The Bad Dream Reset

I sometimes take these afternoon naps where sleep so hard it’s like time just skips ahead. I call them “death naps.” They’re not restful at all since I just turn off for an hour or so, but the big problem is that there’s no departure from my mental timeline. I wake up thinking about the things I was thinking about when I went to sleep. Sleep is supposed to clear things up. A mental vacation. I need that break from reality.

When I go to bed for the standard nightly sleep cycle, I dream. A lot. Sometimes my dreams are so vivid and so far removed from my daily life that I wake up in a state of amnesia. And it can last for a couple hours. I mean, it’s not like I don’t remember my name, but I have no attachment to anything. I don’t feel a sense of urgency to be anywhere or contact anyone. Any previous obligations I had no longer carry any weight. I just walk around the house. Eat something. Stare out the window. Flip through a magazine. Then something – usually the phone – will remind me that I have a job and have places to be.

But even then, it can persist. I go to the job and wave to people I know, but in this detached frame of mind. I feel like I’m inside a fishbowl and the rest of the world moves by outside. I’ll have whole conversations with other people where I’m interacting and replying to questions, but in my head it’s like I’m listening to an analog recording of something that happened years ago. I’ll think, “Weird that I said that right there.” But I won’t correct myself because it’s on the recording that way.

It’s not that I’m dwelling on the dream and think I’m still there. I’ve already forgotten it. It’s as though I’ve picked up a book and opened to the middle and started reading. Nothing around me has any context. I’m living in the middle of this book that someone else wrote and I haven’t read the pages leading up to now. The whole experience can be extremely refreshing. It’s like a reset button and I wake up without feeling any stress at all. I have no connection to any consequences after nights like these. All because I had a really strong dream.

I’ve heard dreams are the off-gassing of the sub-conscious. All the thoughts you don’t have the chance to process over a few days or even years come out in dreams. Pressure is relieved and the sub-conscious comes out cleaner. Maybe what’s happening to me is that my off-gassing goes too far and doesn’t leave enough pressure left. When morning comes, I’ve lost all my bookmarks and footnotes. I’m not waking up shouting, “You’re not my father!” But it takes me some time to remember who I am and what I do. I have to research my timeline to figure out where I need to pick it back up.

Nightmares are the best for this phenomenon. The worst of these bad dreams make me I feel like I wake up and they’ve come true. I try to discreetly go around interviewing my friends and co-workers to make sure they’re the same people. Just to make sure I haven’t skipped over to some other thread of reality where people are different… but the same! Is that crazy?

When I was really young, like around five or six, I had really intense nightmares. Wake up screaming kind of deal. They said it was common in highly intelligent children. So I went around for a couple months terrified to go to sleep, but happy that I was smart. Then my grandmother (who just passed away a year ago at 103) said I should stop eating sugar before bed. Doing that causes bad dreams, she said. So Mom cut off my bedtime snack and guess what? The nightmares stopped. Then I wandered around for a couple months wondering if I wasn’t very smart and only had nightmares because I liked ice cream.

In recent months, the stress levels at work have fluctuated wildly. Sometimes weeks go by and everything is fine, but then there will be a huge push for some number gathering or a deliverable will be pushed up a month or two. It’s these latter times that make me wish I could have some crazy dreams and have that micro amnesia on purpose. The problem is that the stress causes me to lose sleep and have more death naps. People say I should exercise more. So I do. But then that gives me energy so I don’t even have the naps anymore. Lately, I’ve taken to eating before bed in hopes of inducing my dream detachment. Maybe one night I’ll eat a whole birthday cake and wake up the next day with no memories at all.

If I don’t get back to you about this experiment, you’ll know it worked.

Dissecting Envy

In few of my posts, I refer to other writers and their work habits. I’ve been reading quite a few first novels to get a feel of where I fit in when it comes to first-time novelists. I feel like I can write better than a lot of the first-timer indie books going up on Kindle, but I can’t get a feel for where I stand among published authors. There are some award-winning books out there that I liked reading, but didn’t think the writing was anything special. Then there are books like The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi and King Rat by China Mielville. These are first novels, but the level of writing is nearly mind-blowing. Description is fulfilling and not oppressive. Dialog is punchy and does more than one thing. And my personal favorite, every scene moves the plot forward.

To sum up in advance, I wish I had written these books.

