How to Write Through Dreams
Luke Carman on Harnessing the Surreal
The following essay appears in the new issue of The Lifted Brow.
“To try and read strange writing, signifies that you will escape enemies only by making no new speculation after this dream.”
–Gustavus Hindman Miller
This is how one becomes, through dreams, the perfect autodidactic. The dream itself might not be much chop, but then, my fiction is so short that I can dine out on even the briefest, vaguest visions for an entire book. It might not be a particularly interesting dream either—but then, the audience for Australian short fiction is so slim that getting to know the desires of readers is, for me at any rate, something of a waste of time. Besides, what kind of writer concerns themselves with what the reader wants? Not a very interesting one. For interesting writers, the relationship between reader and writer is pure sub and dom. The writer commands, the reader obeys. William S. Burroughs once said that teaching “writing” was like “trying to teach someone how to dream.” I suspect he had it right in a sense: if you cannot dream, in one form or another, then don’t bother writing at all. Perhaps those with pretensions of teaching fiction to the young and the restless should be more concerned with the ethereal realms than they seem to be at present. Politics and imagination are overlapping magisteria—the two realms need not be addressed in the absence of the other—but it appears to me that the literature most in production in this troubled country is a little too beholden to its own seriousness, and far too down to earth. The rabid effacement that commercialization demands of our higher education institutions is one exterminator—a “community arts” culture which seeks to trade on the commodification of every aspect of the “writer life” and reduces literature to an economy of gossip is another. But there is plenty of blame to go around.
For interesting writers, the relationship between reader and writer is pure sub and dom. The writer commands, the reader obeys.
In the introduction to Cultural Amnesia—a collection derided for its self-indulgences and its many ego-maniacal liberties—Clive James, that shamefully unabashed Australian polymath, writes:
We could, if we wished, do without remembering, and gain all the advantages of travelling light; but a deep instinct, not very different from love, reminds us that efficiency would be bought at the cost of emptiness. Finally the reason we go on thinking is because of a feeling. We have to keep that feeling pure if we can, and, if we ever lose it, try to get it back.
These words are with me almost every day. There is an air of dreamlessness—a thick, thoughtless sleep—in the atmosphere, as if our collective meetings with the unconscious have become flattened out into a cinema aperture cliché. They have been usurped from us by benign, unfeeling hands. I don’t know what is worth remembering, but I know the electric feeling that is too often missing from the world when it is written on the page. The pure light comes in from here and there, like a secret whispered between friends. It is there in the feverish marginalia and the wet monomania of Kate Middleton’s Ephemeral Waters, in the plangent logorrhoea of PiO’s Fitzroy, in the ectoplasmic cine-poetry meditations of Miro Bilbrough’s Being Venice, in Holly Isemonger’s necro-sexual political prose psalms, in the distended alt-text ouroboria of Oliver Mol’s Lion Attack, and in every line of the tectonic linguistic ecologies that make up Alexis Wright’s mesmerizing novels. Through the dreamers in our midst, the histories and memories of the 21st century rise over the dim horizon like the smoke of spectral djinn, looming entities without organs and boundaries—new and ever queerer visions for tomorrow’s children to follow, and forget.
“To dream that you are writing, foretells that you will make a mistake which will almost prove your undoing.”
–Gustavus Hindman Miller
Dr. Maria Angel was the woman who taught me everything the neophyte writer need know about their subject, and she did so almost entirely through the prism of dreaming. Under her watch, my classmates and I—all wannabe-writers smuggled into higher learning by the University of Western Sydney’s special program for unexceptional students—began our journey into the murk of fiction-making by allowing dreams to dominate our waking life. Our dreams became a means of unravelling and restructuring consciousness: we were told to treat them like works of fiction—experiments in style and voice—to see in the ordinary madness of our evening’s fevers all the details of the daylight world transposed, disguised, deformed and renewed. We were taught that dreams can be revised and rewritten even as they occur, and that whatever enigmatic apparatus of the unconscious governs the generation of dream-images can be an organ easily flattered—it blooms and spreads into a wild expanse of colors, scents and feelings under the faintest attention. Particular cheeses and certain spices can help enhance the length and lucidity of dreams, and make them more malleable. Drugs too, of course, though these, along with the more mundane enhancements like nicotine patches worn to bed, were not recommended by Dr. Angel. Alarm clocks set for midnight catch an unwary unconscious off-guard—a notebook and pen by the bedside are essential for documenting involuntary invocations before the blinding forgetfulness of morning.
