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Make Your Story: Dreams and Blocks

25 May
dreamer

“The Knight’s Dream” by Antonio de Pereda, circa 1655.

I’m writing a lot about embracing dreams in the creative life on Con Gusto lately, so I want to offer up a testimonial about how this practice impacts me.

I blogged about how I met my main character in dreamtime, and in that post I said,

I hope you keep a dream journal or otherwise make time to heed and record your dreaming self’s stories and symbols. If you aren’t, you may be missing out on some of your freest, most wide-ranging creative outbursts.

I had a creative outburst two nights ago after I posted about Synesia of Cylene. That night, I dreamed I was in a big shoot out in a railyard, dodging between rail cars, etc. At about 3 AM I woke up and started writing a story. I don’t remember waking up. In my memory, the dream dissolves into me at the laptop typing. But I remember writing and having that superb feeling of not being able to type fast enough, I was so inspired. It took about an hour to write the 700-word story.  Then I went back to sleep.

If this were an infomercial, this is the part of the testimony where I’d say, “With the Barth Anderson 110$ Guaranteed Dreamtime Method, I wrote a story in my sleep and made A MILLION DOLLARS — and YOU CAN TOO.” But I haven’t done anything with the story yet, don’t know if it’s even publishable, let alone, you know, “good.” Because none of that matters.

What matters is that my imagination fucking rocks right now, at a time when cranking out the words on my novel-in-progress while producing new short stories and keeping completed short stories in circulation is the name of the game for me. I’ve done this by exercising my Imagination well, by keeping a night-book, by directly askingmy dream self fun things to think about, by writing every day, and keeping the muscles used to “imaginate” well limbered. So well, in fact, that I can’t shut off my creative side in the middle of the night.

And part of why this is meaningful to me personally is that I’ve had terrible writer’s block, off and on over the last ten years. Knowing that I can emerge on the other side of that very hard time and circumnavigate the creative block is such a relief that it’s almost cathartic, soul cleansing. I fucking did it, friends.

And you can too.

Dealing with Writers Block
1. Be kind to yourself. No scolding. Turn off the inner editor. This might mean…
2.  Meditation. Learning to kindly turn cruel, scolding thoughts out of your head.
3. Keep a “night book.” Write at least 500 words about every dream you remember. Keep your fingers typing or hand writing. Never pause till the word count is met.
4. Counter depression with good healthy food, great sex, fun exercise, sunlight, vitamins.
5. Keep reading awesome writers in your field. Contact the ones who move you and tell them how great they are, how much you enjoyed their work. Be effusive and grateful.

And do your best to maintain a writing discipline. A little every day, even if it’s not on a work-in-progress. Point #3 above will help you get to the other side, I promise.

Writing Prompt #1 – Try writing 500 words, starting the second you wake up. Don’t make coffee. Don’t brush your teeth. Don’t let the fertile fog of dreamland drift away. Write about something you dreamed, or decide the night before what you’ll write so you don’t have to think about it. Write in bed. Keep your fingers typing, your pen moving. Don’t stop. Not one little bit.

Writing Prompt #2:  Write about the reality-based inspiration for your dreams. Write out the dream, and then write about what may have prompted the dream from your reality, the “seed.” Write about why you think your dream-self focused on that image/moment/event/person? What does the dream say about the seed, if anything? What was the mood or main emotion of the dream? How was your dream inspired by the seed? How did your dream-self run with it, change the scene, go crazy with it? Don’t self-edit or filter. Write 500 words as fast as you can, keep your hand moving and your fingers typing till you hit the word count. Do not stop.

Begin Your Dream Journal

4 May
hypnos

The god Hypnos, so powerful he swung the Trojan War. Statue. British Museum.

Consider how you listen to your dreams.

Do you?

I don’t pretend to understand what my dreaming mind is, but I do know it’s a creative workhorse, offers me regular insight, and generally seeks to help me on my “day job” (writing) whether I ask it to or not.

Right now, I’m working on a novel about the Spanish queen Juana the Mad. Recently I hit an impasse. I had decided long ago that Juana was a reluctant hero, but it seemed very important not to stop at the idea of “reluctance.” I wanted to her reason for reluctance to be palpable in the story, not just understood with a nod and wink because people get the reluctant hero trope. (A decent thought exercise: Come up with three “reluctant heroes” and define their reluctance if you can. It might not be as easy as you think.)

I decided to put my dreaming brain on the job. I wrote my question on a piece of paper (“Why were you reluctant to be queen, Juana?”) and kept it in my hand while I fell asleep.

That night I dreamed I was breaking into a woman’s apartment. I was with an unsavory character from my own past and we were ransacking this woman’s house looking for pot (mari-JUANA) and found pictures of a Latina woman all over the place. The woman with her parents. Her with her children. Eventually neighbors came in and confronted us saying, “Leave this poor woman alone! Why are you tormenting her? You can’t do this!”

