Wednesday, March 6, 2013

How to Tell a Good Dream

I ran into that old familiar complaint again yesterday, the claim that no one is interested in hearing about your dreams. As a writer who works frequently with dreams, naturally I find this idea to be dismissive and obnoxious. But in a way, I do understand where they’re coming from. We’ve all been there. Someone tells you about a dream they had where the dog had their grandmother’s face and they were pulling carrots out of the ground in the back yard but they turned out to be giant AA batteries. Our eyes beginning to glaze over. Our attention wanders. There’s no point of entry for us. We weren’t there. We weren’t mystified by the oddness of the experience. We have nothing to gain or learn. To the dreamer it’s a baffling enigma, invested with all sorts of peculiar emotions. But to us, it’s just random nonsense, noise.

Some people pin our disinterest in other people’s dreams on the fact that they didn’t actually happen. I doubt that’s the case. The truthfulness of a story has very little to do with how interesting we find it. Granted, if a story ends with “…and that’s how I found this huge sack of money that I’m going to split with you”, then we’d be plenty interested in how true it is. However, I believe our interest in a story qua story bears little regard for the facts. No, I think the problem here is primarily in the telling. We aren’t interested in the dream that we’re being told because the person telling us isn’t involving us, drawing us in with the evocative details of the experience. They aren’t finding common ground where the dream becomes relatable. It’s just their dream, and they aren’t giving us more than just a report of the bare oddities of it.

Consider, for instance, if a passing acquaintance told you that their mother had died. You would express whatever sympathy was necessary for the sake of politeness. You might even feel whatever token sympathy you would for any human being in that situation. But if they told you nothing more than the basic fact of their mother dying, then it’s unlikely that any deep emotions would be evoked by the news. However, if the person sat with you over coffee, went through the details of the experience, those last fleeting expressions, if they drew you into the room, if they expressed what their mother meant to them personally, the things that she had said, the things she had done for them, made her become real to you as a person, then you might beginning to feel something about this woman’s death.

This is what any good story-telling is about, and it’s no different with dreams. It’s true that dreams don’t always seem to have that necessary through-line that connects it with common experience, but you have to find it in the details, bring it to light, cultivate it into something, tweak a detail here and there. Let’s say, for instance, that instead of the dog having the grandmother’s face, let’s say that it simply reminded you of your grandmother in some uncanny way. There was a turn of the head, a look in the eyes. There was a sense that her spirit was somehow inhabiting the dog, and it reminded you of that time when she scolded you as a child for stealing something from the cupboard, and you were afraid. And now you’re feeling this same fear of the dog. It wants something from you. You shut it up in the room, but you can hear it in there, growling, scratching at the door.

Now you begin to peek your listener’s interest. The idea of a hostile dog inhabited by someone’s dead grandmother is plenty odd enough, but yet it taps something visceral, something common. We can understand how unsettling the experience would be. Given enough detail, we begin to see this room, the dust hanging in the light, the metal frame of the twin bed. We hear the dog’s sharp nails on the thin wooden door. We see the dreamer in the dark hallway, out of the light, listening, on edge, trying to figure out how to satisfy this dog.

So you connect the carrots with the dog, so that the dream begins to take an almost narrative shape. Now you’re digging up the carrots to feed the dog, but when you go to pull them out of the ground, you find a never ending network of electrical cables buried under the soil. You can almost smell the loose dirt as you try to pull them up, but there’s just more and more cable, stretching out in all directions, as though they went on forever, circling the Earth, as though you had found the nexus of all the power lines on the planet. You pull and pull, but you know it’s futile. You’ll never get it all up. You’ll never satisfy the dog. It’s all connected. You’ll never get a piece of it free. You tug and you tug, and then you hear it behind you. A calm comes over you. A breeze comes through out over the garden and the morning sun. You drop the cables, loosen your shoulders, and you turn to face the menacing dog, ready for it to lunge at you. But the dog just cocks its head in that friendly way, and you know it’s going to be alright. The dog comes to nuzzle against you, and you wake up in a flood of tears and relief.

Now, that’s how you tell a dream.  Of course, you don't even have to necessarily change and embellish the details in this manner.  Nine times out of ten everything you need will be right there in the dream itself.  You just have to bring it to life.  But when you get right down to it dreams are really just a bunch of lies to begin with - wonderful enchanting lies, but lies all the same - and if you're going to lie, lie big, lie your ass off.   


  1. Yes, to the listener the dream is just another story, so the dream-teller needs to be a good story-teller. Right? But then it doesn't seem to me so simple because I don't like every story-teller's stories. I'm absorbed by Conrad's tales, but don't want to waste my time on Dickens. And as for most modern novels, I cannot abide them.

    But I do like the way you tell your dreams and am not about to analyse why or how.

    1. Well yes, naturally some story-tellers are better than others, and some stories are better told than others, and some people prefer some stories and some story-tellers to others. (I like Dickens, myself. Somewhat. I prefer Dostoevsky or Victor Hugo or even Dumas. I do like A Tale of Two Cities, though. I love the way it's written, the way it seamlessly weaves in and out of metaphor at times. I'm been meaning to read Conrad.)

      And of course, I appreciate that you like how I tell my dreams too ;)

  2. What's best is when the reader prefers the lies to the truth, so much so they fight facts with you because the fiction is so much more doable than having to face facts. I think much of the disdain for the dream end of it is that you (and by you I mean whoever is writing about their dream) leave out too much with such snippets. People walk away with the notion, "Boy, that guy is fucking strange." and then feel guilty about it because maybe he is perfectly normal and you are too damn weird to grasp the detail in short burst.

    Anyway, good to see you back here. Are you staying for awhile or just getting rid of a headache?


    1. Just dropping off a headache, I guess. I wrote this as a random essay the other day without really having any clear idea of posting it anywhere. That's the kind of stuff that'll usually find its way here these days.

  3. one wants to hear
    what you dreamt about
    unless you dreamt about them
    don't let that stop you
    tell them anyway
    and you can make it up
    as you...GO! ;)


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