I’ve been having some strange dreams lately. One was where my dad had been shot in the neck. Blood was flowing through an open hole the size of a pencil eraser. He tried to talk, so he put his finger over the hole, but still couldn’t really get out anything. He was starting to suffocate on his own blood.
Another one involved toenails the same color as a school bus.
Dreams are some of the most terrible devices to use in fiction and poetry. We all have weird, wonderful dreams that can reveal something lovely and wonderful (or inane) about us. Imagine if in Tobias Wolff’s “Bullet in the Brain,” it said, “He dreamed the bullet smashed his skull and ploughed through his brain and exited behind his right ear..” vs. “The bullet smashed Anders’s skull and ploughed through his brain and exited behind his right ear…
Imagine: My father has been shot. The bullet pierced through his trachea and, though I can’t see it, I imagine the blood and matter on the couch pillow his head leans on is the color of the pomegranates he helped me pick as a child. He struggles to tell me something, but can’t. What does he want to tell me? He loves me? He regrets doing ______? Clean out the lint filter?
As soon as I begin something with “I dreamed” or “In a dream” or “I imagine(d),” it automatically loses its power. We have no control over our dreams (unless you’ve mastered doing so), and because of that, we don’t really need them to create whatever emotional tension we want in a story. Dreams can definitely be triggering situations, but I need to cut out those lines that clearly define it as a “dream.”
I make my dreams “real” in the landscape of my work, or I try to take whatever feeling I got from the dream and apply that to a realistic situation. In that dream with my father, I felt panic, sadness, regrets. What other scenarios could make those same feelings arise?
Similar with “I imagine.” “I imagine he cheats on me” doesn’t have the same power as “He cheats on me.” Even if it’s clear from the narrative that the speaker is imagining this betrayal, by cutting “I imagine,” the emotion is clearer. The imagining has become more than just a “fantasy,” but something the speaker can react to viscerally. Writing can make jumps. We don’t have to “clue our reader in” by saying, “I dream my husband is a banana.” We can go full-force with “my husband IS a banana.”
Poetry, much more than prose, is about emotional truth, not physical truth. Physical truth: I had a dream. Emotional truth: Pain, sadness, regrets. The emotional truth is always the more interesting and the more revealing.