Saturday, October 31, 2009
I must say, I have some of the wildest and weirdest dreams.
Maybe that's less of a statement and more of a confession. Maybe it's a confession that one might naturally expect from a guy who makes his living as a storyteller. But I gotta tell ya, some of my dreams are the most bizarre, fantastical, and imaginative spectacles that my brain has ever produced. But are they really mine? Or did these visions originate somewhere else?
First, lemme tell you about what I dreamed last night--the night before Halloween. That's right. I'm gonna tell you an actual story idea that came to me in a dream within the last 24 hours. Then afterwards I'll analyze how I changed it and adapted it from the real details of the dream.
The story is about two missionaries in a foriegn country behind the (former) Iron Curtain. Let's just say Ukraine. See, my son is in the Ukraine. (I think in my dream it was the Ukraine, too. Makes sense, right? But that's neither here nor there. Could just as easily be Romania or Belarus. Anyway...)
One of these missionaries witnesses a murder. It's a murder involving very powerful elements of organized crime in the former Soviet Union. Any kind of conviction hinges on the testimony of this single Elder. (His companion, for whatever reason, did not get as clear a look at the event or the perpetrator.) Trouble is, the murderer has shady connections that tie him to very popular and powerful government leaders. Also, the presence of the Church in this place is tenuous at best, and this single LDS missionary suddenly has the power to expose something utterly rotten--something that threatens to destroy this nation and its political system. As a consequence, this Elder's choices may get the Church outlawed or booted from the country, thus destroying the work of the Lord in that corner of the globe. The plot, of course, involves scenes of nail-biting action and near brushes with death for the two missionaries. It also entails plot twists involving recently-baptized members whose faith and dedication is tried in the midst of the political turmoil, as well as betrayal and intringue, mass corruption and crime that may, in the end, nullify any criminal conviction or positive outcome through this Elder's testimony anyway. So the Elder must ask, why risk his life or risk hindering the Gospel in that nation by doing the right thing?
Neat idea, eh? And yes, that was the very idea that came to me just last night. It was as if this dream lasted all night long. Yeah, I know what they say about REM sleep and how dreams are intermittent and time-limited throughout our sleeping hours. But seriously, this thing went on and on and on. And what a roller coaster ride! It was great! I was on the edge of my seat--er, mattress--throughout the entire night.
You might wonder, if the idea was so great, why am I blabbering about it here on a public blog? Well, partly because I have no idea when I might get around to writing it. Frankly, it's terrible timing for me to be getting new story ideas. I'm so deeply immersed in the next Tennis Shoes novel that I can't think about much else. And after that I have other ideas I'd probably rather pursue. Sometimes it seems like the next twenty years of my creative life are already booked. So why would I be given such a story idea now? I'm frankly not sure. Maybe that's why I decided to blabber. At least it can entice me to write an interesting blog about dreams. :)
I really oughta know better than to spout off my story ideas. See, I had a bad experience back in the 90s where I sat alongside another LDS author at an autograph party at a ZCMI in the Pine Ridge Mall in Pocatello, Idaho (back when there were ZCMIs). Must've been a rather slow autograph party, because while making small talk with this fellow author, I revealed vivid details of a story idea about a sequel to Mark Twain's masterpiece, Huckleberry Finn. I told him how Mark Twain actually started a sequel, but never finished it. I told him how I'd intertwine the Mormon migration west into the plot because, coincidentally, this was close to the same time period as the original novel. So I planned to immerse myself in Mark Twain's writings, adopt Huck's (and Twain's) narrative style, and spin a yarn about about Huck and Tom and Jim going west with Brigham Young and the Saints.
But, truth be told, I was too busy writing Tennis Shoes books at the time. Thus, I never got around to writing this book. But, lo and behold! a couple years later this very same LDS author who I sat by in Pocatello, Idaho published a novel utilizing my exact idea! Sheesh! What a guy, right? Well, I'm not gonna give you the author's name or any other details because, for all I know, the whole thing was innocent. This author may have literally forgotten where he first heard it. He may have honestly stashed it away in his subliminal memory and voila!, one day he thinks it was his to begin with. No biggie. (And if anybody out there happens to know this author's name or his book, don't bother revealing such in the "comments" area, 'cause I won't publish it.) Fact is, if the Lord has blessed me with anything, it's story ideas. I've never lacked ideas. Now executing ideas...that's sometimes not so easy. But my supply to choose from has always seemed endless.
Actually, these days, most ideas come to me while staring at my computer screen. The source doesn't really seem all that miraculous--just the natural consequences (and blessings) of daily habit and discipline. But at least two of my books are based directly on dreams. The first is Tennis Shoes Among the Nephites. That concept came to me on my mission in Gainesville, Florida (of all places). The second "dream" novel is A Return to Christmas. One night I just dreamed about this, sort of, LDS version of Prince and the Pauper (Twain again? Hmmm. But, truth be told, my Huck Finn thing was not from a dream.)
I'm pretty confident that other novels--or significant portions of those novels--have also come from dreams. To be perfectly blunt, I'd have to say that I owe a big part of my living as an artist to dreams.
