Literary Inspiration in the Realm of Dreams

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(Craig Campbell)– I want to write, but can only fix in words the desire itself.

Since early childhood, my parents have encouraged me to pursue any career I could imagine (including “singing chef on tv”) with one ominous exception: no journalism. “There’s no money in it.”

Both are newspaper editors and have witnessed, firsthand, the rapid decline of print media in the post-Information Revolution world. Unfortunately for them – and maybe for me, too – upon my arrival at Amherst, I discovered a previously latent interest in creative writing. I felt, and feel still, that a mastery of rhetoric is the most versatile and valuable skill a liberal arts student can hope to acquire, and I fell under the seductive spell of the power of the written word.

“Good” writing, though, is by no means an objective talent one can achieve, and creative expression follows no absolute, predictable process. Your calculus abilities may grow rusty, but they’re never completely lost. The beautifully crafted prose in an author’s first novel, however, in no way guarantees a career of literary success. In fact, most artists reach a discrete “creative peak” at some point in their lives, implying a subsequent decrease in ability.

I’ve devoted half of my academic efforts, in my English major, to getting as close as I can to “good” writing. The cumulative, empirical learning involved in my Math major, though, stands as an antithesis to the creative writing process. In the lower levels of math, problems (resembling “find x”) rely on algorithmic procedures to come to fixed, indisputable solutions. In higher levels, theorem-proving involves deductive, inductive, and quantificational logic. Each strategy arises from the basic notion that any statement has one inherent “truth value.” All declarative sentences are relegated to one end of the true-false binary, and all logical reasoning systems, at their core, rely on this black-and-white conception of “truth.”

While discoveries in mathematics follow from this logical austerity, discoveries in the creative use of language spring out of imagination. Reason and inspiration, then, constitute two different “spaces” of intellectual resources. Each has the potential to produce a particular kind of “truth.” The truth of reason is, in popular conception, scientifically valid truth, while the truth of inspiration is the insight provoked by figurative speech and the impact of original fiction. Neither is characteristically “better” than the other, but they are, theoretically, mutually exclusive.

I’ve learned, perhaps the hard way, that no matter how hard I push myself to produce good writing, the caprice of fate often precludes my ability to think outside of factual statements and clichés, leaving me unable to write original, interesting material. This semester, I’m taking Fiction Writing I, and at 5 a.m. this past Sunday morning, four hours before my first major short story was due, I found that no matter what I did, or how hard I tried, I was just unable to make my characters interesting or my scenes believable.

Around the publication of my 30th article for AC Voice, I realized that I’d often fallen into the bad habit of applying a formulaic rubric to my posts, which resembled the trite form of the middle school 5-paragraph essay, and didn’t read much better than one, either.

Nevertheless, I’ve chosen to distinguish myself, at Amherst College, with the label of “writer.” I frequently purport – in job applications, conversations with professors, phone calls with my family – that I’m a writer, and a “writer,” distinct from one-who-writes, should always be capable of good prose. Because of this, I feel a staggering pressure to make the English language perform dazzling shows of linguistic acrobatics and figurative fireworks in every paper I submit, no matter the assignment. The more one writes, as opposed to the more math problems one completes, does not necessarily foretell better writing to come; as many authors of fiction learn, the more they write, the more they drain from the limited pool of experiences from which they can draw material. Welcome to the masochism of the literary world.

So where can we search for that necessary but inexplicable inspiration?

Late in high school, I became fascinated with the realm of dreams. My waking hours were divided between counting endless laps in the swimming pool and manufacturing good grades in an unchallenging academic program. My escape from this routine hyper-activity was in the world of dreams, whose narratives I attempted to map out with meticulous description in a bedside journal. Each morning, I would set an alarm early enough to allow myself time to copy every detail I could remember into a little green notebook.

I’ve never subscribed to Freud’s popular interpretation of dreams, which has since been scientifically disproven. Today, the accepted understanding of the dream mechanism is that, during REM sleep, random electrical signals ricochet through the brain, exciting its sensory processing centers that then produce nonsensical sensory experiences. Dreams do not provide a deep insight into the pathology of one’s everyday existence; rather, they generate inventive images that are deeply rooted in the randomness of half-consolidated memory, mixed together to form a silly and bizarre, but nevertheless cogent narrative. The realm of dreams is, in my view, the quintessential space for inspiration. Causal relations are muddled and do not stand for themselves – you cannot logically trace any element to its “root,” because dreams have no distinct beginning– and any impression of causality is completely relative to the dreamscape.

A dream, by itself, is usually too preposterous to relate in more formal writing, but I find that the process of expressing the visual, sonic, and tactile details of my dream scenes each morning provides good practice in developing setting in my fiction. Figuring out ways to circumvent the ineffability of dream-reason results in interesting analogies and diction. Emotions in dreams can only be communicated relative to the dream itself, and so, in prose, they manifest themselves as metaphors belonging solely to the dreamer, therefore avoiding the dreaded clichés that can ruin a piece of writing.

What is the line between dream experiences – which are generated, neurologically, by the same sensory mechanism that constructs waking perceptions – and “real” ones? How or where might a writer find the inspiration of the imaginative dreamscape in his waking hours?

I want to write, but can only fix in words the desire itself.

Both the this and the feature "dream images" are both finalists in the Smithsonian 2012 photo-contest.  Click on either picture to vote for your favorite.
Both the this and the feature “dream images” are finalists in the Smithsonian 2012 photo-contest. (Discovered on Click on either picture to vote for your favorite.