Dreams

After a lifetime of sleeping mostly in blackness like a dark TV screen, I decided last year that I wanted my mind to be active during the night. I had read that opening your mind to dreams would bring them on in a rush of color and light, and I wanted my brain to feel that activity, that animation, that could refresh my creative life. In the moments before sleep overcame me, I welcomed dreams with a mental whisper that gave them permission to light up my mind.

The sleeping kind of dreaming has been a dark experience at times, with images flashing deep in my brain all night long. Some mornings I wake up exhausted from talking to people, some of whom I know and others who are inventions of my tired mind. I pay visits to old dreamscapes, confounding mazes of rooms and scenarios that exist in a world of their own. One night, after listening to radio stories of police brutality, the dreams turned graphic, violent. Another night, while dreaming lucidly, I cleaned out my dream refrigerator and cooked for my friends. But my brain felt alive in a way that it hasn’t in years. My sense of self grew more cohesive, intentional, focused. I slept more deeply, entangled in those dreams, and fell asleep more quickly as they provided a solid place to land while falling asleep.

But there’s been the waking kind of dreaming, too, while scrolling through apartments on Craigslist. I stare at maps of Charlottesville, zooming in on purple dots and redecorating empty rooms in my mind. I envision the shared office space that I may need to rent, or create. I make note of storytelling classes I want to take and interviews I want to conduct to balance the solitude that comes with a writing life. I wonder what gym I will join and hope that I won’t end up paying what some friends call a “fat tax” – an unused gym membership that thins a bank account while a body remains unexercised. I sit quietly, thinking of what it would be like to live in a house that doesn’t let winter gusts in through thin windows, far away from the shouts and smashes of drunken herds of college students roaming after nightfall. I dream of what it will feel like to hold my written, edited, printed, and bound thesis, and what it will be like to cringe next year while flipping through this early attempt at scholarship. I hope that I will cringe. I want my writing to get better.

The nonstop cycle of reading and writing has started to give me brain fog, too. By the end of a long day, I choke out questions and answers while E and I cook dinner. My head feels fuzzy from the strain of too many ideas. Was it Don Delillo who wrote a novel about 9/11, or did he create a database disguised as a novel, and is that what we interface with? Are Clay Shirky and John Unsworth friends or sworn enemies? And how many times do I need to study OHCO before remembering what the acronym stands for? (It stands for Ordered Hierarchy of Content Objects. I just looked it up again.)

My thesis led me straight into the weeds, where my scattered brain struggled to put ideas together. Scraps of information gleaned from haphazard research confused and frazzled me. I’m on the brink of my revision phase, and time is slipping away. Last weekend, I sat down and read everything I’ve written, embarrassed but also relieved to find a few good pearls among the refuse. I wrote a new outline, a focused plan of attack to tame the unruly information that has piled up in Word documents. I’ve got new editors who have helped me to flesh out and frame some of my smaller ideas in articles that will be published soon (you’ll be able to find them on my “Clips” page once links are available).

Somehow, in the midst of all the chaos, I’ve scraped out some time to inhale stories that are becoming lifelines for me. Going to the gym means listening to The American Life for an hour, each lap on the track a little penance for the pleasure of hearing a true story, well-told. I’ve been reading articles on David Carr’s syllabus and eagerly gobbling Taffy Brodesser-Akner’s mini-series “Love in the Time of Bae.” The Manifestation-Station has broken my heart again and again. Copies of The Atlantic have piled up on my bookshelf, and I greedily dream of sprawling in the sand near my grandparents’ beach house in the aftermath of graduation, seeing what the world has been up to while I have been sucked through the whirlpool of job searching and class taking.

I wonder about my waking and sleeping dreams, about how mundane and peculiar they are, and about the cliche tossed at high schoolers and soon-to-be college grads on disposable greeting cards each year. “Follow your dreams,” they instruct us. “Follow your heart.” But how, when dreams and hearts are constantly in flux, and more often than not fixed temporarily on things that, under examination, are weird and confounding?

But then I remind myself that life feels fuller, richer, and more satisfying than ever before now that these dreams have settled in to stay. Weird, confounding, exciting, and strange, they are glimpses into all the things I didn’t know I wanted to examine. They keep me reading, writing, and searching for more.

Planning my chapters

Last week, I met with my thesis advisor in her office in Bryan Hall. I sat in the same chair I had occupied during my second year, when I offered some vague and jumbled interests that eventually evolved into my current thesis project. This time, I was prepared with a list of proposed chapters and topics scrawled in my Moleskin notebook. It was vaguely surreal, as if everything else that had happened in the interim to refine my thoughts was edited away, leaving the two office visits baldly next to each other with all of the intervening work sheared away.

I started writing one of the smaller sections of my thesis last week, and although I’m in theory focused on contextualizing Gish Jen’s The Love Wife in a whirlwind of what I hope will be delicately chosen high and low culture representations of families, in actuality I’m thinking about chapters these days. Not my thesis chapters, but the idea of chapters broadly.

