The Strangeness of the Dream: On Process Videos, Writing, and Creativity
Hannah Stephenson | June 2015
In Inception (that wacky, mind-bending movie about dream-making and art-making), the success and believability of the dreams depends on not questioning the worlds that have been created. Realizing, mid-dream, that a dream is going on will cause the scene to explode, fractal-style, until the dreamer is woken up.
There’s one scene in which Leonardo DiCaprio’s character, Cobb, speaks to the dreaming Robert Fischer (played by Cillian Murphy) and exposes the fact that they are within a dream. He points out how odd the rain is, and that the gravity is off, and although Fischer initially starts to panic, Cobb guides him to breathe and relax, recalling that he has been trained for this very circumstance.
Like Cobb, I believe that there is real value in “drawing attention to the strangeness of the dream.” The payoff for Cobb is that he is able to delve more deeply into Fischer’s subconscious. As artists, I think we can learn a lot from Cobb. Just like him, I want to draw your attention to your own creative process, its idiosyncrasy and weirdness and beauty.
Here’s the tough part—while we do this, I want us to remain immersed in the thing that we are making (whether that is a poem, a story, an essay, a painting, or a song).
As a poet, I adore asking other poets how they write. Our processes are breathtakingly varied, even within the same genre. For instance, I write (almost always) on a computer. The time of day varies based on my schedule, but the duration is nearly always between 45 minutes to an hour at a time. I don’t need to be in a specific setting or room, but I do prefer music. I like to look at pieces of art to spark poems, but I don’t think of my work as ekphrastic.
Most importantly, there’s a feeling that I am trying to enter when I write. That’s a question I love asking artists—how does it FEEL when you are writing? For me, it feels like a type of dreaming. I usually feel drowsy but curious—I once likened it to a cross between looking at Where’s Waldo (that active, scanning sort of seeking) and looking at a Magic Eye (a relaxed, blurring of vision and loss of control).
I first encountered artists’ process videos a few years ago, and ever since, I’ve been hooked. This one by Robert Josiah Bingaman immediately enchanted me. Throughout the sped-up ten minutes of this video, we see Bingaman prep his canvas (he spends 2 minutes doing this, in fact), begin the underpainting, sit, stand, look at reference images, apply painter’s tape, hang out with his dog, and sleep. I once asked artist Jessica Bell about her paintings and mixed media pieces, and she shared that when “[she] is working on [her] layers, [she] is very conscious of creating material history.” This idea of “material history” is so appealing to me (a poet who swiftly feeds and deletes her linguistic history into the abyss of word processing). I love seeing the history of a piece of art (which is usually erased in its final product) laid bare.
Consider this process video by Jacob van Loon. I watched it over and over; it’s oddly soothing and beautiful. He draws a grid in pencil and paints over it, draws a new grid, and then starts spattering the grid with gray and deep orange watercolor. He taps his fingers across the canvas as if playing piano, and fills the tiny triangles painstakingly, one by one. Here’s one of embroidery artist Meghan Willis, and one by hyperrealistic oil painter Robin Eley, and one by Mark Wagner, who cuts up money to make his collages.
As an artist, I think it’s brave to expose yourself this way. You aren’t just showing others how you make what you make—you are asking and observing yourself in a moment of utter aloneness.
Allow me to put my (proverbial, non-cut up) money where my mouth is. For the past couple of years, I’ve been making my own process videos. Here’s one I made just for you.
Anyone who has QuickTime (and if not, you can download it for free) can do this—you simply choose to make a new screen recording. Speed things up with a little time lapse editing via iMovie, and voila! You, too, can peer over your own shoulder. Another option would be to take screen shots as time elapses (plenty of visual artists photograph their work-in-progress this way; why shouldn’t we?).
In this process video, I’ve recorded the drafting and initial editing of a recent poem, “Sea Wall.” I started doing this initially because I used to write and post a poem every weekday on my site, The Storialist. I began doing this in 2008, and then modified it to four poems a week (Monday through Thursday) through this year. If you ever need to generate a lot of work, let me tell you, this is the way. I also will mention that there were plenty of not-so-good poems in there. But at least once every couple of weeks, something good would work its way toward me.
This past year, I’ve been looking more skeptically at my process since I felt that I was getting too comfortable within it. I needed to make the dream strange again. I know I wanted to take more risks and vary how I worked—much of my writing was feeling stale and derivative. I’ve been trying to slow down a little, and also I’ve been writing some poems that I haven’t posted.
I’ve learned so much in looking at my own work this way. I know that beginning the poem takes a while for me, and that while writing in the beginning, I’m doubting each word I type, but I’m allowing it, anyway. I know that I never want to know where a poem is heading, or else the magic will be killed for me.
The most vital thing I’ve learned deals with trust versus control (Brian Eno has some brilliant thoughts about this in a talk for Edge, “Composers as Gardeners”). I am always running as fast as I can away from the “control” side of the spectrum and rushing toward the darkness of trust. To write a poem, I need to trust that the right words are the right words when I have found them. I need to not edit away from bravery.
Today, I invite you look down as you make whatever you make. Let’s look together as you untangle your necklaces, lace up a shoe, put gas into the car, or retrieve a splinter. If our little dream worlds rattle, let’s breathe, and remember that through them, we can powerfully observe and alter our bigger worlds.
Hannah Stephenson is a poet, editor, and instructor living in Columbus, Ohio (where she also runs a literary event series called Paging Columbus). She is the author of In the Kettle, the Shriek (Gold Wake Press), editor of New Poetry From the Midwest (New American Press) and The Ides of March: An Anthology of Ohio Poets (Columbus Creative Cooperative), and a poetry and arts blogger for The Huffington Post. Hannah’s writing has appeared in publications that include The Atlantic, Hobart, 32 Poems, Sixth Finch, Poetry Daily, and The Nervous Breakdown. Find her online at www.thestorialist.com.