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.