On Dreams and Writing

Joshua ArmstrongThe following is a guest post by Joshua Armstrong, whose story “Age of Consumption” appeared in Issue 16 of Typehouse.

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What can the role of dreams be in a writer’s process? Of course, one must be wary. Stories about dreams are boring, and prose that comes off as ‘dreamy’ is probably to be avoided at all costs. On the other hand, the feel of dreams can be reproduced in writing to astonishing effect, for example by Kafka or, in a very different register, David Lynch.

As a writer, however, I try to stay close to dreams. Occasionally I will use details from them as a catalyst for my creative writing. This was the case with the story I published in Typehouse, “Age of Consumption.” Sometimes to begin a piece of writing you just need a particularly persistent image, object, or phrase that you can start writing around. Dreams can supply these.

Some of the most fun and fulfilling—if utterly inaccessible (perhaps)—writing I’ve done has been in the form of Surrealist ‘automatic writing’ experiments. These exercises are meant to produce writing that would be as spontaneous and unpredictable as dreams. French avant-garde poets developed these techniques in a hotel in Paris near the Panthéon in the early 20th century.

A modern-day adaptation might go as follows: when you are feeling sleepy, recline in a quiet, comfortable place. Grab your keyboard, close your eyes and simply type at a steady pace without slowing down or stopping until you are unconscious (i.e. asleep). In the still-conscious state, if you obey the constraint that you must keep typing words at a steady pace, you will  write things that surprise you.

When you wake up, check the file and there should be at least a couple lines you have absolutely no recollection writing and that you could not have written consciously. Sometimes they will be nonsense, but often there will be something enigmatic and strangely meaningful about them. For me, one such sentence was: “Many went away with a red car once white.” Another: “Where are the new versions of ourselves?”

Writing polished stories is, of course, a very different craft, and yet, in the end, we don’t control that creative process entirely either. Writing, for me, is a matter of remaining close to that spontaneous, unpredictable element of imagination that takes center stage in dreams. Dreaming and writing, if in different ways, allow us to access and express something meaningful about the world that on some obscure and distant level we intuit despite ourselves.

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