This is part one of three of Pip Smith’s digital essay How To Dream On The Page, written in response to Declan Greene’s LA, Pompeii, which recently finished its run at Malthouse Theatre. Part two and part three will be published over the next two days in time for some energetic, thought-provoking holiday reading. Happy reading!
How To Dream On The Page
Part 1: In Defense of Dreams
“I’ve always used dreams the way you’d use mirrors to look at something you couldn’t see head-on, the way that you use a mirror to look at your hair in the back.” – Stephen King
“There’s a reason we find it insufferably boring when people recount their dreams. They’re only meaningful to the dreamer… in championing the subversive powers of subjective writing, are we mutating the first cells of a dreadful, solipsistic cancer invading our literary journals and non-fiction lists?” – Mel Campbell
After finding out that the Twilight series was written because its author, Stephanie Meyer, dreamed of a girl and her vampire lover having an intense D & M in a field, I’m not convinced Mel Campbell can so easily speak for all of us when she writes that “we” find other people’s dreams insufferably boring. True, I find the Twilight concept insufferably boring, but millions of teenage (and not so teenage) girls worldwide feel differently.
If it weren’t for the urge to recount dreams, we wouldn’t have the art of Henri Rousseau, the poetry of Coleridge and Lord Byron, or the films of David Lynch. We would never have read Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, Frankenstein, or Jonathan Livingston Seagull. Freud would never have written The Interpretation of Dreams, and millions of people would have been spared hours of psychoanalysis.
Dreams – to many of us – are fascinating. Their mysteries, their unusual narrative logic, their sometimes bizarre gaudiness, the way they can infect the following day like a virus, scrambling thoughts and action. It’s the recounted dreams that I remember most clearly after reading patches of The Interpretation of Dreams  and it’s works of art, theatre, literature and film which incite a state of dreaming in me that I find most rewarding. Rewarding, because when I dream, I am active. I am both creator and audience. I’m not passively being told a story, I am, of course, 100% implicated.
While Twilight, Frankenstein, Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde and Jonathan Livingston Seagull are examples of stories inspired by dreams, David Lynch’s Lost Highway and Mulholland Drive – much like Declan Greene’s latest play Pompeii, L.A. – could be seen as works which invoke a state of dreaming in their audience. This is how I would like to be able to write: by leaving room for the reader or audience member to feel as though they are hallucinating the work with me. As David Roche writes in his essay The Death of the Subject in David Lynch’s Lost Highway and Mulholland Drive:
“if Blue Velvet and Twin Peaks are held together by a genre, and more importantly by the character-detective’s desire to solve the mystery, Lost Highway and Mulholland Drive are mysteries, not because of their genre, but as films, and are held together by the spectator-detective’s desire to make sense of them.”
In our dreams, the interplay between image and narrative, and our role as both creator and observer will possibly be forever mysterious to us. It is the un-resolvable (but almost-resolvable) mystery that keeps many of us intoxicated by the state of dreaming that we can either experience in our own sleep, or by engaging in the products of the imaginations of others. It’s what’s missing between the fragments that keeps us dream junkies coming back: the feeling of being inside a good David Lynch movie. As David Roche writes in the same essay:
“It isn’t tricking for the sake of tricking… but a belief or faith in the imagination: subjectivity prevails over objectivity as narration prevails over diegesis. Of course, David Lynch is only reinforcing the very essence of his idea of what a film is: a subjective thing which, as he remarks, “won’t tell the whole story””
Whatever narrative we draw from a dream often only comes together as we tell someone else about it, and even then we inevitably change the narrative, as we forget moments, and replace others with those more easily relatable. After attending the recent NonfictioNow conference in Melbourne, it seems that the dream-recounter’s experience of slipping around “what actually happened” mirrors that of many non-fiction writers. Lived experience turned to memory becomes a kind of dream – it isn’t until the writer has to sit down and put finger to keyboard that the ‘facts’ start swimming around like so many slippery fish. What order should the story be told in? What moments do I include, what do I exclude? Did everything actually happen like that? When do I let the reader in to join the dots themselves?
Think for too long about how intrinsically subjective all forms of writing are, and you do indeed start to lose yourself down the rabbit hole of solipsism. Writing fast becomes about little more than the telling; about the combination of images and words that a particular author has chosen to cobble together. Writers are no longer authorities on anything other than the way they themselves perceive a topic. Such a realization can invoke a mild hum of terror in a person. I, for one, am narcissistic enough. I need writing as an excuse to quest out of my own bubble.
Just because writers are becoming increasingly aware of the impression they leave on the stories they tell does not mean that writing will die of the solipsistic cancer Mel Campbell refers to. As she points out later on in her essay, there are still authors of non-fiction who write both with self-awareness, and an outward focus. Like people who only ever talk about themselves without stopping to ask any questions, writing that is so solipsistic it topples into narcissism will naturally be ostracized for being boring.
But it’s the parallel Campbell made between dreams and solipsistic writing that I would like to refute. Even though they are created and experienced internally, dreams cannot help but be plugged into the outside world. Freud’s quoting of F. W. Hildebrandt (who wrote in 1875!), still feels electrically relevant here – both as a defense against those who dismiss dreams as having no relevance in the work of realist narrative art, and those who might dismiss a dream as being cripplingly inwardly-focused:
“Whatever the dream may offer us, it derives its material from reality, and from the psychic life centred upon this reality. However extraordinary the dream may seem, it can never detach itself from the real world, and its most sublime as well as its most ridiculous constructions must always borrow their elementary material… from that which our eyes have beheld in the outer world…”
Those of us who find dreams fascinating (both our own, and those of others) are perhaps addicted to the slippage between an image stolen from the outside world, and how it emotionally resonates with us. We are addicted to mystery; to living in a state of uncertainty. We are fascinated by the tension between our own very human need to make sense of things, and the wild chaos of the world around us. We thrive off the new ways of seeing the world that our dreams can offer us. Hopefully, those new perspectives will inform the art we make, which will in turn go back into the world and resonate with other people’s experiences that they might not be able to articulate on their own. As the Stephen King quote at the top of this essay suggests, dreams can often help us feel our way towards things we can’t face head-on.
 Take, for instance, “[Delboeuf] saw in his dream the courtyard of his house covered with snow, and found there two little lizards, half-frozen and buried in snow. Being a lover of animals he picked them up, warmed them, and put them back into the hole in the wall which was reserved especially for them. He also gave them a few fronds of a little fern which was growing on the wall, and of which he knew they were very fond. In the dream he knew the name of the plant: Asplenium ruta muralis. The dream continued returning after a digression to the lizards, and to his astonishment Delboeuf saw two other little lizards falling upon what was left of the ferns. On turning his eyes to the open fields he saw a fifth and a sixth lizard making for the hole in the wall, and finally the whole road was covered by a procession of lizards, all wandering in the same direction. In his waking state Delboeuf knew only a few Latin names of plants, and nothing of any Asplenium. To his great surprise he discovered that a fern of this name did actually exist, and that the correct name was Asplenium ruta muraria, which the dream had slightly distorted. An accidental coincidence was of course inconceivable; yet where he got his knowledge of the name Asplenium in the dream remained a mystery to him.”
Pip Smith is the founder of the monthly night of new writing, Penguin Plays Rough, for which she compiled and edited the anthology, This is the Penguin Plays Rough Book of Short Stories, as a book and enhanced eBook. She was one of the 2012 co-directors of the National Young Writers’ Festival, is currently the resident summer poet for the Lifted Brow and is completing a Doctorate in Creative Arts at the University of Western Sydney.