Now let me clarify a few things. Really, I think the only aspect of the actual "dream" that inspired Tennis Shoes Among the Nephites was the core idea of two boys going back to the time period of the Book of Mormon. I think Frost Cave--a real cave near my home town in Cody, Wyoming--was also part of the dream. But beyond that, I had to flesh out the rest of the plot while I was very much awake. Same with A Return to Christmas. Most of the details from the dream itself were quickly forgotten--probably within hours. It was only the core concept that remained in my memory, and that's what I had to work with.
It's the same with the dream I had last night. The paragraph above only gives a brief outline of the story. To be accurate, even some of that wasn't part of the dream. The dream was mostly action and dialogue and confrontation and dark streets and seedy court rooms and lots of Russian accents. The whole political intrigue thing was not in the dream--expect maybe the organized crime part. I made up the rest while I was awake. (Some of it while I was actually writing the paragraph!) Also, in the dream, I happened to be playing the part of the missionary, which no longer makes sense since I'm in my forties and much pudgier. (For some reason I always seem to see myself in dreams a lot younger and skinnier. Go figure.) So I obviously took myself out of the story. In addition, I don't think the Church or missionary work itself was ever threatened in the dream--another detail I added while I was awake. Then there were other odd parts that made no sense. I was firmly determined to tell you about those parts when I first decided to write a blog about dreams, but...hmmm. Can't much remember those details now. Weird, eh? Oh well. (Sigh.)
The point is that, for me, going to bed at night is often and literally as entertaining as going to the movies. My dreams are frequently that cool. Now the big question: WHY??? Where do dreams come from anyway? And why am I blessed to receive such fascinating ones? Okay, maybe for some readers it doesn't seem so surprising. I'm a storyteller, right? Wouldn't it be expected that I'd have entertaining dreams? Then again, maybe if my dreams weren't so entertaining, I'd have never become a storyteller. So which "chicken/egg" thing came first?
All right, sometimes my dreams are not that cool. For some reason when I'm sick or when I've overeaten the evening before I can have horrible dreams. Tormenting, awful dreams where events repeat over and over or make no sense or where characters illogically reverse roles or when settings in Paris transform to my childhood bathtub. But more often than not I am utterly enthralled. So once again, what is the source--the wellspring--of dreams? Some dreams are so surprising and unfathomable that I don't think it'd be fair to credit them to Heavenly Father or the Adversary. And yet they're almost always creative and mind-bending and totally entertaining. So I guess, it'd be safest and most logical to credit them to Heavenly Father. But for some dreams, would He really want to claim credit? Some time ago I dreamed that my daughter was a serial killer. Where in blazes did that come from?
Once on my mission I listened to a talk tape by Truman Madsen on Joseph Smith (I can't think of many Elders who didn't listen to those particular talk tapes!) Anyway, on one tape--and I have to paraphrase the quote because I've never seen the written text--Brother Madsen reported Joseph Smith as saying, "The Lord often comforts us with dreams even if they have no particular meaning or significance at all."
We're all aware of the fact that the Lord uses dreams to inspire, teach, and prepare us. Jacob's ladder was a pretty cool dream. Joseph in Egypt also had some inspiring dreams (and dream interpretations!). Lehi's dreams were downright magnificent. Even the wife of Pontius Pilate was told in a dream that Jesus Christ was a just man (Matthew 27:19). Not that the dream of Pilate's wife brought about any beneficial action.
We all know Joseph Smith had remarkable dreams. In fact, W.W. Phelps wrote about the very last dream of Joseph Smith. This one is so cool that I'll even give you a link: http://www.scribd.com/doc/8259505/Joseph-Smiths-Last-Dream
Many scientists and inventors have claimed that ground-breaking ideas came to them in dreams. Friedrich August Kekule, an organic chemist famous for his work with the molecular structure of carbon compounds, wrote how he was on a train and fell asleep: “and lo...atoms were gamboling before my eyes...I saw how the larger ones formed a chain, dragging the smaller ones after them, but only at the ends of the chain...The cry of the conductor: 'Clapham Road,' awakened me from my dreaming. I spent a part of the night in putting on paper at least sketches of these dream forms. This was the origin of the 'Structural Theory'" (Edmund W. Sinnott, "The Creativeness of Life," in Creativity and Its Cultivation, New York: Harper, 1959).
The famous physicist, Johannes Kepler, said he "envisioned" the fact that Mars rotated on an elipse in a dream (95.C. W. F. Everitt, "Maxwell's Scientific Creativity," in Springs of Scientific Creativity, 133). The Scottish physicist James Clerk Maxwell, who wrote the equations of electromagnetic theory, was once asked how he solved his problems. He replied, "I dream about them" (Brown and Luckcock, "Dreams, Day-dreams and Discovery," 695).
I don't doubt that many of us have experienced profound and prophetic dreams. It seems to be part of life on planet earth. But the trick sometimes is the ability to cull the gold from the dross. If a dream can't be successfully transformed into something useful while the dreamer is fully awake, it may not really serve a practical purpose. Sometimes separating what's useful and what's not useful in the myriad of images found in a dream is a difficult task. But for me, personally, I've usually found that it's a task worth undertaking.