I woke up, like, wow. Thanks for nothing, dream-brain. So I tried again the next night. Same ritual with the piece of paper. But this night, I dreamed I actually spoke to the Latina woman and her son. Same apartment. Same items everywhere. The woman was furious and clutched her little boy to her chest, sneering at me, “You have no right to do this. You have no right to ransack through my personal life, like I’m not even here. Like I don’t care what you’re doing. You don’t care about me, you just WANT something.”

When I woke up, I was chuckling to myself. At myself. Right. Juana was reluctant because she wanted her privacy. She didn’t want to be queen because she knew it would be the end of her private internal life. And I couldn’t see that, because I was one more historian/writer completely violating her privacy. And she was a very private woman — the guards and layers around her make her both intriguing and difficult to understand, but they were there for a reason. She had been destroyed by tragic losses. She was humiliated by her husband and court intrigue. Her own son ransacked her castle for gold when he needed it.

Me, I’ve turned her inside out, too, trying to understand this confusing, fascinating, and sometimes opaque character from history.

I wouldn’t have had that revelation about Juana’s role as hero in my story without approaching and offering my toys for my dreaming self to play with. I don’t know how I would have ever come to this thought on my own — that Juana was resisting history, me — especially as tied as I was to historical, empirical research. Leaping beyond the facts and intuiting something deeper and human about Juana was exactly what the story needed.

I hope you keep a dream journal or otherwise make time to heed and record your dreaming self’s stories and symbols. If you aren’t, you may be missing out on some of your freest, most wide-ranging creative outbursts.

Writing Prompt 1: For one week, write 500 words per day inspired by a dream. Start a a dream journal if you haven’t already. Even if it’s just a fragment of a sketch of an image from a dream, this prompt will help your dreaming mind start to believe she’s being listened to. Keep your hand/fingers moving. Don’t stop until the word count is met.

Writing Prompt 2: Taking one of the above 500-word entries from above, flesh it out to a 1000- or 2000-word fiction piece. Create a drama. Characters. Try to keep the juice of the dream intact. Or abandon it if it’s in the way. Write it in one session. Let the first draft sit for 28 days before you rewrite a single word of it.

Make Your Story is a series of articles by novelist Barth Anderson about things you might consider when writing your life-story, autobiography, or when mining personal material for your art. 

In approaching your life story, consider that you might not know it as well as you think you do. Consider your own life the way you might consider a stranger’s. Consider it unknown territory. Consider what you’ve never considered before.

Photo credit: By British Museum. Dept. of Greek and Roman Antiquities; Walters, Henry Beauchamp, 1867-1944 [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Walk About by Pablo Neruda

3 May
Neruda Young

Poet Pablo Neruda

It just so happens I get sick of being a man.
It happens when I enter a tailor shop and a cinema,
Withered, impenetrable like a swan of felt who
Navigates through headwaters and cinders.
The odor of barbershops makes me scream.
I just want a break from stones or wool,
I just do not want to see office parks or gardens,
No retail products, no bifocals, no elevators.
It so happens that I get sick of my feet and my nails
And my hair and my shadow.
It happens that I get tired of being a man.
However it would be sweet
To frighten a paralegal with a cut lily
Or kill a nun with a blow to the ear.
It would be cool
To run wild through the streets with a green knife
Screaming until I die of hypothermia.
I do not want to keep on keeping on like a root in darkness,
Hesitant, extended, shivering in my sleep,
Going down, buried in wet entrails of soil,
Absorbing and thinking, just eating every day.
I do not want so much misery.
I do not want to keep on keeping on from root to tomb,
Underground, cellar of the dead
Terrorized and dying of grief.
That’s why Monday flashes like a gas fire
When he sees me coming with my thug-face on
Monday peels out like a wounded wheel,
Making hot bloody tracks into the night
And shoves me into certain corners, into certain humid houses,
Into hospitals where bones break through the windows,
To certain major shoe chainstores that stink of vinegar,
To streets that haunt me like chasms.
There are sulphurous birds the color of gruesome intestines
Hanging from the doors of houses I hate,
There are forgotten dentures in a coffeepot,
There are mirrors that should have wept with shame, terror,
There are umbrellas everywhere, and poisons, and belly buttons.
I walk with calm, with eyes, with shoes,
With fury, with forgetfulness,
Walk, and I cross offices and orthopedic outlet stores,
And patios where laundry hangs on a wire:
Underwear, towels, and shirts weep
Slow obscene tears.

~translated by Barth Anderson

Make Your Story: Face the Shadow

1 May
NyxPergamonZA

Nyx, Goddess of Night; the Altar of Zeus ~200 BCE

Consider parts of your life-story that you never tell.