Patient with our stubborn stupidities and our lack of culture, Dr. Angel (compulsively scratching at her head as she lectured) gave literary supplement to the creative dream praxis with unit readers stacked to bursting with Baudelaire, Benjamin, Freud, and Stein—incomprehensible reading for students who had until this point in their lives barely broken the spine of a book. No easy task to explain Helene Cixous’s Dream I Tell You to barely literate girls and boys with the empty hills of Werrington and the long blue skies stretching out for miles outside the cramped classroom’s windows. Cixous said to us, “What a delight to head off with high hopes to night’s court, without any knowledge of what may happen! Where shall I be taken tonight! Into which country? Into which country of countries?” What did it mean to write of the subtle pleasures of night’s court in the form of a long love letter to another famous Frenchie, when the unfiltered fullness of an Australian afternoon sun pushed the campus air-conditioners into a weaponized drone? Looking back at Dream I Tell You from the hindsight of another time, is it any wonder a young student might baulk at such unwavering, unapologetic self-indulgence? Who would celebrate Cixous if her writing were to emerge here and now? Isolated poets and poetry readers might still go for that sort of luxuriousness, but who else in today’s climate would stand for such navel-gazing? The level of enthusiasm with which Cixous writes would rule her out of most discussions in this ever tightening atmosphere of neo-liberal pragmatism, and the all-powerful face of the online consensus-lords would likely find her frivolities an apolitical nonsense, though they’d hardly admit that to themselves. Dr. Angel, a survivor from an epoch less intellectually demoralized, persisted with us despite our cynicism and the cold indifference accumulating in our institutional surroundings, though she was often flushed red with the frustration of being at the outer limits of what could be explained at all. To us, majors in a subject the university was already making moves to abandon, the readings were obtuse. But then, the seriousness of being dreamy did hold a high appeal for the flighty, flaky sorts who typically make up creative writing courses. Like Baudelaire, my dream-soaked undergraduate peers and I all had our heads in the clouds, searching absent-mindedly for the miracles of a perfect imagining—one in which the ever-changing web of consciousness that writing weaves into existence might reveal itself uniquely—caught with our own names on the covers.
At first I was reluctant to follow Dr. Angel’s command to begin recording dreams—they’d always been trouble for me, and for my lapsed-Catholic family. The whole lot of us had prophetic “visions,” cursed with the satanic habit of prophesying as we tossed and turned. From an early age, Mum and I would, over tea and Weet-Bix, look through a large book entitled 1001 Dreams Interpreted and indulge in the diabolical ritual of its occult analysis. On the cover of the book, which I still have here on the shelf—tranquilized by the weight of a children’s Bible—is a crystal ball with images of random nouns (a tiger, a clip-art mouth, the Great Pyramid of Giza) adrift in the dark ether contained by the fortune-teller’s globe. “To dream of sharks,” the book warns, “portends familial discord” whereas “to see someone riding a bicycle” speaks of “a desire to achieve greater balance in one’s domestic and professional spheres.” It is an odd book and a blunt but useful tool, working the way fortune cards do, pricking out the threads of a narrative upon which the customer might lay their intuitions and imaginings. Ours was the behavior of another century: the days before cable news came to town and the internet made most information instant, my mother was often fretful that the lost child she’d seen crying in her dream might be hidden in a backstreet nearby, still waiting for rescue, or that the murdered woman’s body she’d spied drifting bloated down the green waters of the Georges River would go too long unnoticed to bring justice to the killer. Occasionally there was evidence that she had glimpsed an actual reality—for want of a better phrase. None of us doubted this mystical gift or the hauntings we suffered weekly in our home. Sometimes these visitations turned violent—disruptive—and talismans (a ceramic evil eye, a gnostic gemstone) were placed about the house to keep the spirits continent. My brother had the most mundane prophetic visions imaginable, occasionally glimpsing in advance the serial numbers and barcodes on shipping deliveries at the frozen goods warehouse he worked for: a truly useless Nostradamus. For myself, dreams were an exhausting kind of allergy that made daylight hours a solid, effervescent bramble of thorny irritation. I wandered around, tired of sleeping, in an abstracted daze, head full of the dramas of night. Perhaps for this reason, and for the odd way I stared into a blank void when we sat at the dinner table, my mother took me to see a psychiatrist in Liverpool. His name, as I recall it slotted on his office door, was Dr. Redoyavitch. He had a short cropped, reddish beard—not unlike my stepfather’s—and a wicker basket beside his desk. There were action figures stacked inside: a little Yoda, a vascular He-Man, assorted professional wrestlers in their brightly colored tights. From the games I made of these idols and totems, Rodoyavitch diagnosed me as a troubled child. I told him about my recurrent night-terrors too: sometimes an enormous eye with a golden iris crashes in through the bedroom window, at others a malignant shade burning like a black candle takes over my body. Under the influence of such recurring themes I’d lose control, could not breathe, sweat in the sheets until I was too slippery for sleep. The doctor made notes about all this, then later dumped me as a patient and took in my mother—about whom he wrote a doctoral thesis.
My brother had the most mundane prophetic visions imaginable, occasionally glimpsing in advance the serial numbers and barcodes on shipping deliveries at the frozen goods warehouse he worked for: a truly useless Nostradamus.
