After its premiere screening at the Dawson City International Short Film Festival in March, Fools Love: 40 Week Journal by Kerry Barber (with poetry by me) will feature at the Wairoa Maori Film Festival in New Zealand. Congrats, Kerry! She and her baby girl Daphne and in town today, and catching a plane to Auckland tonight. Never did I imagine when I sat writing that piece in the rainy Comox valley last winter that it might find its way to the Southern hemisphere! Nice work, Barber. Wish I was going with you.
I was lucky enough to learn about dream analysis at a pretty young age, so I’ve got a few years practice under my belt. There are many ways to analyze the contents of your dream, and images will hold different meaning for different dreamers. I don’t necessarily want to tell you that my way is right, but I would like to share with you how my work with dream analysis has helped with my writing. I believe that dream analysis has taught me to trust my subconscious and its ability to assemble images to tell a story.
“Every day we slaughter our finest impulses. That is why we get a heartache when we read those lines written by the hand of a master and recognize them as our own, as the tender shoots which we stifled because we lacked the faith to believe in our own powers, our own criterion of truth and beauty. Every man, when he gets quiet, when he becomes desperately honest with himself, is capable of uttering profound truths. We all derive from the same source. there is no mystery about the origin of things. We are all part of creation, all kings, all poets, all musicians; we have only to open up, only to discover what is already there.” Henry Miller
When I’m writing I often get an urge to include an image (This story about recovery from addiction needs some benches from Expo 86!) or a motif (This story about female violent offenders needs rushing water!) and in the moment, I seldom know why. But I don’t question. In it goes, to be analyzed at a later date. Not acting on this impulse has resulted in mini-blocks, that kept me from projects for weeks, sometimes months. That’s much worse than just deciding that the impulse was wrong, and cutting the image later. I don’t think that’s ever happened to me though. Usually I read through later and find the connection to the theme pretty quickly, and it’s pats-on-the-back all around. How clever you are, subconscious! Archivist of my days, filmmaker of my sleep. Let’s have a beer to celebrate.
So, here’s how I analyze a dream. It’s easy. I didn’t make this method up, but I’m afraid I no longer remember the name of the book I got it from.
As soon as possible after waking, I write down everything I remember from the dream. Then I draw a line lengthwise down a sheet of paper. I break the dream up into images, and list all of the images down one side of the paper. One the other side, I write down what each of those images means to me. I’m not a fan of dream encyclopedias, unless I’m really stuck on an image. I prefer my own interpretation, since it’s my dream.
So for example, let’s say I dream that I’m at my family’s old summerhouse at Shuswap Lake. I’m doing math homework, and when I’m done, I go para-sailing.
one side of the page would look like this:
1. our old summerhouse
2. Shuswap Lake
3. math homework
And on the other side:
1. Freedom, happiness, sun. The only time of the year I felt happy and pretty. My first boyfriend. Suntanning. Swimming (the only sport I was ever good at)
2. Comfort. Feeling more comfortable in water than on land. Adventure. Minnows and snorkeling. Sitting on the dock with my sister practicing fly fishing in the evening, even though there was nothing to catch.
3. Feeling inadequate, stupid. Not applying myself, or trying to apply myself and failing. Hopelessness.
4. Showboating, showing off. Looking down on others. Wanting to be seen. Fear.
If you’re looking for messages from your dreams (it’s a popular exercise to ask your dreams a question before bed) sometimes, a narrative may show itself. Keep at it! And remember, sometimes the most upsetting dreams have the strongest messages. It might be hard to relive them, but it might really be worth it.
You may also feel a little bit weird exploring your dreams like this, like some kind of astrology nut or gypsy fortune-teller, but hey you’re not hurting yourself or anyone else by analyzing your dreams. You don’t have to tell your empirical evidence-loving friends what you’re doing. It’s not like your dreams are going to send you messages not to leave the house on any given day (if they do, seek help) you’re just entering into a dialogue with them that may help your creativity.
So, there wasn’t some defining moment where I was like: “Eurika! I’m in touch with my subconscious!” I’d say that over time, I just started to listen to what it was telling me. After a meditation retreat, I blogged about my weird and vivid dreams and let people laugh or share their own. I kept a dream journal. I even shared bits of my dreams on Facebook, and I still do. I gave my subconscious a bit of space on the page, and it responded with a little creative inspiration for me.
I’d expected plenty of culture shock on my first trip to Asia, and I got it. In the four months I was there, my foreigner discomfort probably lasted three-and-a-half. A lot of my unease centered around spending money. I had no problem handing it out, but I wanted to do so on MY terms. When sales people followed me around relentlessly in stores, delivering what many would consider to be attentive customer service, I assumed they thought I was going to steal something. When servers loomed over us as we ate, I’d glare until they left us alone. I bemoaned the lack of shiny, efficient grocery chains, where everything we needed and more was all available in one place, and none of it was rotting. In short, I was a bit of a jerk, lashing out at a different culture because it didn’t function in the custom of my glorious home country, sweet Canadialand, where every buyer experience is a gilded one. Because of this, I was not expecting any reverse-culture shock when I got home. I was just expecting to be comfortable again. I was so happy to be back.
