Last night I had one of those dreams that clarifies everything. I don’t put much stock in dream interpretation of the psychoanalysis variety. Though I’m sure that a certain amount of Jungian symbology is valid, the notions that dreams should either be discounted as so much neural garbage or elevated to some kind of subconscious problem solving for waking life don’t do much for me. There’s truth in those assertions, too, but here’s where I land on dreams: We spend one third of our lives asleep. Why dismiss 33% of our existence as not real, as less valid than the other two-thirds of our lives? “Because you can’t really fly” seems like a perfectly sensible answer, but it isn’t true. For eight hours per day I’m perfectly capable of flight.
The things that happen to us in dreams are so real that we produce neurochemicals that paralyze our physical bodies while we sleep. Without these self-prescribed wonder drugs we’d stand and fight the demons in our dreams, run from the bad guys, that sort of thing. That dream you have where you can’t scream, punch, or run away from danger? That’s your physical body trying to fight against both the events in your dream world and its own physical paralysis.
I have a healthy respect for my dream life, and if you want to extend your life by 33 percent perhaps you should, too. “Experience” is really no more than our brains processing input, after all. Whether that input comes from eyes, ears, nose, fingertips, tongue, or some deep internal wells seems semantic. Once something has been experienced, it’s real.
Anyway, the dream: I was chatting with a photographer friend, and by “photographer friend” I mean a person who considers taking pictures her calling. This was a person with piles of gear and a mouthful of numbers that meant nothing to me. She probably had a pocketful of f-stops, whatever those are.
“You shoot, don’t you?” she asked.
“Yes and no,” I said. “I click the button and sometimes I get lucky, and with digital editing tools I can clean up a lot of my mistakes.”
“So you aren’t really a photographer then.”
“No, not at all. You are a photographer. I’m just playing. It’s fun. I’m the same way with guitar. I play but I don’t play well, and I don’t care. I’m not a musician–I’m a guy who owns a few guitars that he bangs on occasionally and feels happy. It’s just play. No expectation, no purpose.”
There was a great unspoken in the dream, and both my friend and I knew it. The unspoken was this: “But I consider both writing and visual art my media, and I take them so seriously that they are no longer fun.”
In my waking life this is not entirely true. Throughout my life I’ve gone through cycles of taking visual art much too seriously, but I think I have that licked. I was born with a lucky birth defect–the ability to render things realistically–which for many years a mistook for an obligation. Because I could draw well, I should draw well. Eventually I stumbled upon the doodle–childlike, poorly rendered, devoid of any purpose beyond making me happy. Doodling isn’t work but rather play, and when it isn’t I don’t enjoy it.
Occasionally someone will ask me to draw something for them. For people with my particular birth defect this is analogous to being the guy with the pickup truck. “Hey, what are you doing Saturday? Can you help me move?” is pretty much the same as “Hey, you can draw, right? Can you draw me a goat wearing chaps riding on the back of an elephant?” You’ve got the tools so dance, monkey.
I dread these moments for a few reasons, the first of which is that I’m not good at drawing to order. I don’t see in my head what you see in your head, and no matter how many different ways you describe your vision I still won’t be able to see it the way that you do. Even if I did, I’m simply not that competent of a draftsman. My drawing motor only has two settings: childlike cartoon and realism. I can’t draw Batman, for example, though I can doodle a bat or a man, or I can render you a nice representation of either.
Worrying about getting your vision down on paper makes me anxious. Fretting over getting it done in a timely manner stresses me out. Dreading your look of disappointment when neither the goat nor the elephant look how you imagined them “and oh by the way the chaps are the wrong color” depresses me. I’m not playing. I’m not having fun. Your innocent request has turned drawing into work.
I wasn’t as lucky in terms of writing birth defects. Being able to draw well was no more than a quirk that allowed easy access to my brain’s right hemisphere. No similar stroke of genetic luck manifested itself in terms of writing. I was at best an average student as a child, rarely capable of drafting a story or essay that earned more than an “assignment completed” check mark. Occasionally I got off a good one, though, and when I did the satisfaction was truly indescribable. Those rare moments convinced me that writing was my calling.
Essentially I was born a writer with very little aptitude for writing. Like the photographer friend in my dream, I knew exactly what my medium was, but unlike her I didn’t know what the hell I was doing. Regardless of whether I could string two sentences together, writing remained my calling. I just needed to learn how to do it.
I worked. I read. I studied. I wrote.
That choo-choo train comprised of four sentences containing two words each was the result, or more specifically the confidence to make that artistic choice was the result. Whether that choice was right or wrong, good or bad, is of little interest to me. Those four sentences feel balanced to me, and they convey exactly what I wished to articulate. They are the result of many years of mangling language in order to learn how to say things simply.
Slowly–and by slowly I mean over many years–I came to a place where writing was fun. It was play. I felt like I’d developed enough skill that I could call myself a writer with the same confidence that my dream friend labeled herself a photographer.
And then it became work. Editors wanted goats in chaps riding elephants, so I gave them what they wanted. If they didn’t like the goat’s color, I changed it–anything for a sale. On the other hand, stories that I wrote for no other reason than because doing so felt good rarely found homes. Some came back with borderline hostile notes, like this one:
I think I really need to know what’s behind the red door to make any sense of this piece. As it’s written, it reads more like a slice of life and less like a complete flash. A lot of the dialogue reads circular and unnecessary.
