I is a fictional character! I try to sneak things from the 'future' into the present, like the meaning of dreams into the dreams. Why bother? Better to admit "I have a feeling this has to do with blah blah blah, but I can't think about it yet" and write about blah blah after the dream, when I do have time. That's how I really feel in most dreams--I sense the meaning subliminally, but not intellectually. When I wake & have time to digest my adventures, the dream unfolds (if I spend time with it) like a bento, a lacquer sushi-lunchbox: nourishing treasures packed in with amazing grace and efficiency. But if I don't unfold it intellectually, it's all still in there!

You can unfold nondream events in just the same way. Is life symbolic? Sure, if you treat it that way. My old car symbolizes my (lack of) social status, yet it's also a ton of very real metal with no interest in ape hierarchies. Similarly, a dream unicorn can genuinely symbolize innocence, or anger, yet simultaneously be a real person I encounter in the dreamspace. S/he may even be another dreamer, dreaming they're a unicorn meeting a Wayan. Shamans, unlike psychologists, have always felt the people you meet while awake or dreaming are equally entitled to the assumption they're real. Dream characters and events may well be symbolic--educational--but that doesn't make them internal/unreal. What a radical assumption Western psychology made! And now takes as given.

So how shall I write about these worlds, when most readers have such radically different assumptions about them? Well, forget subtlety! Explain, digress, admit my real focus. Don't hint, or mention it coyly in passing. It's hard--Twain's technique, the dropped word that says it all, is so tempting, so effective when done well. Here's Huck Finn getting asked about a steamboat fire: "Was anyone hurt?" "No ma'm. Killed a nigger." A single phrase sums up a (well-)lost age.

Even when dream worlds don't clearly "mean" something to most readers, the mere fact they're so different is subversive: it says things CAN BE DIFFERENT from the current "self-evident" system. When your society is sure it knows all, like theocracy or business school, confusion is good. A start.

But I'm out to prove more than "this isn't the only reality." Lots of my dreams have sharp points. I like telling dreams about what I hide or deny. But to talk about things the majority denies, I may have to violate the narrative, step out of character, talk to the reader instead of slipping in information seamlessly, as most writers try to do. I have to quit playing stupid and letting vital news out as if it's trivial. "No ma'm. Killed a nigger." Readers steeped in our equivalents of racism will miss it even if I state it as plain as night! Sketch of a Victorian flower fairy, drunk on dew, by Wayan. Click to enlarge.

Why be subtle? I'm dealing with... drunks. Americans don't even remember where they've been when they wake up. If they forget waking life they call it a drug problem or mental illness. But dreamnesia's normal, now-here, just as alcoholic amnesia was in the Pickled Century (no, the 19th, not the 20th! We've forgotten. They were worse.)

Though they drank for a reason. The water crawled with cholera and typhoid, so they had to make do with gin. With sin. Sing along with me and Tom Lehrer: "They had to make dooooo with ginnnnn."

They had to make dew with gin, what an image. Those poor Victorian fairies whose responsibility it was to flit about sprinkling flowers with dew... like chimney sweeps, or cold callers. Work work work.

I bet they sampled the product.

O the snockered flowerfae
wobble to and fro.
In a cowslip's bell they lay
with strangers all aglow.
Wake ashamed and overhung
mutter "never again!"--but know
they will, they lie, they dew.
Sorry. Sozzled, frazzled.

No wonder--it's after midnight. Time to stop, for now.


I don't get writer's block; I always have material--dreams. The problem's presenting them so modern readers won't label them fiction, psychology, surrealism, or fantasy. How do I show dreams as real worlds, fascinating worlds, to readers prejudiced against them--who assume they're senseless, or mere internal fantasies--or worse. Brain static!

There are two challenges:

  1. To convey shamanic experiences, indeed an entire worldview, that the majority sees as crazy, or a lie, or irony, or a weird literary experiment--when I mean just what I say! How much to explain, how much background to give? Don't want to bog things down...
  2. Readers expect certain conventions from their writers: show don't tell, start fast and toss the reader in, don't preach, in fact don't show yourself directly... all sensible enough when evoking a known, agreed-on world; not so sensible when describing a dream. But given readers' trained impatience, how can I start fast enough or forcefully enough to hook them in? My stories have to build slowly, for they have to establish INTERNAL references and meanings and resonances--"world-building" like sf/fantasy--I'm building the world I live in, an exotic place for most. If I dive into action, it may be incomprehensible. I don't want to put crucial moments too early, while most readers are still disoriented. But the energy of the story for me is in those crucial moments, not explanations. I don't want to spoonfeed the reader and bore both of us!
I'm reading "Midnight's Children" by Salman Rushdie. He sure doesn't spoonfeed. Yet he does start with background. His narrator doesn't even get born for 50,000 words, and it's even longer before we find out he's a telepath. In American publishing, with its genre ghettoes, the book breaks the rules--jumps from family saga to fantasy. Rushdie's famous enough to get away with it--and, to be fair, because the book is boisterous fun. He's grabbed the freedom to toss any spicy item he likes into his soup. That reminds me less of "magical realism" or "fantasy" than of... Dickens? Maybe this Rushdickens model is useful. Ignore plot and focus--have faith that readers will enjoy the random spicy things floating in the soup at first, and later discover it's not a stew, it has a structure and a point. Surprise them with sanity. Why not? It's what dreams do. Terrified writer standing up to read in a cafe; sketch by Wayan.


I'm sitting at a table in the back atrium of the Owl and Monkey. Green terrarium light. Makes us look like bohemian iguanas. I'm uneasy in waves that come and go, as my turn nears. I'm going to read aloud to this writer's group, no problem. But I plan to read them dreams.

Dream narratives! The most scorned of all genres. The self-indulgent maunderings (isn't that the required word, maunderings?) of amateurs mistaking a private note from the Id for a letter to the world. Real editors toss them in the Columbus file, sans a glance. (The Columbus file? It's round, it gets lost...)

Real men don't read dreams. Now there's a bumpersnicker!

Writers U$E them, of course. "Dreams are," said my so-called writing teacher, a staunch realist, "wonderful raw material for the artist to mine. And shape." Ah. Dreams have no shape. Well, they have a shape, but it's shapeless. Their shape must be denied. It is no shape. We will unsee it.

All this sounds familiar. We're in a new bourgeois period--a new Enlightenment! Neat little geometric gardens. Neat little fictional genres. Centuries ago, those Enlightened people en route to Italy pulled the curtains tight over the coach-windows, to shut out those horrid, irregular, senseless shapes of the Alps!

The horrid, irregular, senseless shapes of dreams.

Artistic problem? What artistic problem? Like the Romantics, I'm merely facing a bunch of bourgeois bean-counting jerks.

I stand up, tall as the horrid Alps, and tell them a dream.

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