You don’t often think about your story when you tell it, because, really, why should you? If someone asks you your heritage, where your family is from, how many brothers and sisters you have, what your parents are like, who your grandparents were, those stories come spilling out fast-fast, without much thought. You tell it the same way with the same rhythms, the same half-smile on your face. And why not? You’ve told those stories the same way your whole life. It’s not like your story ever changes, and, anyway, it’s often a pleasure to relate such stories. Especially to writers like you.

But when people ask you about yourself, you deliberately avoid certain chapters, too. You have to. The person you didn’t marry. The career path you had to forego. A character from your past that you refuse to discuss. These parts of your story are “too much information,” you’ve learned. Offensive.

In this process, you are like Jehovah dividing the world into Night and Day, shedding your personal light on a very small number of scenes while relegating most of your life to night and shadow. When I say “shadow,” I’m talking about the moral need to bring order to one’s life, to deny unwanted aspects of yourself while “promoting” aspects you admire. Carl Jung called this part of ourselves “Shadow,” and he knew what he was talking about. It’s not a bad thing. One must make necessary, moral decisions when concocting a face for the civilized world.

And yet, that process is akin to lying. It’s a lie by omission like creating nothing but clean-white portraits in a clean-white space and spending your days airbrushing out blemishes. That might make a nifty business practice but artists consider the unconsidered. She’s willing to look at pain, her own, she shares it, doesn’t look away, and makes something beautiful from her hurt.

I can tell you as someone who has spent nearly my entire life eclipsed by one of my parents’ dense, dark Shadows that the process Jung describes is totally understandable, at times forgivable, all-too-human, and, yet, so bewildering it’s horrifying. It’s not easy or pleasant, but the Shadow is a human fact. And considering the undesirable , unwanted parts of being human is what writers and artists do.

So consider the shadows of your life while reading my posts in the “Make a Story” series. I challenge you to consider moments in your life that you believe don’t fit into your life-story.

Before jumping into the Writing Prompts below, come up with three stories/scenes from your life that might make good material but which you don’t usually tell about yourself. Give them three quick easy titles for easy reference. Don’t worry, I won’t make you write them out! But I will ask you to play with these scenes.

WRITING PROMPT #1: Without telling the actual stories themselves, write 500 words as fast as you can about what themes you see in these three scenes. What dynamics are similar in them? Do they match up with other themes in your life-story? How do you feel when you consider writing these scenes and how hard would it be to include them in your life-story? Write 500 words. Keep your hand/fingers moving. Don’t stop until the word count is met.

Writing Prompt #2: Choose one the three scenes. Pretend it’s a scene in an excellent movie and you are writing a review of it. Describe how the actor(s) nailed it. Describe how the cinematographer shot it to make it so sad, harrowing, or passionate. How was it edited to make such an effective sequence? Be inventive. Have fun with your imaginary movie. Do this for all three scenes, if you like. Write 500 words. Keep your hand/fingers moving. Don’t stop until the word count is met.

Writing Prompt 3: Choose a symbol for each scene. Choose three hard, bold images that appeal to you and write them down or find photos and place them on note cards. Pin the cards over your writing space. Maybe you won’t include the actual scenes, but perhaps these symbols will appear in your irresistible pages, resonating in your skeleton and bear cosmic meaning for you and you alone.

For now.

Make Your Story is a series of articles by novelist Barth Anderson about things you might consider when writing your life-story, autobiography, or when mining personal material for your art. 

In approaching your life story, consider that you might not know it as well as you think you do. Consider your own life the way you might consider a stranger’s. Consider it unknown territory. Consider what you’ve never considered before.

Make Your Story: Typing the Truth

30 Apr

Consider that your life-story isn’t a bee-line.

It’s at least four stories told in concert whose voices, if executed well, will surge and sing out at different points like four-part harmony or four-piece jazz with solos.

One of these storylines could be very old, maybe a previous generation’s that carries through to your present story. If you choose correctly, this one will act as a firm thumping bassline throughout, one that you (and your audience) will return to often because the past is crucial evidence about you. It needn’t be ancient but it would be best if it were open-ended, unfinished, and not a flashback.

Which old story will you choose?

Is it your birth story? How your family came to live where you were born? Why you are named what you’re named? An ancestor’s decision still echoing in your life now? A story only you know? A secret or a lie or a still-secret lie? Could you do that? Make that secret lie known? Make it part of your story?

WRITING PROMPT #1: Write your birth story or story behind your name so that the last line of your writing ends with, “…and that’s how I came to be sitting here typing these words.”

WRITING PROMPT #2: 500 words. Write the most dangerous truth you have ever written. The one that could destroy lives. Don’t hold back for fear of offending or betraying or hurting anyone else. Type it. Then delete your writing or burn it it if you want to.