When I spent all my time thinking about making movies, I would see something like Moon or Brick or Being John Malkovich or Delicatessen or District 9 and end up as much depressed as I was inspired. I wish I had made these movies. I realize that none of these filmmakers (with the possible exception of Rian Jonnson of Brick) appeared out of nowhere. It’s not like Neill Blomkamp just got off his couch and made District 9. But he sure made it look easy.

It’s this creator envy that sometimes makes me want to quit. If I can’t be China Melville or Dashiell Hammett and just blast out genius on the page, why try? The thing is, it’s not like these guys are classical literary masters like Joyce or Faulkner, they started writing because they loved it and they got better over time. Like the filmmakers I mentioned, these writers banged away for years and years with no way of knowing how it would shake out. They powered past doubt. Their career paths and work habits are a source of inspiration for me. When you read their books, you feel like the world is a good place and and good work finds its way to its audience.

Now there’s self-publishing and anyone can put a book out for sale. While I love the idea of doing away with the filtering layer that publishers perform, I find myself envious all over again. But in this situation there is no silver lining. Lower quality books are selling by the millions. I don’t begrudge their authors, not one bit, but I can still be jealous. Here are people who aren’t at the upper end of writing ability, not even over the average mark, but they’re selling. The easy answer is, “Fine then. Write a book and sell it.” I have the “write it” part figured out, but I’ve never been good with the “sell it.” People who do well with any kind of sales are all about the marketing. Again, I’m not saying that cheapens their accomplishments, but it still makes me green. I’m missing some quality that makes a good self-promoter.

In thinking about all this, I remembered a bar fight I witnessed many years ago. This is going to be kind of a long story, but it has a point… When I was of the age that I spent weekends in bars, I saw a huge guy get in a fight with a bouncer. This guy started swinging at the bouncer who easily dodged the guy’s swings. The big guy was drunk, but he looked like a brawler. Instead of the crowd bursting out in jeers and cheers, it got really really quiet. Nothing but the bar music. There were about 30 people surrounding the scene, and I think we were worried for the bouncer. The bouncer, whose name I later found out was Earnest (not joking), started out by trying to calm the guy down, but after two attempts, he figured out that wasn’t going to work. Then his whole demeanor changed. Earnest’s face went completely calm. Like a Buddhist monk. He stood in a very slight crouch with his hands ready, but he was steady, not bouncing or shifting. This big drunk dude was raging and threatening to clean the floor with the bouncer (yes, he said “clean the floor”). Earnest didn’t respond at all, he just watched the guy. Suddenly, the big guy charged Earnest for a waist tackle and though drunk, he was deceptively quick. Earnest did the wrestler’s sprawl like it was second nature. Then spun and took the guy’s back and choked him out with some kind of nelson-style head lock. The whole time, his face never strained, never changed. When the big guy was unconscious, Earnest set him carefully on the floor and stood up straight. Nobody said a word. We all just kind of filed out of that part of the bar.

The party talk picked back up and people were recapping the altercation. Everyone agreed Earnest was a bad ass. Serious super hero stuff. But I wasn’t struck with his wrestling ability, it was his utter confidence in his ability that amazed me. My friends kept talking about his sprawl and choke hold, but I argued the key moment was when his face went calm. That was the moment he took control of the situation. That was the moment he decided this was over. He took charge inside his mind and at that instant, he was ready for anything. Man! Gives me chills just remembering it.

How does this relate to my writing situation? I have to apply my appreciation of the bouncer to my envy of successful amateur writers (and old pros, too). See, I actually witnessed the very second Earnest took over his situation, but when it comes to successful self-pubbed writers, I only see the results. Imagine if I walked up and saw the bouncer in the middle of his choke hold. I would say, “That was easy.” Watching a great movie or reading a great book (or looking up a terrible book’s sales numbers) is like only seeing the choke hold. What about everything that it took to get there? Earnest’s moment was a second or two, but I didn’t see all the years of practice that led up to that moment. I never saw how many times Earnest had his ass kicked in his life. How many fights do you think he went through to forge his supremacy against the big guy?

I can’t be jealous of somebody for knowing the choke hold! I have to track back to the moment of control. I have to remember that the choke hold is useless without experience and practice and self-confidence. I need to channel Earnest the bouncer. I can’t focus on the final results. I need to take over this situation, and be ready for whatever comes.

