Sleeping Through Hurricanes: Daytime Dreamscapes

When it comes to the dream life, I don’t remember anything at all. It’s never really been a part of my routine like it is for other people. When I sleep, I don’t move and I don’t wake until it’s morning. I’ve slept through hurricanes before.

I always think it would be a curse to be one of those people who always remembers what their unconscious stirs up every night. My mom used to have a recurring chase sequence in her dreams that drove her crazy for over a decade. I have a lot of friends like that too and I feel somewhat sorry for them. One of my friends seems to always dream about killing people in a really graphic fashion, which unsettles her quite a bit. When I sleep, I like having that absolute oblivion. I don’t want cracks of light and colors creeping in. Or murders and dismembered body parts, for that matter. I want to forget and I want sleep-death.

On the other hand, it could make for good storywriting. A lot of writers and artists have worked dreams directly into their style and aesthetics, and I really love when that happens. I love the effects surrealism can have, despite the fact that I wouldn’t know anything about it on this more personal level. I like how things suddenly become more figurative and how worlds have the potential to run parallel or bleed together.

In high school, we had to keep a dream journal for my creative writing class. I ended up having to make everything up simply because I could never remember my dreams. Sometimes, there were scraps or residual images, but never enough to assemble a story from. One of the stories I tried to turn into a dream was of an ancient temple (everything was grainy or sepia-toned, no colors) that I was desperately trying to navigate. It was like a labyrinth and I was completely lost, running and running until a flood eventually carried me away to the exit. Or maybe it wasn’t an exit and I actually drowned instead. That was the moment when I was supposed to wake up.

I wonder if it is possible to navigate that temple for myself again while asleep. I’ve heard of lucid dreaming and the possibility of taking control of the plot yourself, but I wouldn’t know anything about it. It seems like an art completely lost on me. I also read a study once that somehow found a positive correlation between daydreaming (thinking creatively and critically) a lot during the day and sleeping well (and dreamless) at night. So, I suppose, it broke people down into daydreamers and nightdreamers, travellers of the conscious and the unconscious.

Maybe I’m just one of those insufferable daydreamers whose waking life is enough like a dream–or navigated like a dream–that nightdreaming is seen as irrelevant or stale by comparison. Maybe the borders are too strongly sealed off and it can’t bleed through (sorry, Mr. Murakami) and my unconscious knows its place. It knows how I suddenly wouldn’t be the pilot (or the author) anymore and I’ll lose my grip quickly. But then again, most of my time seems to be spent on thinking about things like labyrinths and floods anyway.

Little Ghosts and Their Graves

Back when I was a teenager, I didn’t care very much for other teenagers. I only had a handful of people I could stand to be around and I sometimes even questioned if this time was ever well spent. I really wanted to find more people who I wouldn’t just tolerate, but could appreciate. Fortunately, online friendships were becoming more of a regular part of adolescence, with the advent of social networks like MySpace and blogging places like Livejournal. So I dove in and created my own profile on both. Mostly, I just started adding people from my school because they were adding each other anyway, and we would comment on each other’s awkward pictures and posts in our journals—whether or not we actually talked in real life. It was strange, I suppose, when you look at it in retrospect. I also noticed how some people were adding other people they didn’t even know and I started doing it too. In fact, my best friend and I even made a contest out of it at one point. I remember how I ended up with over 8,000 “friends” on MySpace because of it.

I didn’t plan on it, but some of these friends ended up staying for a while. Some of these friends ended up getting to know me more personally and more intimately in ways that people in real life couldn’t and still probably can’t. Maybe it was partially because I was a writer, and because they were learning about me exclusively through the written words I chose to put down on the screen and I liked that better. I can’t really articulate myself in real life properly anyway, or can’t find the energy to do so. I felt more authentic, I felt like I was more interesting. I’d started writing to people more regularly and I found some pen pals. I wrote letters to people across the sea and across time zones. And, of course, I still do.

Of course, on the other hand, some of them vanished completely. What can you do? The internet allows you to pull the plug at any time, it allows you to cut people out that try to force their way in. It lets you become a recluse. You can rise like the phoenix in sporadic bursts, or you can reinvent yourself completely like some other kind of mythical creature. It’s up to you. I remember a girl who would joke with me about a boy who wore only Abercrombie and Fitch and had orange skin and thought he was God’s gift to humanity. I remember a boy who was into photography and read everything I wrote. I also remember another girl who had a best friend that killed herself when she was only fifteen, and it was during this time that I knew them both online. This suicidal girl with dark hair and polka dot shirts, she wrote to me a few times. Her friend didn’t suspect anything and her family was in complete shock. She was really gone—both online and off. And even though I never knew her in real life, something was suddenly missing. Her friend wrote poems about her and I tried to console her as best as I could. Her profile turned into a memorial. These severed connections still make me sad, even though I may have been only a small part of their lives. Maybe nothing at all. Sometimes I play a pathetic game with myself where I try to remember as many of these little ghosts as I can and wonder how much they’ve forgotten.

