A Look at the Machinery Behind the Curtain

Sometimes I sleep very soundly, and though I dream, the dreams have faded to wisps by the time I have risen close enough to consciousness to apprehend them.  Other times I dream closer to the surface, and though it’s not quite that awesome lucid dreaming experience where you can make yourself fly or cause a tiger, I am able to dream my dreams in a sort of close third-person POV.  What I mean by this is that I experience them as something outside myself while having some insight into what’s happening and why.  Sometimes these dreams are about writing.

I had one of those last night.

I can’t remember the details, but the dream was about a story, about making a story.  In the dream, the story was a body in relation to other bodies, and the other bodies were taken away over the course of the dream until the body that was the story was alone, according to a narrative logic that I was able to almost but not quite intuit, but that I experienced as being explained to me along the way (choice-sets posed and collapsed, the reasons elucidated, the sense of rightness that followed).  Unfortunately I woke up just as the narrative was reaching its culmination; this is a danger of dreaming too close to the surface.  But the thing was, I was able to experience the machinery behind the curtain that produces inspiration and narrative logic while it was working.  I was, if you will, inside the black box.

It’s a cliche to ask a writer, or any other kind of artist, ‘Where do you get your ideas?’ because the answer is ineffable, for the most part.  It is, in a very real sense, that you get those ideas and act on them that provides the impetus to write or paint or sculpt or play music, to make art in whatever form you feel called to make it in.  I personally believe that everyone gets those ideas, those whimsical notions, and that most people have simply been trained to ignore that whispering voice.  If you don’t believe me, spend time with any child.

Opinions vary as to what this voice is.  Steven Pressfield, whose book The War of Art has had a pretty profound effect on me of late, believes it literally to be divine.  Damon Knight, who with Kate Wilhelm made the Clarion Writers’ Workshop what it was, named his Fred, and laid out some very useful guidelines for working with Fred in his book Creating Short Fiction.  Kate called hers her Silent Partner.

Whatever you name it (and I do not have a name for mine, but it is there), and whatever its nature, there is something in the creative person’s psyche that does a lot of the heavy lifting and delivers the results in the form of inspiration.  It may be something separate.  Certainly it is something separate from the ego, through which I believe most people experience life, consciousness, and the world.  It may be something like the mitochondrion, the cellular organ that drives energy production in almost all living creatures (at least animals; it’s been too long since I studied biology to remember if plants have them), which has its own DNA and appears to have been a separate entity assimilated at a much earlier stage of evolution.  Or perhaps it is that divine, ineffable spark that connects us all umbilically to the Greater Mystery.  It’s also entirely possible that it’s just a particular pattern of electricity and chemicals in human brains, or that it’s an expression of something encoded in our DNA that has evolved over the millennia as something advantageous, an offshoot or side-effect of the capacity for creative problem-solving that gave us the edge in the battle royale that is the struggle for survival among species over time.  As I said, its nature is ineffable, and cannot be known with any certainty.

Last night was not the first time I’ve had that kind of dream.  I had at least one, maybe two more while I was in South America, during the ridiculously productive period when I wrote five comparatively unshitty first drafts in just under a month.  At the time, I took it as a side-effect of the leveling-up that I felt I was experiencing, and I feel that way about the one I had last night, too.  I do feel like my connection to my creative genius (side note: I use this term in its original sense, as animating spirit, and not as any sort of assessment of my abilities as a writer) has been getting stronger since my time away from all things familiar and the fuller commitment I undertook at that time to follow my writing practice.  I take these dreams as a sign that the signal is coming through more clearly than it used to.

(That has mostly been my experience when sitting down to put pen to paper of late, though there was a couple of weeks that that was not the case, which I put down to the after-effects of quitting smoking again, and dealing with the flood of repressed anxiety, pain, and other assorted bad mojo that the cessation of nicotine’s tamping-down effect summoned forth to be faced up to and processed out.  It’s been a couple of weeks since I wrote anything new, though I had several ideas over the weekend while I was at WorldCon, one of which I think is almost ready to be born onto paper.)

But I’m getting distracted.  I guess the thing I’m trying to get at is that while the creative impetus is mysterious, and comes from beyond a veil of ineffability which the conscious mind mostly cannot penetrate, I have of late been afforded in dreams a closer approximation, and while I cannot remember much in the way of detail (as I rarely can with dreams), there are some things I feel like I can say about it that may be helpful or interesting to others.

The first is that it seems to exist on its own, and that it is experienced as something separate, although the experience is as intimate as love in its very best moments, when you can almost but not quite experience the consciousness of your beloved as your own.

The second is that it operates with a sort of intuitive and/or aesthetic logic that is different from but no less compelling than waking-world logic, and that it seems to function in a similar fashion, in that it poses and/or discovers problems, suggests to itself solutions, and assesses those solutions until it finds the right one.  Fields of possibility collapse into actuality with a sense of post-facto inevitability that is not necessarily rigorously predictable beforehand, though intuition can and often does indicate reasonable probabilities.

The third is that it does what it does through a metaphoric system that is like but not identical to language.

I’ll end with the caveat that this is all very fuzzily remembered, as dreams tend to be, though at the time everything was very clear.  I really did feel as if I’d been invited into the studio to talk with the artist while the work was underway, and while it may be (and quite likely was) that the artist was me, it was almost as if I were receiving instruction on a level below which language can go.  As such, what I’ve offered here is only the poorest, most preliminary of sketches, open to wide interpretation due to its lack of detail.  Still, I’ve had a few of these lately, and I thought it might be of some interest to others, for whatever reason.  If you’ve gotten this far, maybe I was right.

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