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The Writing Life - Dreams in the creative process

January 2, 2015
By Michael Tidemann - Staff Writer , Estherville News

Editor's note: This is a monthly column on the writing process. Topics will range from books and authors to writing conferences and workshops to the writing process itself.

Book of Dreams by Jack Kerouac. City Lights. ISBN 0872863808.

It's hard to imagine Jack Kerouac out-Kerouacing himself, but that's exactly what he does in this collection of his dreams - many of which figure directly into his fiction and poetry.

Universally acknowledged as the leader of the Beat Generation, Kerouac was as famous for his writing methods as he was for his writing. He would put a roll of paper into his typewriter and type like a demon, making use of what he called "automatic writing" that flowed in as unencumbered of a manner as possible.

While some purists may debate the polish of Kerouac's work, no one can deny the incredible beauty of his descriptions of crossing America in "On the Road" or of the almost-holy experience of his solitude in the Northern Cascades in "The Dharma Bums". People worship the places Kerouac stayed for any period of time, such as Big Sur, and for good reason. He knew how to draw the soul out of a place and immortalize it.

"Book of Dreams" could very well be a key to Kerouac's creative process - while the writer's work could be viewed as an iceberg, his dreams could easily be seen as the other seven-eighths beneath the surface.

While Kerouac was never known for being a choir boy, his dreams were a way for him to vent some desires and impulses that may not have been appropriate in his waking life (even for Kerouac).

Following is one of the relatively milder passages about the actress Marlene Dietrich (spelling is Kerouac's):

A LONG ALL-NIGHT AFFAIR WITH A WOMAN supposed to be Marlene Dietrich - "because of her mouth you can tell" - but other people seem skeptical she's Marlene, though I believe it or insist on believing it - I go to some parkinglot and tell the owner of the used cars that Marlene's my girl - it's located on Bridge St. Lowell across the street from the big gray warehouse - There, I am shown a Life magazine with a big 3-page spread of pictures of me in a raincoat (tan, tailored) cutting along like a "lonely writer in sadness" in various angle shots - darkhaired, gloomy, line faced - I'm displeased because I'd have preferred closeups and also because I didn't know these pictures had been taken - by Marlene, presumably - Her mouth which was the key to her identity was tragically muggled and almost with buck teeth, like Bill Wagstrom's mouth in Mexico City or the mouth of the used car man in Rocky Mount (he was a big tall man with Panama hat) (and's in dream) and Shorty's Clarence's wife in Easonburg, and Nina Foch's mouth somehow tho she's not muggled but like real life Marlene.

So why have dreams in writing?

Anyone who debates the appropriateness of incorporating dreams into writing needs to look no further than the poem Kubla Khan by Samuel Taylor Coleridge who called it a vision in a dream, or a fragment.

Below is the first stanza:

In Xanadu did Kubla Khan

A stately pleasure-dome decree:

Where Alph, the sacred river, ran

Through caverns measureless to man

Down to a sunless sea.

So twice five miles of fertile ground

With walls and towers were girdled round;

And there were gardens bright with sinuous rills,

Where blossomed many an incense-bearing tree;

And here were forests ancient as the hills,

Enfolding sunny spots of greenery.

How should dreams be incorporated into writing?

My personal belief is that when dreams are used in fiction they should be character-driven. After all, it's the characters who have the dreams, so they should own them.

Is there such as thing as a character dreaming too much? Maybe. Then that depends on the character. A character going through incredible turmoil and stress with nowhere to turn could possibly have a dream that sorts things out and sends that character on the right course.

If there's a counterpart to using dreams in fiction, it could quite possibly be the soliloquy in drama. Think of Hamlet's "To Be Or Not To Be" soliloquy as a dreamlike introspection on how he's trying to decide what course to take. While a soliloquy may work in drama, the fiction writer doesn't have the benefit of the stage. That's where a dream might come in.

And since it's character-driven, the dream should emanate from the character as naturally as possible. If the character wants to dream, let the character do it. It's through the dream - and the dream-like quality of that dream - that unspeakable and unthinkable desires and impulses can be vented.

The result could very well be a surprise for the character - and the author as well.

More on dreaming

For those who really want to dig deeply into the psychological significance of dreams can check out the following two books:

The Interpretation of Dreams by Sigmund Freud. Basic Books. ISBN 0465019773.

Man and His Symbols by Carl Gustav Jung. Dell. ISBN -446351839.

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