The first book on writing that actually made sense to me was Three Steps on the Ladder of Writing by Hélène Cixous. I had always very much associated my night dreams with my poems. If I had writer’s block, the surest way out was to dream, to write down my dreams, and sometimes my dreams merged into my poems. In the book by Cixous, one of the steps on the ladder takes us to ‘the school of dreams,’ and this is where I wanted to learn about writing, where it seemed most real to learn about the mystery that is at the core of any great piece of art.
But as Cixous says, “There are few dreams in books. It’s as if they have a bad reputation.” This wasn’t always the case, she says noting examples – the bible, Shakespeare, epic poems. To ignore our dreams is to ignore the power that they have to fuel our creative spirits
It seems to me that this is the ideal way to write poetry, to write in that dream state, before the reality of things touches one. Leslie Marmon Silko says, “in order to be a writer you cannot jar the body or move it around. The closer you can be to the dream state, to waking up, the better, and nightgowns are good. Actually no clothes at all are, but I try loose-fitting clothes.” Of course, the world in general does not favor those who excel at dreaming, whose truest calling is to dream. We are frowned down upon if we are not in proper clothes at a proper hour. Even if we are allowed some time to look out windows at snow falling down, or stare dreamily into space while gripping a fountain pen, the poet who walks around in a nightgown all day would surely be suspect. And so, we too will concede, and wear loose clothes.
A person could perhaps make a study of the dreaming and napping habits of writers. From Virginia Woolf's diary: “To lie on the sofa for a week. I am sitting up today in the usual state of unequal animation. Below normal, with spasmodic desire to write, then to doze.” Isn't this such a lovely image – to imagine oneself adrift on a sofa for an entire week....notebooks and favorite books at hand. A complex and rigorous schedule of writing, then dozing. This is where the real work happens, in that in-between state, when it looks like nothing whatever is being accomplished.
It seems to me that dream power is useful, not just for those attempting to channel the special imagery one finds in one’s sleeping hours but also as a way to dispel doubt, and as the purest evidence of our creativity. Which is what Emerson said long before I thought it:
“Doubt not, O poet, but persist. Say, ‘It is in me, and shall out.’ Stand there, baulked and dumb, stuttering and stammering, hissed and hooted, stand and strive, until, at last, rage draw out of thee that dream-power which every night shows thee is thine own; a power transcending all limit and privacy, and by virtue of which a man is the conductor of the whole river of electricity.”
This is it, really, isn’t it? As poets, writers, photographers, artists, we create in doubt, learn to create into and through and even by doubt. How to write in doubt? Persist. Fueled by dream-power.
I used to think that the further I got in this writing life that ‘things’ would become easier. No. I thought by now I would be brimming with confidence over my writing, that I’d no longer feel nervous, and filled with doubt.
There is the work. I say this to myself and I keep repeating it to myself, forgetting it, and remembering it again. The work is really and truly what matters. But it’s when I dream that I best remember, “It is in me and shall out.”
And though I might have expected some things from a life lived in service to writing, to what is poetic, that it would have brought me more certainty, neither did I realize how thick my dream forest would become. For we experience dreams, just as we experience anything else. We remember them, they recur, we revisit them, collect them, journal them, and are very often haunted by them, or accompanied by certain dreams. When we are attuned to the way we dream, then maybe we will also have a deeper understanding of the way our own creativity unfolds.
In her book, Break the Glass, the American poet Jean Valentine writes:
If a person visits someone in a dream,
in some cultures the dreamer thanks them in the morning
for visiting their dream.
And there is that urge, isn’t there, to contact someone who shows up in a night dream, and ask them how they are, to ask them why they were in your dream, or if they had dreamed also of you at the same time. Especially depending on the situation of the dream. If you can even remember that situation.
There’s a friend I’ve more or less lost touch with, who once in a while shows up in my dreams. It’s never anything dramatic, he just shows up as a presence, maybe a guardian angel type of feeling. I don’t call him up but I do sort of say a thank you into the universe. When a dream shows up in one of my poems, acknowledged as such or not, I whisper my thank you into the universe.
“I would like to be able to take a photo of a dream,” says Hélène Cixous. And maybe this is a way of saying, it’s impossible to write a dream, a real dream, and that we can only hope to convey what was felt via disconnected images. When we attempt to tell someone what we dreamed last night, or even to write it in a dream journal, as soon as we say, “I” the dream slips away from us. In her essay titled, “Strangeness,” Lyn Heijinian talks about this problem. She says, ““I,” the dreamer, is not of necessity identical to the “I” of waking life.” Although this is something everyone knows, I remember first reading it, and thinking, wow, yes. There are similarities between the dreaming self, and the waking self, but there are times when the differences are quite pronounced.
Heijinian goes on to compare the process of dreaming to that of writing. And those of us who write know the difficulty in explaining the speaker of the poem is not always exactly the same as poet but sometimes they align perfectly.
I think that the writers I’m most drawn to are also the greatest dreamers. Anyone who knows me, knows of my constant relationship with the work (in translation) of Clarice Lispector, in particular The Stream of Life/Agua Viva. When I first came upon this book, I felt as though I had met myself in a dream. Maybe this is what compels a person to write at times – this meeting of the other, which is like the beginning of a conversation. One feels the urge to write back, however obliquely. The impulse comes out of the same place as one hopes that the person we have dreamed of one night has also dreamed of us.
I would copy lines from the book into my diary from the first (of several) copies I would buy – the copy that is most dog-eared and extensively underlined. She writes, “I don’t want to have the terrible limitation of the person who lives only by what can be made to make sense.” And later, she says, “And I work while I’m asleep: because it’s then that I move in the mystery.”
Whenever I have felt most like giving up on writing which might be simultaneous with life being predominant over dream, with the impossibility of mystery, and when everything has made too much sense, I’ve turned to this book, The Stream of Life, and it has always given me permission to continue.