Tag Archives: Dreams

Make Your Story: How to Really See

27 May
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“Woman Smoking” by Barth Anderson

Consider drawing some shadows.

I’ve taken up pencil drawing recently and learning to draw shadows is illuminating (don’t hurt me).

Drawing shadows is a little like learning to see inside-out. I have to look at something and see where the pencil will touch and be darkest instead of following the outer line of what I want to draw, the contour, the weight, or the most distinguishing feature. Most of the time, the shadow is precisely where my eye does not land or see.

So to teach myself to start seeing darkness, I started drawing stills from Noir movies and black and white photography with heavy-duty shadows. That’s what the above drawing is — an attempt to draw the shadows that someone else has identified for me.

Now that I’ve done this for a couple weeks, I can see shadows much better. When I look at the pine bush in my backyard, I see a green cylinder of shades, depth in the branches and needles. and I see deeper into the shape. I see past the label in my brain of what that plant is in the backyard, PINE BUSH, and I now see it differently. I see a different thing altogether.

I’m struck how seeing with new eyes has come to bear on my writing in such a short amount of time.

I think this is because these “new eyes” are how Dream Barth sees things. Day Barth just sees PINE BUSH, if he even sees it at all. He already thinks he KNOWS what it is, so doesn’t even really look at it, as he stops right in front of it to ask himself, “Did I bring my keys?” Dream Barth really looks at this big plant and goes, “Oh cool, it looks like a great big jack-o-lantern! See the how shadows make a face?”

I see everything differently now as a result of taking up sketching and drawing shadows. Of course, I am aware of the light and the bright color of leaves in sunlight but it’s not where I put my eye right now. When I walk through the park to my bus stop, I see a bank of interesting shadows across the trees or I see a hallway of shadows leading into the trees, to the shadows on the bark of the trunks. I’m more aware of where the light is coming from, the angle with which it hits the branches, and how tree-shadows are made.

Seeing with new eyes. New to me. A new way to look at the world all around, almost like a new sense organ.

As a writer, do you fully experience what you’re writing about? Do you smell it and taste it? Does your mind leap and make almost childlike associations about the thing you’re imagining, remembering, building in your mind? Do you really see it or do you just know it and write about it like Day Barth pausing by the pine bush to look for his goddamn keys?

Take time to see your creations the way the dream version of yourself might see them. Look through your dream eyes and cock a dream ear. I know your Imagination is always hungry for this pause, this slower more deliberate focus on things themselves. I know it. I’ve experienced it.

Writing Prompt #1 – Put everything down – the laptop screen, your notebook, your notes. Sit quietly for a good five minutes.

After five minutes, start thinking about your main character or any important person in your life whom you think you know well.  Imagine them in a situation you haven’t seen them in before or in a scene you would never include in your book. They’re on a modern day rooftop looking at a storm coming in. They’re eating a mango in a foreign country. If it’s slightly incongruous (but not surreal), that’s ok, too, maybe even better. Let your mind fantasize about their very physical presence in this scene. Don’t just ask yourself “what are they wearing?” and be done. Ask what shadows are being cast upon their bodies. Are they from from pronounced cheekbones? From their pronounced chin, their deep eye sockets? Or a hat? What do they smell like? If you touched them, what would their skin, their hair feel like?  If you kissed them, what would their mouth taste like right now? Don’t think about THEIR experience. Experience them through your own five senses — all of them. Then write down everything you just fantasized.

500 words. No stopping at all. Keep going if you hit the word count, but don’t stop before you do.

Writing Prompt #2 – Write a list of five mythological animals or beings. Now make a list of five people you know very well, or use characters from your story. Randomly pick a person and a mythological creature. Write how each person is like their corresponding critter, but ONLY use senses of smell, sound, touch and/or taste. No visuals.

500 words. DO NOT STOP till the word count is meant. Keep going if you hit it, but don’t stop before you do.

Make Your Story: The Night Book

23 May
nymph and satyr

Nymph and satyr: A Roman Mosaic in the Basilica of Cylene

Around the year 400 CE, the Greek Bishop Synesius of Roman Cylene wrote about dreams for his children in a book titled On dreams (De insomniis). In it, he claims dreams are divine revelations, or, alternatively, they’re diviners. Each of us has a personal fortune teller inside us, says Synesius, comparing dreams to a “prophetess” and calling them “our oracle.” All of us have access to this oracle and she is with us, always:

Even if we remain at home, [our oracle] dwells with us; if we go abroad she accompanies us; she is with us on the field of battle, she is at our side in the life of the city; she labors with us in the fields and barters with us in the market place. 

I like this a lot. “Our oracle” is not a visitor coming to us only at night. She’s like a guardian angel, standing at our sides constantly, and almost 1500 years before Freud recommended keeping a dream journal in order to better remember dreams, Synesius recommended keeping what he calls a “night book.” But it’s not merely to better remember dreams, according to Synesius. A night book is for the betterment of one’s spiritual (mental?) health:

One ought to keep both a “day-book” and a ” night-book “…and so have memoranda of what goes on in one’s ordinary life and in one’s dreams. I have tried to show that the life of Imagination is better or worse, according to the state of health in which the spirit finds itself.

Where Synesius hits the mark deepest is in this: A balanced self addresses our beloved oracle, our Imagination, our dreams. By incorporating dreams into our everyday perspective, it broadens and deepens our ability to perceive and to articulate by forcing us to contemplate the dream story.

A dream places all kinds of contradictory states before us, together. Imagination thus sets them forth; but how is anyone to describe them? No stern law can prevent the magnificent flights of fancy in which a sleeping person indulges. In sleep, he holds converse with stars and associates with the gods who are invisible in the world; he understands even the inarticulate sounds of the lower animals. Just imagine what it would be to attempt a description of all this.

This is excellent advice for any writer or artist, in any genre. To write down your dreams is to record a story that your Imagination is constantly narrating, about your labor in the fields, about your fields of battle. Ignoring this ongoing, incessant narrative means ignoring half your mind, a third of your life.

Consider that as you contemplate telling your stories.

Writing Prompt #1: Keep your hand moving or fingers typing until the word count is achieved. DO NOT STOP. Write down the most recent dream you can remember. If you can’t remember one, write down any dream you can remember. If you tell the dream before the 500 words is up, start writing down what you think it means.

Writing Prompt #2: Keep your hand moving until the word count is achieved. DO NOT STOP. Take a striking, strange image from a dream, recent or not, and give it its own unique reality in a story. Try to retain the mood it gave you in the dream. Or give it a new life and meaning. Let it be a symbol on its own in your writing.

Go back to the beginning of my series Make Your Story.