In Search of the Perfect Writing Instrument

You know that show Hoarders on A&E where people attach memories to every scrap of paper or they see value in bits of wire to the point where they experience deep physical and emotional pain when they are forced to throw anything out?

Yeah. That’s me.

With pens.

Every time I drive by an Office Depot or art supplies store, I think about the pens inside… waiting for me. It’s like there’s ideas in those pens that won’t come out unless I buy them. When I find a pen I like to write with, I buy a dozen. Just in case. Then a company like Uniball will discontinue one of my favorites like the Vision Exact Micro and I will run out and buy as many as I can find. I have drawers full of my go-to pens. The Uniball Signo .7 Gel Grip and Vision Exact Micro .5 for example. I have 10 VEM’s new in the packaging and over 50 Gel Grips. I also occasionally treat myself to a pricier option like the Retro 51 Tornado or a Lamy. With extra refills, of course.

Uniball Vision Exact Micro, aka VEM

Here’s where the pain comes in: if I lose one of these select models of pen before it’s out of ink, I lose sleep. I’m unsettled for a couple days. It’s like I won’t get those ideas back. Crazy? Yeah. I won’t even lend them out. I have a pile of junk pens to let people borrow. Rodeo clown pens to keep the brutish bulls away from the special pens. If I give you a VEM or Gel Grip or Tornado, you have no idea what a significant gift that is. Even if I specifically bought that gift for your birthday, I still wrestle with the notion of keeping it for myself. I might just as well have given you a pound of flesh. The VEM’s are discontinued! Don’t you get it?! You think I’m sweating because I’m chunky and Irish? That may be! But the stress of giving up a coveted pen started it! (footnote: you can still get VEM’s online)

The Gel Grip .7

Side note: How did I end up with 50 Gel Grips? An Office Max closed in some distant suburb and they were fire-selling everything. A box of 12 was $3! These pens are usually $2 something EACH! Oh man. Maybe the greatest day of my life. I bought the last five boxes. I also bought a box of 1.0 Impact Gel Grips for my friend Courtney. Because even though she’s not a pen freak, she knows I have a problem and appreciated the gift (I didn’t tell her they were rodeo clowns to keep her away from my .7’s).

Here’s the thing, I’m left-handed. Worse yet, I’m left-handed, but I don’t hook (left-handers know what I’m talking about) so as I write, I smear everything I just wrote with the side of my hand. Smear-proof, fast-drying ink is important. I write pretty small so a smooth-rolling, low-drag ball tip is important. It has to be a ball tip because I push the pen across in the paper unlike a right-hander or a left-handed hooker (yuk, yuk) and the little felt tips get all bent and ragged when I try to write with them. I like gel ink because it writes and looks better than that pasty ball point ink. I found the perfect combination of these things in the Uniball .7 Gel Grip. It’s a .7, but it writes closer to a .5 with angle I hold it. It’s almost perfection in a sub $5 pen.

Lamy Studio Rollerball

Two problems with the Gel Grip. It’s a little too light as in not heavy enough. The Lamy I have cost 70 bucks and is the perfect weight and balance, but the ink bleeds on the Moleskin paper that I use, and the ridge where the cap meets the body is right where I put my hand when writing. Doesn’t bug me that much, but if I’m writing for more than an hour, it starts to bother my hand. The other problem with the Gel Grip is that they don’t last long. That is to say, the ink runs out after a couple full days of writing. Not a huge deal, but even with a bargain pen, the number I go through adds up. The Retro 51 lays down twice as much ink (which isn’t ideal except for

Retro 51 Tornado

disorganized notes) but the cartridges last forever. I would use this pen every day, except it’s too heavy. So for now, I write with the Uniball Gel Grip as my standard, high output tool.

I guess the underlying question is why don’t I just type? Actually, I do a lot of typing for my job and it’s fast and easy to make changes and I’m pretty good at it. That’s the problem. It’s too fast and I spend too much time fussing with fixes. When I write longhand, it forces me to slow down and think clearly. And since I can’t change whole chunks with a keystroke, I keep moving forward. In the long run, I get more done. Then when I type all the hand-written stuff into Google Docs or whatever, I’m actually going through my first revision. It’s a system I’ve been using since I was a kid in the 80’s, and I like it. Maybe now is a good time to mention that I’m also a little obsessive about keyboards.