In another post I told how, in a Toronto writers group, I once read the pages from my first novel, The Birdcatcher, where, in a dream, character Chris Stone and his ten year-old old daughter fly up a river valley in Vietnam in a Huey helicopter, looking out the side door at the devastated country below.
Those writers informed me that the dream didn’t work because it was too long, too detailed, and too real – real dreams, I was told, are vague and confusing. Everyone in the group nodded their heads in agreement.
In fact, it was a real dream – taken from a journal entry after the night I’d watched a documentary of the fall of Saigon. It was only two pages, and is still in the book. I believe it works flawlessly in conjunction with three more dreams in the book to achieve my goal – the revelation Stone receives in the fourth and last dream – how one can live in the midst of people who don’t understand you, and who will never understand you, yet lead a rewarding life anyway.
All four dreams were real dreams I gave to Chris Stone. Associated with my own discovery of my probable autism, the last dream, combined with the writing of The Birdcatcher, changed my life irrevocably. I wrote the book hoping to help other people see what I and Chris Stone had seen.
By the way – authentic dreams are hard to find in North American fiction, but you can find them elsewhere. Tolstoy and Dostoevsky have lengthy detailed dreams in their novels, and I’ve long believed that they used their own dreams.
Maybe I should also say that I’ve been studying dreams since I was 5 years old. I’ve never stopped experiencing them as important, and for decades I’ve read everything I could find about them.
But maybe it’s partly because of that writer group that I’ve finally, reluctantly, begun working on my own book about dreams. The world hardly seems to need another dream book (there were over 700, in English alone, on Amazon last time I checked), but I’ve learned a few things about dreams that I haven’t seen in any book.
But those Toronto writers weren’t finished with just setting me straight about dreams. They also informed me that my novel doesn’t work because Chris Stone himself is unreal.
For example, in the story, one night after after an argument with his wife when he’s unable to sleep, Stone goes outside to look at the stars (I later deleted the stars for other reasons). One woman informed me that a real married man, in bed beside his wife, would never do that. I replied that I’d been doing it all my life. I didn’t tell her that my wife and I had slept in our own rooms for at least twenty years. But the other writers (they were all women except the professional novelist conducting the group) all seemed to agree with her.
I should have asked them if they were aware that many men, some of them married, buy telescopes to look at stars with. I should have asked them if they knew that, if you go outside at 3am, you see a completely different set of stars than you see at 10pm. There are a few of us who deliberately get up in the middle of the night to go out see those. Maybe I should also have asked them if they knew that, although you don’t see a lot of stars at night in a big city, you only need a pair of binoculars to see 10 times as many.
Maybe I should have told them too that dreams don’t have to be vague – you only need to learn to focus while you’re in them and they can be as detailed as anything in real life. But the writer in charge of the group had asked us not to go off on tangents, to stick to writing, so I kept my mouth shut.
But it didn’t stop there – there were still more criticisms of Chris Stone over the following weeks. No one, I was told, could be so solitary. No one could be so detached and still have real feelings – etc etc.
I came out of that group understanding that, because of my different perspective of the world, which I’ve had since I was a boy, I was going to have a difficult time getting The Birdcatcher published. Those writers proved dead right about that – I sent it to 20 agents and 40 publishers over the course of a year and not one was interested.
So, yes, in that writer’s group I was taught that, at least in north America, a novel is supposed to be first and foremost about relationships. The idea that someone can go beyond the ties of relationships into a larger more complex and interesting universe, and that this can be something some of us want to read about, seems to be very unwelcome.
But this isn’t just a problem for autistic or similarly different-minded novelists. It’s true for anyone who sees the world differently from the norm. Coping with so-called normal people’s expectations of how you should think, and what you should think about, is a problem of daily life for a lot of us, isn’t it?
PS – if you check The Birdcatcher page above, you’ll find a free link to the first four chapters of the book – the fourth chapter ends with the Vietnam dream mentioned above.