Then I went grocery shopping.
To be fair, I was grumpy. It had been a day of disappointments and waiting in long lineups for minimal gain. But I was not prepared for the genuinely surreal experience that awaited me at Safeway, my first trip to a large grocery chain since my return.
After selecting five or six items, pretty much only the things we needed for our next meal, we went to the check out. Four months of travel and the general Thai approach to consumption we’d been exposed to (buy what you need right now, and don’t waste it) had its effect on us, and I consider it a positive one.
We both prefer self-checkout, but for some reason the self-checkout line went around the corner and half way down the frozen food aisle. The feeling of aggression emanating from the lineup was even more intimidating than the manic self-checkout persona that lets you know-in no uncertain terms- that if you don’t place your items in the bagging area after scanning them, there’s going to be hell to pay. Oh yes.
Next stop, the express lines, which were also long, and inexplicably made up of people with shopping carts full of food. Again, these folks had a dangerous air about them that suggested anyone who might question them on their right to be in the express line might regret it. The fact that only four out of sixteen checkout lines was staffed may have had something to do with their feeling of entitlement. I would have been more angry if I hadn’t been utterly stunned but the sheer volume of food that was being purchased: five different varieties of VH marinade like maybe they were going to cook five different roasts that night. 60 rolls of toilet paper. 60! Expecting guests, maybe. Very regular guests. Flour, sugar, baking powder, eggs, milk, butter and… pancake mix. Newsflash. Combine all those other ingredients and guess what? Pancakes.
If this had been a Costco, or an Extra Foods or Superstore or any one of those chains where the deals are usually pretty good and can leave even the most discerning shopper travelling homeward with thirty bags of 2 for 1 chocolate-dipped szechuan potato chips and a 3 litre tub of sour cream that will expire in 6 hours, I wouldn’t have been surprised. But this was Safeway, notorious for its high prices. The kind of place you go only out of necessity. Or so I thought.
We finally settled on a line, behind a man with a full cart but only one person ahead of him. I began my calming self-talk, reminding myself that anger only leeches precious energy, and we really weren’t in that much of a hurry anyway. But then things got weirder.
At the till, progress was stalled. An exhausted-looking (but congenial) woman was calling for a price check, just as a young guy (not a Safeway employee) brushed past us with two boxes of salt. He showed them to the woman, and then she, the young guy and his mother all compared the boxes of salt to the one sitting at the till, as if a detailed study of its packaging might yield its price. The woman called for a price check again, her amplified drawl echoing out into an abyss of boil-in-a-bag meals and aspartame-sweetened fruit juice. No one answered.
Another woman appeared-I’m not sure what her connection was to the trio. She was looking up something on her cell phone and delivering the information to the woman on the till, who punched it in. Success! Success? Not so fast. The salt mystery had been solved, but then each successive item appeared to require the go ahead from the Holder Of The iPhone, who incidentally, was not a Safeway employee. This techno-wizard could have been browsing Hentai while just making prices up at random, since no one was questioning her or even asking to look at the phone. So is the power of the SmartPhone. All hail.
Five minutes. Ten. Fifteen. We changed lines once, twice, to no avail. It really did feel like time had actually slowed down, like we had entered a dimension where understaffed stores of over-worked employees attempted to serve a colossal glut of aggressive zombies buying an unreal amount of stuff.
Wait a second.
Come to think of it… this did feel a little bit familiar.
When we finally, finally did get to a checkout (in the end, self-checkout was the fastest way to go) I was livid. I had indeed exhausted all my precious stores of energy, and just wanted my goddamn eggs and soda water, thank you very much. I was glad that the only representative of the Safeway chain that I had to face was that manic and vaguely threatening computer voice, because I wanted to tell someone to go to hell. And I did. Nevertheless, the voice told me to have a nice day. I smirked at the guy who had been in front of the first line-still waiting- as we passed.
I keep telling people that the trip was more of a crash course than a fabulous getaway, and I’m okay with that. Among the things I can now say I’ve learned is to expect grass-is-always-greener-itis when visiting a foreign land. I’ll be ready for it next time.
I’m putting together a class on the differences in form between a short story and a novel, so I thought I’d share some of my pearls of wisdom with you. Lucky you!
Some thoughts on the basic construction of short stories.
This is not the last word on storytelling. It is however, a starting point for constructing good, sturdy short stories. Once you’ve mastered these suggestions (I’ve won short story contests and I haven’t even come close to mastering these suggestions) you may find that you want to bend and break the rules, in the name of innovation and experimentation. But you have to learn the rules in order to break them.
Start in the action:
Try starting your opening scene in medias res. It’s a common writer thing to over-contextualize a story at the beginning. How often have you written an opening paragraph, and then cut it out later because it all it did was outline what was about to happen? That crescendo of action that we use for storytelling still applies here; it just starts a little further along the continuum.