Wilford Woodruff wrote: "...There are a great many things taught us in dreams that are true, and if a man has the spirit of God he can tell the difference between what is from the Lord and what is not. And I want to say to my brethren and sisters, that whenever you have a dream that you feel is from the Lord, pay attention to it (Wilford Woodruff, Journal of Discourses, 22:333).
Unfortunately, I feel I'm only partially successful at this. I must also confess that I've sometimes had what I felt were brilliant dreams, but because I was lazy and never wrote down or recorded them, they progressively grew more and more foggy with each waking moment until they disappeared entirely. Also, I think sometimes it hasn't been my fault. A few weeks ago I had a story idea come to me in a dream that I was convinced was one of the most powerful story ideas I'd ever received. Oh, I would have written it down. I wanted to write it down badly. But the plot of the dream and its concepts were so complex, so overwhelming, that getting it down quickly enough before the structure began to fade was simply impossible. I remember asking in my mind, "What was the point of that? Why give me such a tremendous idea if I'm just gonna forget it an hour after I wake up?" I literally panicked over this one. But as each moment passed, the dream grew more and more obscure in my memory and I couldn't bring it back.
Sometimes Providence has smiled and I've been a bit luckier. I remember when I had the idea for the song "Whispered Visions," sung by Katherine Nelson, and which I put in the movie Passage to Zarahemla . I conceived this song while I was fully awake and driving home on Bangerter Highway from the Salt Lake Airport. It came to me virtually and wholly intact. I hummed it in my head over and over and over. But then I arrived home, got distracted, perhaps heard some other music in the background, and suddenly it was gone! I'd lost it entirely. For an artist few things are more depressing than losing a great idea. And that night I was very depressed. So before I went to bed, I prayed to have it returned. And Heavenly Father heard my prayer. The next morning, just as I was emerging from that dream state before waking, the tune came back to me lock, stock, and barrell. Or in other words, the verses, the chorus, the bridge--it was fully restored in my mind. (And this time I was smart enough to sing it into a digital recorder!)
I wish I had more answers for the reader on the nature of dreams. If nothing else, last night's dream made at least one positive contribution to my art. It compelled me to go back today and rewrite a scene in my latest "Tennis Shoes" novel. I think a portion of this scene I've already put in another blog.
Basically, Marcos and Josh find themselves in the Rainbow Room, but in the distant past, before the room has fully formed. In fact, Marcos actually does something that "brings about" the miracle. I won't give away those details. But I will paste a part of the description that Marcos gives of what takes place in the "dark void" around him. As you read it, you'll see how it relates to dreams.
"It was as if we were witnessing an act not unlike the primordial act of creation. Light becoming matter. Matter becoming element. Electricity forming into molecules. Joshua forgot to mention how some particles vibrated incessantly, like lightning flashes or strobes. This was how I might have imagined the universe would look when the Gods first created a cosmic body—star or planet—in the midst of unorganized space. Or how it appeared as they heaved the breath of life into a billion particles of dust. Joshua thought I was controlling it. I didn’t believe this. God was making it happen. Nevertheless, I still felt that it was happening because I somehow willed it to happen. Things were reacting to my creative imagination, as if in harmony with a kind of music in my mind. It was influenced by Joshua, too. Don’t let him tell you otherwise. He sells himself short if he insists that he played no part.
"In a way it was like a dream. I’d had many dreams where I didn’t control the succession of events—where I felt I had no power over what I saw or what occurred. And yet who else was in control? My brain was certainly the source of these images. They were part of my psyche. They were inspired by events from my previous day or from the previous years of my life. But not all of them. There was more to it than that. Some images, I was certain, had not originated in my mind. They were from somewhere else. I felt sure that dreams were not purely random events—not mere flashes of synaptic energy. Some other power in the universe also participated. And like my dreams, it was the same with what was occurring around us. I did not understand how all these shapes and colors came about, but somehow it was the power of my mind combined with this other power—this mysterious, universal, celestial power—that had set matter and elements free."
Well...does that offer any enlightenment about dreams? Eh, probably not. I suppose it's all still a mystery. But what a wonderful mystery! One of my favorites, as a matter of fact. And so, for the miracle of dreams, I express to my Heavenly Father my public and eternal gratitude.
(c) Copyright 2009, Chris Heimerdinger
(My personal thanks to Brandon Wilcox of Rexburg, Idaho for putting up a "counter" on this blog for me a few weeks ago. (Sorry for being so technologically challenged!) This blog has been great fun, and a satisfying outlet for ideas and thoughts. There are apparently many readers, but not as many who leave comments. I strongly welcome comments and hope we receive much more participation.
Lastly, I'm offering a last ditch effort to unload some signed Tennis Shoes and Passage to Zarahemla stuff for Christmas presents. See the Ebay list at: http://shop.ebay.com/liahona10/m.html?_nkw=&_armrs=1&_from=&_ipg=&_trksid=p4340.
Posted by Chris Heimerdinger at 12:20 PM