We apply this word as a way of reading our own lives, usually in reverse but sometimes as a way of marking a transition. Graduations; moving houses; changing jobs; these all represent the closing of old chapters and the page-turn into something new. The poignant, tense moment happens at the summit of that turning page, when the next batch of episodes are just ahead but can’t yet be glimpsed. None of this is revelatory; it’s just a cliche we lean on out of convenience.

One of my classes this semester is exploring exactly this – our tendency to frame our lives in the vocabulary of literature. But as much as I deeply love literature, every once in a while, I can’t help but wonder what the hours I spend dissecting stories in class are really worth. (If I never hear the phrases “interiority” and “the human condition” again, it will be too soon.) I’m starting to think that my English major isn’t really about literature at all – at least, not at its core. Instead, I think we crave fictional narratives because we’re uncertain of how to tell ourselves the stories of our own lives. We’re searching for frames, for modes, for moments when an author really nails just how awkward it can be when someone doesn’t understand what you’re trying to say or how you inexplicably distraught you were when you ran into a childhood friend and everything felt weird. If we already knew how to do this, why would we read? And in our search, why would we read the memoirs of people who have already cracked this code when we could read the fictional works of authors who are testing ideas and, like us, in the process of working these things out?

With the semester underway, I’ve traded my summer internship, with its long days and free weekends, in for the elaborate juggling of too many thoughts. These systems are in constant gestation; whether it’s my thesis, social media strategy for Literally, Darling, job hunting, my classes, or my creative writing, there are always thoughts evolving, being abandoned, and occasionally being scribbled down to fight against forgetfulness. I’m finding it difficult to shuffle between these different piles of information and for the first time in my life, I’m getting serious about taking notes, just to keep my various cycles of ideas from being totally derailed or mixed up with each other as I leave things on the back burner.

Thinking of this time as a chapter doesn’t offer me any useful way of framing my experience. Although I might be living out my “college chapter” in a  general sense, no one’s life offers the neat thematic consistencies that robust writing can present. (If you accept that “college” is a relatively weak theme.) The subsections of my life – interdisciplinary classes, mundane tasks, creative work – are chaotic in combination and often irrelevant to each other. Different periods of life certainly offer thematic patterns, emotional resonances, and evolving plots, but before life can truly be thought of in readable chapters, so many experiences are filtered out and scrapped, lost to forgetfulness completely, with other experiences singled out as doing the useful work of explaining. The chronology of how our emotions work is at best erratic.

Now that I’m actually planning and starting to research chapters of a synthesis of literary critique and historical narrative, I’m thinking about nonfiction writing more deeply. Under closer examination, neat labels have a habit of breaking down rather quickly. The real work of writing is to work your way down through that devolution, stop, and build something back up again by sorting through the pieces you have cast around you.

The real irony here, and the thought behind this post’s title, is that I am simultaneously planning literal chapters that I will spend this year executing while preparing to close what many people would call a chapter of my life. As thematically complicated and research-driven as my literal chapters will be, they are so tiny and insignificant compared to what lies ahead. My plans for post-grad life are simultaneously specific and vague, a mess of contradictions and short term goals that will hopefully leave me open minded when considering jobs and cities but focused enough to actually obtain something. People have a tendency to build thesis projects up into grand encounters with unprecedented stress, but it’s small potatoes compared to what’s going on in some of the other thoughts that are silently baking in my unconscious while I scan Jen’s pages for pop culture references.

Only later, after time and forgetfulness have done some of the work for me, can I look back on this time with the ending in mind, deconstruct it, stop, and build it back up again, one word at a time.

Drunk on possibility

Those who read my blog somewhat regularly may have noticed that I post every three or four days – I don’t stick to a particularly rigid schedule, but I like to keep the blog updated regularly and I generally have plenty of ideas to write about, whether they’re things pulled from my journal or just a response to something I saw that seems important that day.

However, there was a sizable gap between my last two posts that merits explanation. I vanished for about a week, and I’m not even sure how that time disappeared.

drunk on possibility

In the past few weeks, my life has exploded with opportunities. I bought a magazine last week, Creative Nonfiction, and I noticed a phrase on the back cover: DRUNK ON POSSIBILITY, it says, the block letters blending subtly with the color of the cover. It seems like an apt phrase for describing both my exhilaration and time loss.

I can hardly keep up with everything that I’m working on right now, and my inbox has been flooded with emails daily. I’m suddenly finding myself with job opportunities – the option to extend my internship, the possibility of working as a research assistant this winter. One of my favorite professors asked if she could quote something I said during class discussion in a paper she’s publishing and seemed happy to chat with me about choosing a novel for my thesis paper. The professor I’m working for this summer put me in contact with another professor who in turn talked to me for over an hour about my thesis before offering to send my resume to a current Slate columnist and a former editor of the Wall Street Journal. I have PDFs of anthropology papers saved on my desktop, all piling up for when I have time to turn my attention to beginning my thesis work in earnest.

