Is it kosher for a blog to plug a half-dozen others? Okay then. Get yourself to the New York Review of Books web page, and inhale their fabulous series about using dreams in writing: (click here). It’s an old debate, but these writers (Tim Parks, Nicholson Baker, Georges Perec, Michael Chabon, and Charles Simic) shook me up in provocative ways.
Parks relates how his dreams proved key to understanding a mysterious illness, and he reflects that using one’s own dreams in writing feels much more natural (and effective) than trying to make them up—which almost never, he argues, reads as authentic.
Baker asserts that though the late John Leonard called the use of dreams in novels a mistake, Baker “rejected that notion ages ago. Dreams are part of the truth of life and the job of a book is to feel its way forward through a character’s days and nights.” Baker goes on to describe, in heart-slicing detail, some of the dreams that have haunted him, and his efforts to “rewrite” the scarier ones the moment he wakes.
Perec recounts an early epiphany when he “realized that … I began having dreams only in order to write them.” He then lists a series of deeply disturbing dreams, all glowing toxically with that terrible, punishing internal logic we can never understand.
Chabon comes out punching in “Why I Hate Dreams,” despising them, he claims, “for their absurdities and deferrals, their endlessly broken promise to amount to something.” Chabon hates dreams for “the way they ransack memory, jumbling treasure and trash,” and for their tedium. What’s more: “Pretty much the only thing I hate more than my own dreams are yours.”
Delicious! Perhaps not so entertaining are the posted comments that follow, most carrying on the debate: do dreams matter? Whose? Why?
Simic confesses that he slept so hard as a young man he rarely remembered his dreams, and had trouble taking others’ dreams seriously. So it confounded him, as a poet, when he “was told repeatedly that his poems gave the impression of having been lifted directly from dreams.””
I still can’t help feeling, after that rich excursion, that one may use a dream in one’s work only if and when it happens to fit—by which I think I mean that it addresses an implicit question in the work to hand—but always very carefully, and sparingly as gold leaf.
Joan Frank is the author of five books of fiction, and a recent essay collection called Because You Have To: A Writing Life, just nominated for the ForeWord Reviews Book of the Year Award in Nonfiction. Joan holds an MFA in creative fiction from Warren Wilson College, is a MacDowell Colony Fellow, Pushcart Prize nominee, winner of the ForeWord Reviews Book of the Year Award in Short Fiction, Richard Sullivan Prize, Dana Award, and is the recipient of grants from the Barbara Deming Memorial Fund, Ludwig Vogelstein Foundation, and Sonoma Arts Council. A two-time nominee for the Northern California Book Award in Fiction and San Francisco Library Literary Laureate, Joan has taught creative writing at San Francisco State University, and continues to teach and edit in private consultation. Joan also regularly reviews literary fiction for the San Francisco Chronicle Book Review. She lives in Northern California.