This made little sense. What and why?
Without knowing anything else about the red door and what’s behind it, or this couple, I couldn’t really invest in the story.
I love spare prose, but this one is so spare it makes no sense to me. Too many mysteries with no answers, and I feel unsatisfied as a reader.
These are probably all valid comments, but each of those editor’s criticisms are directed at conscious artistic decisions on my part. The story in question did exactly what I wanted it to do in the manner in which I wanted it done. The dialog was intentionally circular; the mystery behind the red door no mystery at all to a close reader. This story was not an example of me pointing the camera and clicking away in hopes of getting lucky. I aimed, I focused, I clicked.
What do I do with that kind of feedback? “No thanks” is one thing, “Your every artistic instinct is wrong” quite another. Do I quit? Do I adapt? Do I dismiss this unsolicited feedback as the ramblings of an unsophisticated reader? Do I insulate myself with a giant “nobody recognizes my genius” bubble?
I’m not having fun anymore. I’m not doodling writing-wise. The joy was sucked out of this exercise when my mother died several months ago, and I can’t seem to get it back. Writing feels like shouting into a hurricane: No one is listening, and even if they were they wouldn’t care. They have a goddamned hurricane to contend with, after all.
But for one third of my life I’m still able to fly. That is real, and for now maybe that is enough.
Not everything that I write ends up on “Why It Matters” for one simple reason: Many publications won’t accept a story if it’s been published elsewhere, and some consider posting a piece to a blog “publishing.” Often with fiction and other spec pieces I won’t run them here unless I’m pretty certain I can’t sell them.
The following story has been rejected three times so it likely falls in the unsaleable bucket, and since it’s the story that spawned the feedback quoted above, this seems like as good of a place as any to stick it. Originally I wrote it for a contest, so it bears some of the constraints–length, for example–of that contest. The game was to turn the photograph at the top of this post into a piece of flash fiction. I assumed that most writers would either go for a story of the couple leaning against the wall arguing or for something romantic, so I went another direction.
What was that direction? I will share that with you after you read the story.
Here Comes That Rainy Day Feeling Again
“If you don’t want to go, we should turn back now before we get too much farther away from the train,” he said.
“Stop asking me that.” Normally she took two steps to his one, but today he ambled like a school boy dreading the end of summer vacation. “It’s decided. It’s done,” she said.
“I’m just saying there are options. That’s all,” he said.
“I hate coming into the city,” she said. “At least it’s raining.”
“I do like the rain.”
“I hate it.”
“Then why did you say that?”
“Because it washes away some of the filth. I hate it here. I just want to feel clean,” she said.
“You used to love it here,” he said.
“I used to love a lot of things.”
Their hands brushed together. She shifted her purse to her opposite hand and jammed the one nearest him into the pocket of her overcoat.
“I do like those new Buicks,” he said. They stood on the corner in silence, waiting for permission to keep moving. “I don’t think this signal is ever going to change,” he muttered. “Yes sir, I do like those Buicks.”
“I heard you,” she said.
They entered the crosswalk. His soft soles slapped the wet pavement as they passed the idling cars, her heels clicking beside him. “We could go to Manny’s for lunch. They have that cobb salad you like,” he said.
“They said not to eat before,” she replied.
“Oh, I know. I was just thinking maybe we could sit and talk for a bit, get out of the rain.”
“You know we can’t do that.”
“Sure we can. We can do whatever we’d like,” he said.
“Please, Thomas. Please stop it.”
“Stop what? There’s options, that’s all I’m saying,” he said. She stopped walking, fists clinched and overcoat buttoned to her chin, eyes locked on the mailbox, the street lamp, anything but him. “Can’t we just talk about it?”
She tried to speak, but all that came was a guttural wail, unworldly, lost. “We. Are. Here,” she managed.
“Okay,” he said. He pulled a slip of paper from his pocket. “Looks like just a couple more blocks. We’re supposed to look for a red door.”
They walked in silence, no sound but the gentle rain and their clopping shoes. He spotted a nice Roadmaster as they crossed 57th Street, but not a word passed between them.
They passed Manny’s. A couple stood near the entrance, talking loudly. She wondered why they exposed themselves to the rain rather than taking shelter in the doorway. They laughed, and the man pressed his body against the woman.
“Oh, no you don’t, bub,” the woman said.
“Hey, come on, baby. I’m just trying to get out of the rain,” the man said, and he rubbed the woman’s hip.
“Well, if that’s the case,” the woman said.
She grabbed Thomas’s arm. “Looks like she’s had one too many,” he said once they passed the couple.
“I hope not,” she replied. “I wouldn’t wish this upon my worst enemy.”
They continued walking, dreading for different reasons the sight of the big red door.
If you guessed that the couple leaning against the wall weren’t fighting but rather enjoying a drunken flirtation, you were correct.
If you guessed that my story focused instead on the couple trying hard to avoid eye contact with anyone, including each other, you were also correct.
If you guessed that they were also avoiding the abortion conversation that the woman in the bright overcoat was tired of having–an abortion she wanted and he didn’t–then you, sir or madam, are a closer reader than at least one very grouchy editor, and I commend you.
Perhaps this was simply a poorly written piece of flash fiction–too obtuse, too sparse, too boring. Or maybe this kind of writing is out of fashion, I don’t know.
I enjoyed making this doodle quite a bit, regardless of its inevitable failure as a publishable story. I suppose that’s why it matters.