“Learning From the Dream Team” (by Cecilia Fulton)

A former prosecutor, Cecilia Fulton grew up in California but now lives on the East Coast with her family. She debuts as a professionally published fiction writer in our current issue (January/February) with the story “Father of the Corpse.” The story is told from the point of view of an expectant mother, and we were surprised to learn that the author herself has a new baby—a circumstance that has led her to some interesting discoveries about dreams, and ideas for fiction, as you’ll see in this post.—Janet Hutchings


My fourth child was born twelve weeks ago. Since then, I have not slept more than three hours in a stretch. Setting aside the blunt pain of sleep deprivation, this has been a revelatory experience for my writing.

In normal times, I am never certain of the origins of my material—and I have certain concerns about the sources of my crime fiction material. To be honest, in normal times, I am always anxious that I will never be able to generate or collect sufficient material. Nora Ephron was right, of course, that “everything is copy,” but everything is too much. There’s a need for discernment, selection, and—always—a measure of imagination.

Occasionally, I will read a news story, or witness a scene on the street, and file it away. As a prosecutor, I filled notebooks with thoughts and images drawn from my days in court. Those tidbits were never meant to be used in raw form; rather, they contain or convey an intriguing mood or element. They rest in my mind for a while, they are digested and processed so that they may bear fruit later. This week, however, as I looked through my archive—yellowing, brittle pages of newspaper containing stories about a man who died saving his horses, or a Beijing millionaire who built a replica of an ancient estate on a skyscraper roof, or my old diaries full of blather—I had to concede that no fruits had been borne of this practice in a long, long time.

Most often, my thoughts take an unexpected twist, and there it is—a character, a plot, a sentence. A critical mass of these unaccompanied ideas combine to form a story, but they often still feel like a motley crew, lacking that invisible, underlying bond to tether them together and push everything forward. Worse yet, I don’t know where to find more of them.

Also, some of the ideas that pop into my head are so grim, so disturbing, that they lead me to wonder whether they arise from insanity rather than creativity. This is particularly true with crime fiction. I have a lot to live for and I am no killer—so why and how do I think so much, in such variety, about death and killings? Should I be concerned?

And then, there’s the critical inner voice, the one who served me so well as a prosecutor, questioning every single unit of language and plot. She doesn’t hold back—but she holds me back.

I’ve been tired of this “process.” After I finished “The Father of the Corpse,” it was a relief to turn back to my nonfiction book project. I couldn’t bear to wait for my brain to give me occasional crime-fiction-worthy handouts.

It felt like my mind was withholding not only the matter but the machinery and gutsiness of storytelling, because my mind tells me stories—wild, gripping, often horrifying stories—every single night. I have had vivid dreams and nightmares as long as I can remember. I’m not suggesting that dreams or nightmares are useful material for stories—in fact, I think they definitely are not. But some part of me has the ability to do this. Why can’t I learn from that? Why can’t I harness it to serve my love for writing, especially crime fiction? Certain elements of my daytime life clearly have the power to trigger a story: what is that quality? Can I learn to recognize it in my conscious mind, as my real life is unfolding? Also, the brain does not just replicate these elements, it transforms them: dream scene are more potent and more economical than real life. How is this done? As for nightmares, how are they designed to enhance suspense, to create terror? What gives a dream story the power to generate new feelings, to change or intensify a state of mind well after the night has ended? Most importantly, what can I learn from the free-wheeling experimentation of my dream stories? How may I become less risk-averse in my work?

During the last three months, my friends, I’ve taken the elevator down to the basement floor. I have stepped out into the bare hallway, I’ve seen the door at the far end and I’ve heard the hum of the motors. This worker is about to seize the means of production.

I am jolted awake every few hours these days, so my brain lacks the time to engage in its usual cover-up. I’ve been thrown out of dreams in the middle of a scene, with an intact memory of the preceding scenes and an understanding of the core feeling or incident around which each scene was built. Sitting in the dark for twenty to forty minutes afterwards, feeding my baby, I’ve been able to go back and think about where it all came from and how the disparate items were calibrated to serve a bigger narrative.

While the building blocks were almost always unrelated, they each carried multiple themes and feelings. The brain found a common denominator (or two) and used them as thematic thrusters for the narrative. The scenes may still form a motley crew, switching locations and tones, or introducing new characters, but they are committed to serving the same narrative arc.

The violence of my nightmares is astounding, perplexing. Violence is not a part of my life, fortunately, especially since I left the DA’s office, so where does it come from? What purpose does it serve? Part of what makes these nightmares so horrifying, I realize, is the knowledge that such violence exists in the world in even more acute and distressing forms. In dreams or fiction, violence can be a rough call for empathy—or an easy trigger for a sense of relief that we have been spared.

I’m also examining the venues of my dreams—the condemned buildings, the campaign headquarters, the crowded pharmacies, the apartments without doors. What are the characteristics of a location that add to or detract from the larger theme? Dreams aren’t perfect—there are dissonant notes, contradictions, bumpy transitions. I learn from those as well. Even the nonsense dreams have been a productive target of study: while they may seem at first like failures of narrative, they actually and accurately document real-life feelings of chaos and befuddlement.

I believe there is more sleep in my future. In fact, we began teaching our baby how to self-soothe and put herself to sleep this week, a process that involves some amount of crying at bedtime. On the first night, as she sputtered and wailed for twelve horrible minutes, I thought about the fact that I was a willing cause of and witness to her anger—and possibly worse, her fear. Was this a betrayal? Was it excusable if it was for our own good, hers and mine? That night, during one of my short phases of sleep, I bore witness to a fictional murder: I was standing on a subway platform, watching through a hole in the wall as a woman with red fingernails directed killers toward their victim and then covered the corpse with a construction tarp. The killers saw me, found me, followed me, and taunted me with their weapons. I was jolted awake, with dread and helplessness pumping through my body like blood, my real life and exaggerated dream life working over different expressions of the same questions. What does it mean to be a good person? Is it possible to avoid causing pain to others? Can we learn without pain? Can we live without pain? Can you overcome fear without feeling fear?

With four children, a manuscript due in a few months, and a chaotic, perplexing political landscape, I am casting out any expectations of so-called normal times. I’m relieved to leave behind my reliance on the random appearance of ideas. I may not be able to rival the productivity of my mind’s dream team, but I will emulate their process: a relentless mining of daily life for the essential building blocks of crime fiction, amplification of core human feelings, and unrestricted experimentation. Confusion, guilt, fear, conscience, violence, control, moral ambiguity—the possible incarnations are infinite. I’m ready to work the machines and I’m no longer afraid of what may come out. I hope I never forget the lessons I’ve learned during these twelve weeks or those sweet moments of wakefulness with my last baby: sitting in the dark, nurturing an unconditional love, thinking with abandon and curiosity, watching lights turn off in the big city, loving life—and plotting my next crime story.

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