You’ll find that you can add detail and set the scene later on in the story, but try starting with action. Some writers still try to get around this by having the starting action be kind of bland: sitting on a couch considering life etc… Or they still feel the need to begin the story at a point that universally signifies a “beginning,” like waking up first thing in the morning. Try setting an opening scene somewhere a little more intriguing, and providing just enough context so the reader feels grounded. Imagine this: a guy, on a boat, with two cell phones in his pocket, and a hostage. Or this: a middle-aged woman who has just been busted for something at the mall, wondering what kind of a buzz she’d catch from the energy drink on the security guard’s desk. In both cases, the reader’s response is more “What the hell? Who is this? What’s going on?” than “What an intriguing landscape, I wonder what is going to play out here.”
Exercise: Look at a couple of famous short stories, then choose one of your stories (the opening of a novel or chapter will also do) re-write the opening scene so that you start right in the action. Take a look at any material you’ve cut in order to do this, and read through your story. Do you miss these details? Is there somewhere else they could fit in? Ask a friend to read both openings and tell you which they prefer.
Flashbacks aren’t verboten, but if you really want to impress a reader, try writing a short story entirely in one time frame. It’s hard! Most of us think that the only way to really get to know a character is through their history, and since scenes are considered more effective than exposition, flashback scenes seem like the only way to fill in a character’s background. But a character’s dialogue, and their choices in a given situation can tell us nearly everything we need to know about them.
Try reading some Raymond Carver, he does not deal exclusively in the present, but most of his short stories don’t use flashbacks. Or they are brief— just a few brush strokes.
Try writing a story from beginning to end, all in one time frame if possible, and then worry about back story and whether the character motives are clear. If you really know a character, the choices he makes will be clearly motivated. This is why profs want you to do those character sketches before you start writing, not just so you can come up with the quirkiest possible character traits. This is why I like writing about people (or conglomerates of people) I know in real life. Some of the characterization work has been done for me. Know the character, decide what they want, give them something to do, then throw problems at them.
Exercise: Imagine that a character has 24 hours to achieve a goal, and then write his story. Or re-write an existing story with this constraint. You don’t have to use the full 24 hours. But limit yourself to a day. The day should be the PIVOTAL moment in the character’s experience, not the weeks or years before or after. The moment when the character arc occurs. This is why I love short stories so much. Cut the crap, and give us the climax. No disrespect to novelists! The journey can often be more rewarding then the destination.
But short stories are all about DESTINATION. Start with this constraint, and soon you’ll find yourself filling in and polishing up the journey.
Get a hold on your characters/ subplots.
If a character (call her Annie) wants to foil her best friend’s attempts to win a beauty contest, that’s a workable plot. If Annie realizes that her total hatred of beauty contests is holding her back from truly accepting her own personal shortcomings then that’s your subplot. If there is some subtext going on throughout the story about how feminism can sometimes be kind of judgmental and exclusive, awesome.
If Annie also has a dying grandmother who was a beauty contest winner in the forties but had her leg shot off by a jealous boyfriend and has never really recovered and has been trying to set Annie up with a nice young pilot named Zero who has a buddy that collects guns and suggests gunning down the beauty pageant contestants and Annie must foil his diabolical plan while nursing her grandmother back to health and convincing her best friend not to take part in the pageant, you may have too much material for a short story.
When beginning a story we often think we aren’t going to have enough material, and we’re not going to maintain the reader’s interest. More characters and subplots will not solve that problem. Dig deeper into the story you do have. Give the character more obstacles, not more goals.
Keep it simple. Whenever possible, combine two minor characters into one. Don’t introduce Mom, Dad, and sister, if Mom is the only character who contributes to the plot. Be ruthless! If your story ends up being 1500 words, fine. You’re not being paid by the word, anyway.
Let your description do double duty.
Particularly important in short stories. Stick to relevant character details that also tell us something about the character’s desires or emotional state. Instead of a character who is blonde with freckles, six feet tall and wearing red shoes, maternity jeans, a floppy hat and a raincoat, tell us that she towers over the other women in the room, and at four months pregnant, is just beginning to show.
Wearing heavy red lipstick and laughing loudly may suggest a woman who is trying to impress. A man with a shark tattoo may be predatory. Unique details are also good, blonde-haired and blue-eyed people are everywhere, folks with mohawks, stutters and a face tattoos are not. Use unique details sparingly, and make sure they contribute to the picture of the character that you’re painting. Don’t give a kindergarten teacher a face tattoo, just because it’s edgy.
Some goes for setting. A rusted out skeleton of a tractor suggests a farming community that has fallen on hard times. An isolated town surrounded by clearcut suggests loss, or a triumph of commerce over nature. A small rip in the wallpaper in the corner of a room isn’t exactly evocative, unless the story is about a perfectionist home decorator who is losing their touch.
Think about the saw mill in Twin Peaks. It’s used fairly extensively in the plot, but the shots in the opening credits show saw blades whirring and sparks flying, which creates a suggestion of violence and a feeling of unease in the viewer. Both location and atmosphere detail are communicated.
Exercises: Do a character sketch or use an existing character and come up with 5 details about them that also say something about their desires or emotional state. Also come up with two unique details about them.
-Think about a setting you’ve used in a story and come up with three evocative features in that setting.
-Some details will have universal significance to readers, and others will be contextual. What do these character traits suggest to you?
A crew cut
Smokes a cigar
A paunch (beer belly)
Drives a Camaro