Emily Gray Tedrowe wrote a really knockout novel: Commuters. A Target Breakout Pick, An Indie Next Pick and an Entertainment Weekly "Best New Paperback," this is an assured debut about marriage, money and home, and it is also very much a book about what we yearn for and dream about--and why. I asked Emily if she'd write something for the blog, and I'm so thrilled that she did. Thank you so much, Emily.
One night earlier this year, as I was closing in on a full draft of my second novel, I dreamed that I showed the manuscript to the characters in the novel. As in most dreams, this had the sense of perfect plausibility. In the dream, I received praise and feedback from my characters with a polite but privately skeptical attitude I’m afraid I take on for real-world critiques. . . and was shocked when one character broke away to denounce the novel entirely.
Awake, I turned the dream over and over, trying to find a key to help the actual writing of my book which was in full-steam, light-at-the-end-of-the-tunnel mode. Friends and fellow writers were amused by my dream about the dissatisfied character: kill him off, they advised. Rethink giving him a weight problem. Eventually I decided that the medium was the message—I cared so deeply about these people (characters) and was so caught up in their story, that I couldn’t leave them even while unconscious. A good sign.
But I’ve often wondered before this about the relevance of dreams to my writing life. Fortunately or not, depending on how you look at it, I usually remember my dreams each night. I write them in my journal, tell them to my therapist, bore my husband with them. But what can one’s dreams mean to a writer? Aside from the fun of psychoanalyzing yourself, why pay attention? A few thoughts:
· Dreams reveal your imagination. Freud famously compared the way dreams work to the structure of poetry, with condensing, metaphor, and substitution as key elements. I like to extend this to fiction, and play with the notion of my dreams as mini-fictional engines. I think about them in terms of mood, point of view, conflict, dialogue. Writers in the flow of creating often experience their work as if it arrives without conscious effort; by eavesdropping on my dreams, I try to catch my imagination unawares and learn more about what it’s got going on.
· Give a dream to a character? So far I’ve only done it once, in a short-short story I built entirely around a favorite dream about a hungry ghost. There’s a fiction-workshop truism that for every dream you lose a hundred readers. You’re warned off at all costs, and sure, we can guess why—too-obvious reveals, banal stand-ins for character development, etc etc. But I must admit that any time a conventional-wisdom “rule” comes my way I immediately want to break it. If you’ve got the chops, it’s not your rule.
· Dreams remind you to honor what’s unexpected. I once read Ann Beattie urging writers to open up their scenes to sudden swerves; the example she gave is a scene in which a couple is arguing—what if a bird flew inside through their open window? Dreams also return us to the beauty of what startles. So even if I don’t write about that dream where my yoga teacher suddenly produces a giant foam cheese slice for the class to practice savasana underneath—true dream—it might jar my work open to the power of the unexpected, the funny, the messy ways of life.