Or begin your memoir from there.

veritas

Raffaele Monti’s “Under the Veil” of Veritas, Roman Goddess of Truth. Destroyed 1936.

Make Your Story is a series of articles by novelist Barth Anderson about things you might consider when writing your life-story, autobiography, or when mining personal material for your art. 

In approaching your life story, consider that you might not know it as well as you think you do. Consider your own life the way you might consider a stranger’s. Consider it unknown territory. Consider what you’ve never considered before.

Make Your Story: The Nemesis

27 Apr

Make Your Story is a series of articles by novelist Barth Anderson about things you might consider when writing your life-story, autobiography, or when mining personal material for your art. 

In approaching your life story, you should consider that you might not know it as well as you think you do. Consider your own life the way you might consider a stranger’s. Consider it unknown territory. Terra incognita. If you don’t, you’ll miss diamonds hiding in the shadows and truths you never considered. Consider what you’ve never considered before.

Consider your nemesis.

I don’t think you can know your nemesis at a young age. The maniacal architect of your undoing shapeshifts so many times in the course of a life that you need 2 or 3 tragic demises before you see how your nemesis rolls.

Warning: A true nemesis doesn’t want merely to thwart you like a villain will do in a melodrama. Your nemesis is terrified of you. it fears you resurrecting so it pounces on your missteps, “crimes,” in order to humiliate and demoralize you. A true nemesis doesn’t ever throw a punch. It deceives you in order to convince you to never get up again.

Your nemesis will appear in the silence of a wakeful sleepless night, when you scold and abhor yourself most. It will appear when you think you are strongest, right in front of you, real as rain. Inside. Outside. Nightmares and stark reality. Both. To assume it appears in only one place or the other is to play into the nemesis’s shapeshifting game.

Is there a tell-tale clue that allows you to spot your nemesis before it begins its sadistic art? A sign or tic you’ve identified as belonging to the nemesis? A pop-song that plays in the background when you encounter it? A phrase that it can’t help but repeat? When you spot it, do you know that your demise is about to happen once more?

Consider this when approaching your o0wn life-story.

Nemesis_by_Albrecht_Dürer

“Nemesis” by Albrecht Durer, 1501  (more info on the goddess Nemesis here)

Mel Brooks’ Fight Against Fascism

6 Apr

mel brooks hitler

BREAKING: MEL BROOKS IS NOT DEAD!

But before my lifelong hero leaves the building, and while he’s still using a comb for a cheesy mustache, throwing fake salutes, and mocking the most evil dictator in the modern world, Mel Brooks needs a gigantic thank you from the United States. And from me.

If you think punching Nazis is a good idea, my fellow American, please take some time and thank our good buddy Mel, too. No one has done more to shrink Nazis down to punchable size than Mel Brooks.

Before his movie The Producers (1968), Nazis were still an ominous almost cosmic evil, too sprawling to destroy utterly. They still showed up as viable villains in the two decades after WW2, and I think the “specters of returning evil” trope (LOTR, Harry Potter) was fed in subsequent decades, by fears that Hitler had escaped death and that Nazism would rise again — see Boys from Brazil (movie and book, late-Seventies) for examples of that fear.

It might have been just a tad too soon, when Mel Brooks faced that evil for everyone in 1968, doing it not like a soldier or a knight, but as a fearless jester. Writers of heroic stories, by design, keep the villain large in order for it to be worthy of panic and anxiety, or it’s not a very good story. Only a comedian could poke fun at the world’s worst fear and only an excellent one could actually make people wet their pants laughing at it.

And in the fight against fascism, Mel Brooks championed our side with the precision of a master, with demolishing satire of the Nazi demeanor; epic derision of the rise of Hitler in Germany and the absurd Riefenstahl-esque production value of the Nazis. He was so bloody good, he could even satire himself satiring Hitler, and still make it funny as hell. Mel’s was the most astonishing use of free speech that I’ve seen in my lifetime, and I feel so lucky to have been able to watch Mel put the mock in democracy.

Sure, Indiana Jones punched more Nazis, and the gods only know how many Nazis Captain America killed. But without Mel, we might not have embraced either of those heroes as completely as we did. We might not be spotting and standing up to fascism as bravely as we are now, three (?) generations after the fall of the Third Reich, if we hadn’t been able to first laugh at Hitler.

Mel, you have been on my mind so much lately, with the ghost-like return of Nazi salutes and white supremacist evil on the rise. Thank you for inspiring me with your bravery and your gift for diminishing villains.  Thank you for providing an example of someone with a moral base for their politics (and art). I know what my beliefs are and why I have them when I watch Springtime for Hitler or the Inquisition number. Thank you for wrecking me with brain-clearing laughter my whole life.

I love you for your passionate hysterical fight against fascism, Mel Brooks. Thank you.

And remember: MEL BROOKS IS STILL NOT DEAD!