This is all a little cryptic as I’m still refining what I’m planning to study, but suffice to say I’ve found a way to study something in which I’ve had a lifelong fascination. For me, the trick with school has always been to find a way to make it personally meaningful to me. The grind of papers and assigned readings can really wear you down, so I play a memory game with myself, summoning up relevant History Channel programs I saw a decade ago to help me contextualize whatever novel or history text I’m currently unraveling.

I’ve also been reading Ted Conover’s Rolling Nowhere: Riding the Rails with America’s Hoboes. Published in the ’80s when Conover was only 24, Rolling Nowhere is the nonfiction account of his gutsy anthropology project to embed himself in hobo culture one summer. I had previously read Newjack: Guarding Sing-Sing, a book Conover wrote after serving for a prison guard for a year. Compared to Conover’s seasoned reporter’s voice in Newjack, he sounds, for lack of a better explanation, like someone in his twenties. There’s a certain earnestness in his literary references to Kerouac and The Wizard of Oz, a certain awkwardness to occasional phrases, that excites me. “I could write like this,” I thought as I finished Chapter 1.

Today, I managed to read half the book during a three-hour lull at work, and I realized just how impressive Rolling Nowhere really is. Not only did Conover reproduce large blocks of quotations in dialect, but the book is the accumulation of a million tiny details. Many of these undoubtedly came from the journals he kept while he rode the rails, but I imagine his journaling had to be reasonably discreet lest others become suspicious of him. Additionally, it took remarkable courage to forsake the comfortable environment to which he was accustomed, not to mention his unjust arrest and night in jail in his own hometown of Denver.

I also connected something I stumbled upon last week completely by accident. While hiking, I was writing the post in my head and opened up an app on my phone to jot down a few notes. The first thing I wrote was my mood: “content and happy.” Later, when I wrote the post, I had been on the phone for a few hours and was trying to finish by a reasonable hour so that I could sleep before work the next day. Bogged down in the logistics of daily life, the ebullient mood that had prompted me to write that note had dissipated throughout the course of the week. I didn’t feel discontent or unhappy, but I realized for the first time the difficulty of capturing emotions in retrospect. In the wake of this realization, Conover’s description of feeling sadness was particularly striking:

The train wound its serpentine way up into the mountains. I planted my feet firmly near the doorway and looked out over the plains, doing an about-face to see out the other door every time the train did a hairpin turn and changed direction. Denver sparkled with the variously colored lights of buildings, houses, and streets, and all of a sudden I felt very sad. Back there were cops and the jail but also, a million times more important, back there was my family. In Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, which I had read over the summer, I had been struck by the frequent use of the word “sad” to describe almost anything connected with his travels – the “sad highway,” the “sad town,” the “sad American night.” Why, I had wondered, did it have to be sad? Life on the road for me had always been adventuresome, unpredictable, exciting, more fun than sad. But tonight, the sad made sense. It could have been used to describe almost anything around me – the city view, the boxcar, the mountains ahead. It was my sadness, the sadness of moving alone, to destinations unkown. And I realized that night what must be common knowledge among hoboes: it’s easier to be on the road when home is something you don’t feel too good about.

This passage synthesizes past emotions with epiphany. Conover wrote the book long after he felt these things, yet reading it, I felt as though he was discovering them for the first time. The only way I can think of accomplishing this is by dutiful journaling. But what if a journal is lost or stolen, as must happen frequently? Reading how fresh these thoughts feel even years after they occurred to Conover for the first time, it seems obvious to me that he has not only a great memory and a great sensibility for how people in general think through their feelings.

So, could I write a book by the age of 24? Only time will tell. Hopefully my thesis will turn into a professional blog or manuscript during my post-grad summer. To some, these goals undoubtedly seem arrogant, but my optimism depends on ignoring the potential for failure. If everyone knew how difficult it was to write a book, I doubt anyone would even try. The worst thing that can happen is failure, and I already know that like everyone, I have a fair share of unavoidable failure ahead of me. I do know that right now, tonight, I’m not nearly sophisticated enough as a writer or frankly as a human to write what Conover wrote. But someday, maybe.

The more I talk to people, the more contacts keep popping up out of the woodwork. Moral of the story: Don’t wait until you’re “ready” to start talking to people about what you want out of life. That’s not something I figured out on my own, but some good advice from one of my college advisors, and it’s brought me into some incredibly helpful conversations so far. I don’t think I’ll ever find myself in a satisfied, finished, utterly polished state, and for now the scrambling is exhilarating and the stumbling is instructive.

On another note, according to a Ben and Jerry’s tweet, today is national ice cream day. I unwittingly celebrated earlier this evening when I stress-ate a Cookout shake. I also learned that during a period of depression and drug induced-paranoia, Elliott Smith ate practically nothing but ice cream. Rolling Nowhere always triggers Smith’s “Going Nowhere” in my mind, so I’ll leave you with that and the hope that with all that’s been developing in my life recently, I’m going somewhere – slowly, incrementally – after all.