“There’s no story. It’s just people, gestures, moments…”

I didn’t write anything on this blog last week, making it the first week in months without a proper blog post from me. The plan had been to write another short story, and at first I told myself I was just delaying the post until I could get the story figured out in my head. But by the time Monday came around, I scrapped the idea I’d been toying with. This post will be a roundabout way of explaining why, and also a way of expelling some flotsam from my mind.

Last weekend I experienced a spiral of guilt and minor depression. When I didn’t write my post last Thursday night, I had to tell myself this was okay, that maybe I’d get more ideas the following day. As a couple more days passed, I got to feeling like I’d made the whole endeavor into a homework assignment, like I was letting down an invisible teacher. Or maybe more like a professional assignment — I’m trying to be professional, trying to write interesting articles rather than self-centered journal entries, trying to avoid the worst stereotypes of the “blogosphere.” Anyway, I decided in retrospect that I had been taking a short break. Now as a way of restarting, I’ll say a little bit about some things I’ve been reading and the story I almost wrote.

This may come as a surprise, but there’s really a lot of film criticism, both good and bad, to be found on the internet. It’s true. I’m not exactly alone here. Two resources in particular have come to my attention in recent months. First is the newly redesigned RogerEbert.com, under the editorship after Ebert’s death of Matt Zoller Seitz. In a lot of ways, the website is the legacy that Ebert leaves behind, and it’s an excellent place to find reviews and essays by a number of talented writers. Then, in July, The Dissolve launched. A website run primarily by former A.V. Club film writers, it’s barely been around a month, and it’s already packed with great content. What these two sites have in common, besides beautiful layouts and intelligent writing, is a daily posting of links to even more film writing from other websites. It was The Dissolve, three days ago, that pointed me to a good Harper’s article on Richard Linklater’s Waking Life, the movie quoted in the title of this post. It’s one of my favorite films, an inexhaustible intellectual playground and a thrilling piece of animation. And it’s about dreams.

Waking LifeDreaming is a subject that’s been on my mind, and my short story was going to be about that subject, at least in part. Actually, there was just a short dialogue exchange that I had in mind. One character tells about a dream he’d had in which he was watching Billy Wilder’s The Spirit of St. Louis alone in his home at night. As the movie went on, it was getting late and he started nodding off, precisely at the same time that Charles Lindbergh (played by James Stewart) starts struggling to stay awake on his transatlantic flight. It was as though the movie and he were sharing an experience, the distance between them blurred. After hearing this, the other character quips, “That’s the only way to watch a movie.” Unfortunately, I couldn’t create a story that flowed naturally from this idea — I could only imagine it as one piece of a long conversation. It’s too bad, because I think it’s a fun idea, although I can’t take credit for it, because it actually happened to me, and not in a dream. I really did watch that movie, a few weeks ago and a little too late at night. The “dream” aspect made the whole scene into a hall of mirrors, which might be the reason I struggled to find a point. On the other hand, the scene as described above would be right at home in Waking Life, a movie that explores and inverts the concepts of sleep and wakefulness, each examining the other, swirling and breaking down.

And once again we find ourselves inside Marcel Proust’s head. In this week’s scheduled reading of In Search of Lost Time (the fourth volume, Sodom and Gomorrah), there’s a passage about sleep and dreaming.

…I entered the realm of sleep, which is like a second dwelling into which we move for that one purpose. It has noises of its own and we are sometimes violently awakened by the sound of bells, perfectly heard by our ears, although nobody has rung… Things in it show a tendency to turn into men, men into friends and enemies. The time that elapses for the sleeper, during these spells of slumber, is absolutely different from the time in which the life of the waking man is passed. Sometimes its course is far more rapid — a quarter of an hour seems a day — at other times far longer — we think we have taken only a short nap, when we have slept through the day. Then, in the chariot of sleep, we descend into depths in which memory can no longer keep up with it, and on the brink of which the mind has been obliged to retrace its steps…

The valet came in. I did not mention to him that I had rung several times, for I was beginning to realise that hitherto I had only dreamed that I was ringing. I was alarmed nevertheless by the thought that this dream had had the clarity of consciousness. By the same token, might consciousness have the unreality of a dream?

Instead I asked him who it was that had been ringing so often during the night. He told me: ‘Nobody,’ and could prove his statement, for the bell-board would have registered any ring. And yet I could hear the repeated, almost furious peals which were still echoing in my ears and were to remain perceptible for several days. It is, however, unusual for sleep thus to project into our waking life memories that do not perish with it. We can count these meteorites. If it is an idea that sleep has forged, it soon breaks up into tenuous, irrecoverable fragments. But, in this instance, sleep had fashioned sounds. More material and simpler, they lasted longer.

Maybe what my story needed wasn’t an idea, but a sound. It’s a very simple truth, but easy to forget: a story isn’t a message or an essay. It’s about characters making choices and facing consequences. It’s about exploring the world and learning new things about ourselves. Next time (which I’m tentatively planning for next month), I will try to build a story from the characters up.

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