But my longest friendships have also been like this. They started with a click and a conversation, or a mutual friend who thinks we would get along. Is this so different from real life? Isn’t this a part of it anyway? Or has it not become real enough yet? We may never meet and we might be too far away, but we share ourselves through our letters and photos and videos. I don’t think our relationship is any less real than anything else just because we can’t hug. It would be nice to spend some time together and play some video games and browse the bookstore shelves, but I also like just being able to read those who matter and share with those who decide to linger.

Why I Write – Part Infinity

I’ve written about this plenty of times before, but it’s continuous anyway. I keep coming up with more reasons to give myself. But I suppose that’s a good thing. You need that sometimes. 

Why I write:

To say something. It should be obvious, but you’re surprised by how much you have to remind yourself. You slap down words because there’s something stuck in between your ears: a character, a conversation, a concrete image of sorts. It’s the hard “k” sounds that push themselves in when you’re busy trying to listen to some other music. They cut into you like a thorn and you try to pull them out. It’s cacophony building its way up.

To pray. You don’t believe in a god anymore, but you can’t think of anything more close to the divine and the act of meditation than creating things yourself. It’s ritual, it’s demanding answers from the void. You were once a Catholic, but now you suppose you’re an artist. You wonder if people think you’re more damaged and more ashamed now, ironically, or more helpless.

To kill. You light up the bottle or pull the pin and throw it at the mustached kid’s car. Just like a fist. As the fire flickers, you remember: That one kid who wore his pants down low and asked about your sexual orientation every other day during high school. You kick the giraffe in the testes when he sees your destruction and he wilts like a pansy (you come up with this pun, just like that, and you actually say it to him on your way out).

To heal. You knock on her door and ask her to tell you about the car crash. She finally tells you about what he did, how he hit more than you suspected. How he was exciting, his car flying on the highway and the two of you without seatbelts holding you down, screaming at the night. But she was done. Rolling her eyes, she says she’s done. He was gone and gone for a while now, and she was going to be a phlebotomist. I’m not so squeamish anymore, she says, and apologizes. She’s missed you, and it’s her fault. She wrote to you first, unexpectedly, and that was why you were here. You’d been waiting.

To listen. Your mother tells you about her aunt who believed her husband came back as a cat. Your friend tells you about her first kiss on an airplane with a stranger who read Hemingway. You should be writing this down, she says, and you nod. Your professor tells you how your essay was perfect and she gasps when you tell her you won a short story contest. Everyone else tells you to become a psychologist because you know how to sit still and you remember the right things for them, in the right order. You entertain the idea, but you conclude that you’d rather write about people’s problems than actually deal with the people and the problems themselves.

The Aspiring Writer

This is a response to Melissa’s post about the case of the “aspiring” writer and the interesting discussion that ensued. Let me know what you think of it.

First off, I do agree with the point made that it devalues the authority of the writer. Especially today, when writers seem to get as little credit as possible (with books being pushed aside by movies, TV, internet, etc.), I really don’t think this is a time for modesty.

I can understand the desire to set goals and establish some parameters for the future. Calling yourself “aspiring” means you have something to work towards—it’s a word that gives young people hope. But how do you gauge these things to begin with? Until your name is in print? Until you make it a profession? Until you get a Pulitzer? How do you measure this out and why would you want to? Does it end up being as productive as you originally thought it would?

Other types of artists don’t seem to have this problem nearly as much. They draw, sculpt, photograph, perform and it doesn’t change anything. Others may see something in them that they don’t at an early age, maybe not. But they are driven to create for themselves, sometimes inexplicably. And they continue to do so.

Maybe this is a huge issue for certain people because it’s personal. Some people are afraid because they’re insecure, they’re not good enough. Some people think it’s too pretentious (“I’m a poet! And you are?!”), or it’s simply too overwhelming without that one certain adjective before it. They can’t handle the authority that I think is so, so absolutely necessary in the year 2011.

I do think, however, that there is a difference between a writer and someone who simply writes. When it comes down to it, it’s all about storytelling. There’s a difference between someone who writes to tell a story (and works at it, for years and years, whether published or just in private) and someone who is merely able to form complete sentences and place them after one another. One is an identity that you define yourself through and the other isn’t.

You don’t have to be published, have a book deal, or make money for it. And you certainly don’t even have to share the words you’ve put down. Was Emily Dickinson a writer only after she died?

I don’t call myself aspiring. I used to, because I once thought it was helpful, but now I don’t.

