Jan 152011

by M.V. Montgomery


The shape of dreams

That old self of mine who used to hole up in the library stacks to study for ten hours straight, that student who read more books than Wilt Chamberlain had mistresses—he’s been absent in the flesh, now, for many years.  I sometimes wonder if any of those books he once made it his business to know, which used to appear on everyone’s BA and MA English major’s lists, help now to shape my dreams.

It must be acknowledged that those classic novels and collections were usually more mannered than plotty, more character than concept-driven.  So my dreams, which partake of pulp fiction characters, supernatural elements, and Gothic romance twists, just like anyone else’s, at first glance seem to have more to do with the comic books I read when I was cheating on my literary diet, or with the thousands of hours of TV and sports I would rely upon to leaven my entertainment.

Yet it is equally true that even the most fantastic dreams can come across sounding quite boring to others; as nothing special.  To purify the raw ore, to produce poems and stories that will stand on their own right, it is not surprising when flying above the trees or a dog with two heads places second to conflict or dramatic irony.  Or so it goes for me.

So while my brain was picking up, like a magpie, bright odds and props in the usual places, perhaps what I was doing in that library was disciplining my mind, training it to think in terms of dramatic structure, alternate universes of association and allusion, and layers of subplot and subtext: developing what Northrup Frye called an “educated imagination.”

This might be the lasting benefit of majoring in such an impractical and impoverished field as the humanities in the first place.  The more we read, the more we give shape to our dreams.


“Our little life is rounded with sleep”—-Shakespeare

There are many stages of dreams and wakefulness.  When you are startled awake in the middle of the night, you might still be mired in the primordial ooze, with your dreams just a swarm of images that may or may not strike you or anyone else as full of portent.  But they make good source material for poetry or art.

When you are on verge of waking, your dreams become more lucid.  For me, the dreams that rise up out of the ooze can morph several times over until they reach the lucid stage, piling up new situations and props and dramatis personae along the way.  When I write down the dreams in the lucid stage, I always find myself starting to consciously tinker here and there and ending up with (usually funny) flash fiction.

Of course there is a percentage-wakefulness after you get out of bed, too, with layers of consciousness reaching all the way up to enlightenment.  But Shakespeare was right—dreams are what round your life off and are at the core of a person.  To dream is to grow, to self-heal, and to be.


Own it all

Recently, an editor of a journal asked me what advice I would give to a writer who was just starting off.

For me, the best advice is simply to own it all.  Don’t think of yourself in the Western way, as the ghost in the machine, directing all conscious activity from the control center of the brain on down.  Think of yourself in the Eastern way, the way of the Vedas and the Upanishads, as the autonomic self turned on all the time, while asleep and unconscious, while asleep and dreaming lucidly, or even when fully awake and sending out its daytime avatar—that commuting, clock-punching, social-networking outer shell.  It simply makes better logical sense that way—people don’t stop being themselves for eight hours a night.

Provided the ghost allows one to sleep for even that long.  I remember hearing Christopher Hitchens, a very rational soul, stating in an interview that he didn’t much like sleeping because he felt that to lose consciousness was somehow to relinquish control.  To some extent, I used to feel that way, too, though I was probably accused equally often of being a “dreamer” and letting my mind wander while I was expected to be fully alert.

It’s not such a bad thing to let the mind wander, of course, if we may circle back now to the topic of writing.  If you are overly invested in your daytime avatar, or trying to go about the business of writing in a practical, self-help way, you are probably going to get your wires crossed.  Instead, learn to listen: take dictation straight from your dreams, practice writing unconsciously, and understand that everything you once thought the essential you was only an ego-shell, an avatar.  Then pick up a pen and try rebuilding yourself from the ground up.  I dare you.


Familiar and unfamiliar places

There is sort of a reverse statute of limitations when it comes to dreaming for me.  I had dreams of childhood when I was a college student, dreams of the Minneapolis lakes after I had moved to the desert Southwest, and dreams of Tucson after I moved to Georgia.  The templates for all these places became more firmly fixed in my unconscious mind a few years or sometimes several years after the fact, perhaps for quite different reasons.

It could be that I am trying wistfully to escape backwards, not so much into the past as into the calmer inner recesses of my mind.  It could be that the brain’s synapses and scripts require periodic reinvestment and replacement: because the outward stimulation has been removed, the mental model of the place is in danger of hazing into a cloud, and so through dreams, the brain hits an inward refresh button.  Or it could be that time and distance have simply squeezed the place down into a more usable template for dreams in the first place.  When you are still living in a place, or new to a place, it’s too big to encompass.  You can dream a house, or perhaps a street, but the whole topography is not likely to show up through the reverse angle of the telescope.

That is why familiar places seem smaller to us as we grow older, because they have been resized to fit our conceptualizations several times over.  With the perspective of several years, they often fit neatly onto a zip file, which can be seized by the unconscious mind when it is dreaming and needs a template.

But it occurs to me that the same holds true for “storage files” for people and events and even ideas.  It takes time to encompass and to understand, to be able to adapt these as dramatis personae, plots and subplots, or themes.

Perhaps it takes less time for the prodigious intellect or the empath, the loner or agoraphobe whose interactions with others are caricaturized in the first place, or for the artistic prodigy who sees the world through a lens.

The rest of us have to wait until late middle age when memories simplify of their own accord, our relationships with others have fallen into neat grooves, or the worlds of our experience become as worn and creased as maps in a glove compartment.