Dispatches, thoughts, and miscellanea from writer Jon Konrath

dreams and writing

(Sickness update: I’m back at work, but I’m not eating yet. I don’t know how long I can survive on applesauce; I really wish I could go to Burger King and order a bacon double cheeseburger, but I don’t think that would help things.)

I’ve been thinking a lot about dreams lately, in the context of writing. I think the ultimate nonlinear novel would flow like a dream, and I’m not talking cliches here. I mean the entire story would unfold in the same random, surreal fashion. It would be an easier project with film, because you wouldn’t have to explain all of the visual anomalies. One of my favorite films is, of course, Naked Lunch, and it uses many of the Burroughsian structure elements and changes which could also be attributed to dreams. The movie has little to do with the book, but it was the only way they could pull it off.

So what are the elements of dreams that would have to be captured? I could write about all of the stereotypical dreams, like falling from a height, being naked in public, finding out on the last day of the semester that you were registered for a class you didn’t know about, etc. I think if I did that, the story would resemble one of those “we’re making fun of horror movies even though we’re a horror movie” movies, like Scream, Urban Legend, or whatever.

The first thing about dreams is that they are incredibly nonlinear. It’s normal for me to wake up after a dream, remember two pieces of it, but not remember which one was first in the dream. Then, other pieces filter in, some fitting in the order of the story, and others confusing it further. But how the hell do you do this on paper? One solution would be to NOT do this on paper, and work on some hypertext project. My personal bias about this is that it’s not possible to achieve suspension of disbelief while sitting in front of a CRT. Plus hypertext is more of a choose-your-own-adventure experience, which isn’t non-linear, it’s sort of multi-linear. Maybe someone will do further research on this and make a hypertext novel that captures the nonlinear feel of dreams.

I don’t know how this would work with just regular HTML though. I think dreams may be a phenomenon other than natural thought, like something with a more chemical basis or using parts of the brain we don’t use when reading a book or shopping for groceries. When you remember three or four parts of a dream but don’t remember the order, or each part makes you remember more parts, it’s like when you try to remember something that happened ten years ago – the parts are all in your mind, but with varying quality, and they don’t “come back” in order. When you read a book, you start at page 1 and read until the end (unless you skip around) and the story is placed in your brain in a linear fashion, even if it is nonlinear. If you think of the book later, and the various pieces of the book are not as clear in your mind, the plot might appear to be more dreamlike. I re-read The Grapes of Wrath about five years ago, and I don’t remember many of the specifics with great detail, but I remember the part where the grandmother died and they pretended she was really sick so they could get past the border guards. It’s almost like a dream, but it’s not that Steinbeck wrote it that way – it’s a function of my memory. The question is, how can you write a book that imitates that function when the reader has to read it from start to finish?

It’s time for my daily plug for Raymond Federman. His books are so nonlinear, they can be unreadable in places. They’re all great, and funny. He has a lot of different stuff going on in his experimental works, but one thing he uses to obfuscate the linear plot is repetition and derivation. In books like Double or Nothing, he’ll tell a piece of a story, then later change the story, tell an earlier segment, and so forth. It’s not as easy as just reading the story from A to B, but it plants little subliminal facts in your memory, so when you hear a derivative of the story later, you wonder if you’ve already heard it, or if it was new. Irregardless of Federman’s technique (which is beyond the scope of this one time journal entry) it shows that it’s possible to work with non-linear dream structures on the linear page.

I want to talk about this more, but maybe I should wait until tomorrow to start a new topic about dreams. As always, let me know your thoughts and help me keep thinking about this.