Setting little goals for yourself is good, but don’t sell yourself short with an adjective. Don’t ironically undermine your own plans with a romanticized, dreamy-eyed promise. You’re a writer if you need to tell a story and you’re always working at it. External validation is nice every once in a while, but you’re a writer (and not “aspiring”) once you’ve realized that it’s not your primary source of motivation. It’s not where you begin. You need it because you need it.

Growing into a Reader

This may surprise you, but I wasn’t always the most voracious reader. In fact, as a child, I didn’t really feel compelled to pick up books outside the classroom at all. I didn’t hang out at libraries, and I didn’t fall asleep late at night drooling on the pages. I read books mostly because I had to. So I can’t ultimately blame them for my current—and probably permanent—infatuation with the written word. If anything, I blame my other strange hobbies that provided the first fuel for this fire.

When I was young, I had my own vegetable garden that I tended to in the backyard. It was a small corner where I grew tomatoes, bell peppers, and string beans. My string beans were the favorite—Nana would always use them in her cooking and told everyone that they were the best. In school, when we were asked to discuss what we wanted to be when we grew up, I would tell everyone that I wanted to be a botanist. My teachers were obviously impressed that I even knew of such a word, while my classmates would raise an eyebrow. “A botanist?” they would wonder. “What on earth is that?” And then I would always have to explain to them what it was: a scientist who studied plant life.

So, you see, at that age, I never even wanted to be a writer. I didn’t see it that way at all. But, in retrospect, one thing became clear: even at that age, I was already interested in the growth and intersecting of small life in a small corner, and I always equipped with a magnifying glass to hold up to the leaves.

Although I didn’t take it very seriously back then, I sometimes liked to write stories and create my own characters. I remember how I would make books out of construction paper and give myself long, bizarre pseudonyms. The words in the books would be accompanied by my awful illustrations. The first book was made for my mom—a “get well soon” present—and it was a story about a torn-up paper bag floating to and fro around the town. It would detail this bag’s adventures on the wind and what it would see from its perspective. My mom still has it in her closet.

I grew up a little—eventually, but not that much—and, one day, I received a strange gift from one of my mom’s coworkers: a horse marionette. It had orange hair and rainbow limbs and I named him Freddy. For some reason, I was instantly fascinated by it and decided that I wanted to take up studying the very esoteric art of puppetry. I remember how my mom actually had a puppeteer perform for me at one of my birthday parties and how I absolutely loved it. Despite these weird fascinations, I’ve always had a family who consistently encouraged my creativity. I didn’t have a dad who yelled at me to be a man and play baseball—I had a dad who helped me make a stage for my plays out of a leftover refrigerator box and some window curtains. I had a mom whose other coworkers and friends managed to find me puppets from all around the world: Cuba, Puerto Rico, Spain, Slovakia, the Czech Republic. My relatives started to add new ones to my collection too, and I started to write scripts and cast the puppets as my characters. I would practice the plays and sometimes get my friends to help out too. I would put on puppet shows for my family and charge admission. And, although I was sharing my stories and using my imagination to give these dolls on strings personalities, I still wasn’t interested in books. But the spark was there and I suppose it was inevitable.

Alongside my puppet shows, I had started to play video games as well. One day, my cousins played Mortal Kombat with me and I was hooked. I asked for a Super Nintendo for my birthday and I would play games every day—but only after I finished all my homework, of course. My mom allowed me to play any game that I wanted—yes, even extremely violent games like Mortal Kombat—and I’m grateful that she did. But I grew especially obsessed with adventure games and role-playing games: the games that focused specifically on the creation of alternate worlds with memorable characters and vivid atmospheres. Eventually—and also inevitable—my puppet shows became inspired by the worlds and adventures that I saw. Reading books and writing short stories came next.

In middle school and high school, I had a few English teachers that encouraged me. It’s always nice to have the support of your family and friends, but I think this other kind of support was necessary too—coming from an educational system and a different kind of authority—in order for me to take writing more seriously. It was in high school when I started taking advanced English classes and creative writing, and when I began to read books on my own time as well. I started to love fiction itself. My teachers in high school taught more than just the fundamentals and I’m very grateful for that—they pushed me to my limit, to the point sometimes where I didn’t want to write anymore. I finally began to read much more avidly and critically. I started learning about writing as a craft, and began treating it more like an art form rather than just a hobby that would occasionally save me from boredom. It became more than just an escape. I won a few awards and prize money, and then realized that I couldn’t see myself going on to study anything other than English at a university. I got my degree and continued to write.

Although I’ve dropped all those other hobbies—my garden is gone, my puppets are gathering dust in boxes somewhere—I still love to play video games. And there is a stigma attached to gamers, you know: essentially, that we are all overgrown kids just playing with toys. And you could argue, that all these strange hobbies I grew up with—even the act of writing fiction itself—do ultimately originate from a childlike wonder about the world. But I’ve never given up on these stories since, and I don’t see why I ever have to.