Many years ago, a Fiction Writing student asked me an interesting question: How do you write something original? I asked him to let me think about my answer. I couldn’t come up with as quick an answer as I did to a question asked by a Composition student: If there was one thing I could do to improve my writing, what would it be? The student wanted a quick and direct route to better writing, and the answer, for me, came easily: “Want to.” The Fiction Writing student’s question was just as earnest, but an answer did not come to me immediately, perhaps because the question was more complex and took me by surprise.
Later I came back to him with what seemed a basic truth about originality. Every writer has two primary sources of originality, though there may be other secondary sources. The first is the writer’s own experience, including what the writer has done and what has happened to the writer in his or her life. This is the essence of originality, as these events originate in the life of the writer. But this is obviously not the whole story.
The second important dimension of originality is the imagination of the writer. Though imagination does have a general aspect which plays a part in this—in our sense that there is in fact something that may be referred to as imagination—but what I mean is the particular shape of this facet of the psyche of the individual writer. The imagination of each writer takes a unique shape, dependent on the psyche and psychology of the writer, as well as the writer’s individual experience. The question to ask next is: How may the shape of the imagination of the individual writer be known?
Nowhere is the shape of the imagination presented in as pure a form as in our dreams. In Fiction Writing classes, I often ask students to write the transcript of a dream, beginning with everything that happened in a dream in the order it occurred. This includes colors in the dream and how the dreamer felt about what happened. As we read these out loud, we look at the native shape of the dream, which I interpret as a natural narrative content of the dreamer.
Though the narrative may partake of one of many common dream conventions, it may also reveal structures or images natural to the writer, created in the relatively pure and unaffected state of sleep. For example, though the dreamer may be, typically, late for an event or class or date, or naked in an embarrassing situation, there may be other markers particular to the writer’s unique imagination. If you bear with me, I will use two of my own dreams as examples. For my purpose I will not use a dream that horrified or baffled me, preferring two that amused me.
In the first example, I have to pee very badly. I duck into a drab bus station, in which one or two men waiting for a bus glance up at me as I hurry to the bathroom, only to find a bucket and mop blocking the door, and a hand-made sign reading Out Of Order. I hurry out and enter a building beside the station, an art museum exhibiting an historical perspective of American toilets and urinals. At one particularly cracked urinal I pause, relief in my mind, only to be eyeballed by a burly guard.
Hurrying through a second room of the exhibit, past abstract representations of urination, I rush down the sidewalk and through the turnstile of a park with botanical exhibits, the flowers, plants, bushes and small trees bearing identifying placards. I wind through the maze constructed of high hedges. Nowhere can I find a place to relieve myself, until I come to a stone and mortar wall covered with ivy and various green growth.
Here I pause and begin to unzip at the moment a small family comes around the closest turn in the maze—a respectable mother, father, and daughter, one of them pushing the expected baby carriage. In order to cover my nefarious purpose, I scratch at the wall with a fingernail and say, “Interesting lichens here!” The suspicious family passes, I flee the garden. On the sidewalk once more, I wake up, hop out of bed, and dash to the bathroom, because, of course, my dream motivation was a real one.
I thought then that if I had I found a place to relieve myself in the dream, I might have wet the bed, something I had not done since I was a small child, which would have proved very embarrassing. As much as I had to pee, my desire not to pee while asleep kept me searching until the urge became strong enough to wake me up. While the urge to urinate was strong, my internal censor kept me from relieving myself until I woke up. But how interesting were the bus station, the art museum, and the botanical garden, and how much they revealed to me about the nature of my imagination.
And the people in my dream: the lethargic men waiting for a bus, the brawny guard at the art museum, the respectable family at the botanical garden. What have I learned about the ways in which my personal imagination works? As for motivation in my dream narrative, I detect the conflict between a physical need and my social consciousness. What drove me from one episode to the next is nothing more than a combination of these two forces acting against each other: my need to pee mitigated by a desire not to appear unsophisticated, unmannerly, or childish.
As reader of my own dream, I believe in both aspects of my main character’s motivation enough to act upon them: asleep, I did not pee; awake, I did. This kind of authenticity makes a narrative believable for me as a reader, and particular episodes, images, and characters along the way make it mine. I even find my characteristic humor reflected in the toilet exhibition and the respectable family that prevented me from relieving myself.
In this dream, I experience the shape of my imagination. Yet, in part, my imagination is also determined by experience. I have been in such a bus station, have gone to stranger exhibits than the one in the art museum of my dream, and I love wandering botanical parks and have a fondness for the names of plants and animals.
My second dream reveals a mash-up of real life and popular culture, this time at a party at my then college age daughter’s apartment, in the living room, her big bed a main feature against one wall. Students get used to space and economic restrictions. I recognize a few of her friends, and we all have drinks in hand and laughter in our hearts, except for one depressed individual sitting on the end of the bed, none other than Saddam Hussein—a feature which reveals the time period of the dream.
Saddam had recently been pulled out of his so-called ‘spider hole’ by American troops, in bad shape, and paraded before television viewers while teeth and hair were inspected by medical personnel. I had never been a fan of Saddam, but his condition drew strange pity from me. Dirty, unkempt, unhealthy, now probed and prodded, he made me wince. I asked my daughter if that wasn’t Saddam Hussein on the end of the bed. She said she felt sorry for him, as he seemed to have no friends and nothing to do.
That was nice of her, I admitted. It would be wrong, I felt, not to talk to him since he had been invited to the party, so my daughter and I and a friend or two went up to him to ask how he was doing. Pouting, Saddam told us he was once a great dictator, with a sword this long—here he extended his arms on either side. When I said I understood this was true, he jumped up, with a wicked smile on his face, and brandished a short blade, a scimitar perhaps a foot and a half long, shouting, “Now I have only this short sword.” He seemed fairly proud of the thing.
Though surprised by his gesture, we did not feel threatened. In fact, his action only made me pity him more, tinged by a sense of his absurdity. At this point, I woke laughing, wondering why I had dreamed of Saddam, aside from the obvious fact that he had been in the news. Then I recalled my surprising pity for his dissolute state and understood that in pitying Saddam I related myself to his condition. I was, after all, much older than the college students with whom I dealt every day, and though once was something of a handsome and potentially romantic figure in my youth, this too had passed. My sword had been abbreviated. If I found in Saddam a pathetic and fallen figure of former power, perhaps I recognized the same in myself—with the added feature that I woke laughing at my dream, and at myself.
Thus, finding myself at a party at my college age daughter’s apartment, I took particular note of an older man, seedy in appearance, looking rather lonely. Motivated by social desire not to see a fellow party-goer so depressed, I joined him with a few young people. What I found was something of a comic revelation of his character, and, perhaps, my own. I consider this a good dream, a healthy one, even though shortly after this he was hung by his opponents, with his final moments recorded on someone’s smart phone.
Thus, dreams demonstrate not only the shape of imagination, but also the interaction of experience with the shape of dreams. In the same way, my reality, my actual experience will be influenced by the nature of my imagination. What I have done, what has happened to me, has been gathered in memory, where my imaginative interpretations of reality reside. Who can deny the interpenetration of reality into dream and dream into reality? Somewhere in the mix lies the nature of originality, though of course, there are other factors: what we read, the ways in which others have related their experience, the people and pets we love, plants and animals along the way, stars, the sun and moon, the dream of reality in which we live and breathe.