Suspecting no good could come from the revival of those belligerent dreams—long since annihilated by puberty and all its excesses—I nevertheless did as Dr. Angel instructed. With the high-tide of post-structuralism ebbing away from the universities and all giving way to unadulterated commercialism, these lessons in dreaming staked us to something solid: Dr. Angel grounded us in the deep and fecund world of imagination. My impoverished, unlettered head was suddenly, thanks to her reprogramming, a nightly avalanche of alternate ontologies—worlds within worlds all as intricate and complex as the material reality they took as their inspirations. They became the high point of existence. As Cixous points out, the meridians of emotion in everyday life are mere footnotes to the fullest range of feeling in the dream states, with their mind-bending terrors and ecstasies. There—in the revisions of the dream-breath—peoples, languages, voices, faces, cities, circumstances, gods and intimacies, all seemingly unthinkable to any conscious labour, surge with all the ferocity of the life’s infinite wellspring. All universes conceivable to the human mind pass before the gaze without eyes. What this excess presented to us as young writers was an inexhaustibly royal road to forging fictions in the real world. Nothing else is necessary; the realer materials of life become a redundant source of inspiration in the light of dream’s infinitudes. Lest this read like hyperbole—I will prove it through experiment.
“To see writing, denotes that you will be upbraided for your careless conduct and a lawsuit may cause you embarrassment.”
–Gustavus Hindman Miller
Presently, I gather up the novel closest at hand, Gerald Murnane’s History of Books, and proceed to the couch. It is mid-afternoon and my neighbor is imitating a dog—his barking is distinct through the cramped walls of our house on the hill. On the couch now, observing that the white curtain on our front door lends a funereal glow to my mother, who is asleep on a chair between the framing of my feet on the armrest. Nothing is moving now but spores of dust drifting around us both like luminous satellites in the odd tableau of the living room. It is hot, and the neighbor continues to improve on his dog impressions. Only thirty pages into A History of Books and I put it down, open on my chest like a broken fan. The strange image of Murnane’s paragraph about a paragraph—narrators without names, without faces, recurring clauses—repeat in a numbing choral murmur as the book slides down my chest and into throat: already I’m at the gates of sleep. The book presses awkwardly into flesh, and with arms at my side, I think of something which carries consciousness away. Here it comes: climbing up to the summit of a cliff somewhere on a cool spring afternoon. A hand-hold of weed growing from a crack in a smooth rock near a lighthouse on the coast helps to make the final steps upward; reveals the coastal vista. Being there with family—brother, wife, one of my fathers—putting our different hands up on the steel fence to look out over the view. The long, trembling, ink-blue water to the east of the country stretching into a cuticle-white horizon—wondering if there is something to that strained feeling of anticipation when looking down the cliff at sea against the outcrops rimmed round the shore. Waves in collision recede to foam. The strangely alien beach bush and its dry shrubs bristle at our feet in the altitude’s breeze. The lighthouse is a sandstone ruin, the great grey bricks are piled at the round base like spilt entrails and the hollow remains are fenced to keep the tourists from climbing through the cracks. A wooden signpost complete with pictures of ghostly families, centuries dead, tells us the lighthouse was built incorrectly without consulting the maritime authorities, its misleading light leading ships to wreck on the jagged coastline. The keeper’s son fell from the cliff in 1896. A daughter accidentally shot. Another’s throat was slit from “ear to ear.” I pretend I am looking for a whale, away from my family, not mesmerized by history, sea or sky but by expectation—an almost imperceptible sense of disappointment, as if the constant ebb and rush of the waves is always holding back its drowned and swallowed secrets. A long way out, the surface breaks with froth, and a blink of finned black immensity rolls above water. The sight of that salted mammalian hide reminds me of a dream I had before my wedding night: alone in a boat on a green-grey evening, lopping over rolling waters with the clank of oars in their sockets and my body slick with sea spray and sweat. From underneath came the surge of a colossal black whale, its enormous head rising beside me like a sudden tidal eclipse—the open maw lined with waxen teeth and a tongueless throat leading into its cavernous pink gut began to suck in the seas—all while the sound of a gargantuan gurgling rang until the vision ended with awaking.
Later, talking with a friend on the green of Sydney Uni’s campus with the midday sun on our pale skin like hot grease, she told me that whales signified feminine destructive energy. Back at the lighthouse now, the real whale does not resurface. I can’t be sure it was ever there. The neighbor has ceased his barking. I can hear him knocking now—a hammer against the wall. That man is always doing something. Talking to his son now, between swings, then his wife. What is he saying? Car-boots are being slammed outside in the street. It must be time for church. My eyes are tired and my mother has left the frame. I am awake again, and the dream is remembered.
Feature image: detail from Joan Miró’s Harlequin’s Carnival (1924-25).