Monthly Archives: November 2006

Poetry and Dreams

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Back when Bowen and Lyra were about 5 and 3, I was a frustrated songwriter. I had several songs under my belt from years past, but not as many recent ones as I would have liked. There were two or three half-finished songs I was trying to pull together, and somehow I thought it was a failure on my part that I couldn’t find the time with two little kids to finish them. When I did take time from everything else to work on my songs I found I had nothing to say, or rather was too full of things I didn’t know how to say. Not understanding the cause or the cure, I called it writer’s block.

Since I had writer’s block where my songs were concerned, I thought maybe if I took a creative writing class it would warm up the engine, so to speak, and I could ease back into songwriting through the side door of poetry. So I signed up for an evening class once a week, and started writing again.

The class was stimulating, we had a great teacher, and I loved the challenge of coming up with a new poem each week. I especially loved the process of compression, where you go over each line of the poem searching for words that can be cut. We looked for the shortest and most powerful way to say something, making each word in the line hold as much weight as possible. It was a fascinating and highly satisfying practice. Condensation for dramatic effect. Compression for metaphoric richness. Brevity for power.

I worked at it week after week. When the semester ended, I signed up for the course again along with several of my newfound poet friends. As the new semester began, I had a dream:

I am writing a poem. It is beautiful. The surprise and delight of writing a new poem makes me realize I am dreaming. In my lucid state I start reading the poem in order to write it down once I wake up. It makes sense in the dream, but I realize that this dream poem is so tightly compressed it would not make sense in ordinary speech. If I were to transcribe it I would actually have to add a considerable number of words in order for it to be understood. I see that there is a continuum of language compression in which poetry lies squarely in the middle. At one end is casual prose, at the other the hyper-compressed imagery of dreams.

The only thing in waking life I have to compare this dream poem to is a hallucinogenic experience. Each word in the poem was fully alive and resonant with its own story. Saying one word was like speaking an entire phrase full of subtle effect, and the words were unlike any I had ever heard or tried to speak.

I think about this dream a lot, particularly when teasing out the meanings of dreams with clients or friends. I am aware that each moment of a dream is like one word of a dream poem: weighted with meanings, many of them hidden by the moment’s position in the apparent dream narrative. The flow of a dream story now has the sense of being more like a Rubic’s Cube than a simple tale, full of images that can with the flick of a wrist create a different story altogether.

The dream shifted my perspective on writing as well. I can’t say that it made writing any easier; nobody who tells you that is ever telling the truth. But it put what I was doing into a broader perspective, and seeing that big picture even for a moment brings benefits. Mostly it taught me patience. It made me realize that my prose writing was actually too compressed, that I needed to slow down and give each idea more room to breathe. Any dependent clause probably needed its own paragraph. Most sentences deserved their own sequence of paragraphs. And the thought I was trying to squeeze into a single paragraph of an essay really should be its own chapter. In fact, writing itself wanted to take up far more room in my life. The dream was like a polite knock on the door before it moved in and made itself at home.

The dream had a touch of prophecy, like a self-expanding file that activates as soon as we dream it. Writing and working with dreams were what I considered recreational dalliances squeezed in between childraising and whatever I did for money. Over time, they have become the core of what I do. What began as a plaintive songwriter’s lament has turned into several book projects, a blog, and a busy private practice. I’m still incredibly slow at writing songs, but it doesn’t feel like a problem at the moment. I’m just too busy writing other things that I love.

The Weirdest Time Ever

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At last, tonight, our months of suffering as a nation will be over. I refer not to a Democratic takeover of Congress but to the cessation, at least for now, of election year campaigning. Tonight I am at home, alternately watching TV news, checking the blogs and websites, and catching up on some magazine reading. I am steeped in the media culture of our nation, and it feels very uncomfortable.

The ever-tightening races are a spectacle to behold. The growing suspense as the percentages rack up is almost as hypnotic as the point in the movie where the scary music starts very softly and you just know, before you know how you know, that someone is going to get creamed. Or maybe someone will come to the rescue and the town will be saved. Except that in politics no story line is that simple. You have to pay to play in this country, and that means that everyone is serving a corporate master of some sort or another. The trick is to vote for someone with backbone and integrity, and those seem to be in short supply these days.

Caring passionately about politics leads directly to indigestion, sometimes heart failure. It’s a dog-eat-man world out there, the competition is vicious, and hardly anyone holds the best interests of the country as their primary concern. This is in stark contrast to what they tell you when you run for student council.

Student council is like a giant school-wide civics lesson with a dash of Miss America thrown in. Its purpose is to get kids interested in taking leadership among their peers, and to get said peers to buy into the idea that voting for a leader is a good and useful task, and that they should do it regularly. It is also an attempt to channel those raging hormones into something useful for a change, getting kids to think beyond what they’re having for lunch to the larger issues that matter to their generation.

The result, all too often, is that hormones win and the election becomes a beauty pageant, with the most desirable young man or woman winning whatever post they ran for, and the smart kids, the ones most prone to cynicism in the face of beauty contests, losing every time. This does not seem like the best way to prepare kids to become active participants in a democracy, but perhaps it is the only way we’ve figured out so far.

I have been interested in politics ever since being class secretary in second grade. Growing up in a conservative family during Watergate, I knew without having to know it that Nixon was a liar, and that my parents and all their friends were being duped. It broke my heart to see this spectacle play out, and I am not sure I ever fully recovered from that sense of betrayal by my supposed leaders. I really believed what I had been taught about this being a special nation that stood for liberty and justice for all. I guess I still believe that is possible, which is why every election season I practically have to take to my bed when the suspense builds to such a pitch. I can’t stand the disappointment.

This year is the worst I’ve ever seen it. After a devastating six-year slide into fascism brought on by an administration we knew was corrupt from the start, the hope of change is in the air. It has created this fragile expectancy among all of us starving for honest, accountable leadership. But the suspense does not just come from the hope that the Democrats will control Congress. It also comes from the fear that if they do, we still will not have honest, accountable leadership.

Taken all together — the horrors of the Bush administration, the constant parade of corruption felling politician and preacher alike, and the fear that even if there is change it will not be enough to slow our descent as a nation — it’s quite a toxic brew here in media land tonight. I’m managing to face it for once, even just now after learning we have re-elected Schwarzenegger as governor. It’s a brutal world out there, but it is the only one we’ve got. May we all keep fighting for what we believe no matter the odds, and may this strained and difficult time be the start of real change for this country.