Over the summer of 2015 I had a series of flying dreams. Five or six. They were more or less the same—uniformly euphoric, you might say. If euphoria can be uniform. An enduring astonishment. I would be standing on a green slope, looking downhill, when I would take it into my head to leap into the blue air and so ascend. I flew, like Superman, headlong, except with my arms out-stretched on either side, like wings, not clasped before me in a fist; however, as in life, you do not really see yourself in dreams, you only see what you see. I remember park-like landscapes miniaturizing below, the tops of trees, silver lines of streams or sheets of standing water. It was always the green world: I never flew over a city. The primary sensation was exhilaration. To be able, at a whim, to fly through the air with greatest of ease. To be able to fly!
A constant in this series of dreams was the advice I gave myself, insistently, within the dream, to be remembered when I woke up: that I could fly in real life too. Don’t forget that you can fly like this when you are awake, I would tell myself. Remember you can fly! It was melancholy to realise, when I did awake, that this is not so. Curious, too. Why, while dreaming of flying, did something in me insist upon the belief that I could do so waking too? Or, to put it another way: what was it that made me certain there was something in the dream that had relevance to my activities in waking life? What was it, in real life, that resembled flying in dreams? That’s the question.
Why was I having this series of dreams anyway? They are not common. I wonder about my activities at the time: nearly three years ago now. What was I writing, what else was I doing? I went back to the files. I had published a book, based upon my doctoral dissertation, the previous October; it was well-made, and well-received, too. I had also, more or less, completed two other works. One was a memoir of childhood and adolescence, the other a collection of occasional prose pieces, unified by their thematics and by the black and white photographs with which they were illustrated; these books would both come out in the year ahead. And I was contemplating a larger project, research-based, that would occupy the bulk of the next two years. I had my birthday, as usual, at Hannibal’s; both my sons were there; a few weeks later, the elder left home for good and went to live in Melbourne. I was re-reading Cormac McCarthy’s The Border Trilogy; and Inga Clendinnen’s Aztecs: An Interpretation. There were unexpected synergies between the two.
So far so good. I remember the time better now; remember the freedom I felt then. My writing was going well; past plans coming to fruition, future plans forming. Our boy launched into the world, successfully, we hoped. I still had to work for a living but, within a matter of months, that would cease to be so; and, in fact, I have not worked since the middle of that year. I say ‘worked’: I mean the casual teaching I did in those days. Writing is work as well; but, on the one hand, you do not always get paid for doing it; and on the other, you will do it even if you know you will not be paid.
What are flying dreams, anyway? How old are they? Do they, as some think, constitute a genetic memory of a time when those distant ancestors of ours—dragonflies, pterodactyls, archaeopteryx—did in fact fly? The pre-Socratic philosopher Empedocles wrote: I have already been / a bush and a bird / a boy and a girl / a mute fish in the sea. Are flying dreams atavistic in that sense? If not, are they derived from a longing our hominid forebears felt when they saw birds in the sky? Even if that longing is admitted as real, as it must be, it still doesn’t explain the visceral sense of flying that comes in dreams, the absolute reality of the feeling of soaring through the air. I don’t think there can be an aetiology of flying dreams; or, if there is one, it’s not available to me. So here is the crux of the matter: those flying dreams were, I believe, actually writing dreams. How so?
When I am writing well, my fingers fly, unthought and unseen, over the keyboard. My eyes, looking at the screen, do not see the screen: they see words appearing as if by magic. Those words—which have in fact gone from a kind of speech in my brain, down my arms and into my fingers, through the mechanical processes of typing, to be further transformed by the digital mysteries of the computer—seem to arrive from nowhere. They are like something dictated from the void, something that had no reality until their present, unprecedented appearance. They are, in the merest sense of the word, miraculous. Any writer, in any medium, will tell you the same: it is sometimes as if we are the instrument upon which a tune is played. The means by which something other than us speaks. We are the singer not the song. The song flies through us.
Nevertheless—and here I dip down from the sky—no-one can accomplish this kind of activity without preparation; just as no-one can fly an aeroplane without long, hard practice of the relevant skills. So I want to change direction and look, not to the heavens, but to the earth. In other words, I want to examine the processes by which inspiration—flights of fancy!—might be encouraged, even learned. I want to consider the processes that might precede flight, and also those which might succeed it. To do that, I am going back to the Greeks again—not to Empedocles but to the Muses: configured not as sources of inspiration but as guides towards technique.
In the Boeotian version of the Muses—sometimes called the elder muses—they are the children of Uranus, the sky, and Gaia, the earth; there are three only; and their names are Mneme, Aoide and Melete; that is, memory, voice and occasion. We all know what memory is—even as it remains the primary mystery of human consciousness. Voice, which can be translated as song, is obvious too. It is the means by which we speak what we know; or, in this case, write. Occasion, too, seems straightforward; nevertheless, the word melete may also mean meditation or practise. Which complicates the matter, though in a good way. You might say that, in order to write, you have to do three things: to remember, to find a voice in which to tell your tale, and to construct an occasion upon which to perform—which will involve both meditation and practise.
It’s worth looking more closely at these three concepts. My view is that there are two original forms of story-telling, both of which involve memory. They go back at least as far as the Palaeolithic; that is, to the time before cities, before agriculture and animal husbandry became the primary economic bases for human societies. The first form is a re-telling of the day’s hunt or collect. You recount to your fellows where you went, what you did, what the results were. Any outstanding episodes, whether funny or dangerous or unusual, are included. We all still use this form, whether or not we think of ourselves as writers. Anyone coming home after a day at work, a day at school, after a journey or a holiday, will tell his or her familiars what happened in the age-old manner of the tale. Memory, based upon observation, is intrinsic to this form of story-telling.
The second form I call the fireside tale. It is, in origin and essence, I believe, a story about the night sky. After the day’s activities are done, after the evening meal perhaps, around the fire, stories are told. These stories will be used for the purposes of entertainment and instruction, and also—a primary function—as lullaby. We still read our children, our loved ones, or ourselves, to sleep at night. The suggestion which I prefer—it is of course unprovable—is that these stories arose from the need to make sense of the sky above us. They were stories about the stars and the planets, the moon and the sun, meteorites and comets, of shooting stars, figured as actors in a human drama.
An example is provided by Aboriginal story-teller Mavis Malbunka, about a crater called, in her Arrernte language, Tnorala; and by Europeans, Gosses Bluff. We now have a coolamon here in the sky. The star women in the Dreaming were dancing and this little child was lost by its mother. The little child fell to this land from the sky. After that, the coolamon fell on top of the child. Then her mother looked for it and now we believe the mother is the evening star. They are both looking for it, mother in the evening and then father from morning till dusk. They are both looking for their little child. Curiously, western scientists also explain Gosses Bluff in terms of something falling from the sky—in their case, not a multi-purpose wooden scoop, a coolamon, but a comet or a large meteorite which impacted in the Jurassic, about 140 million years ago.
In this second form of story-telling, memory operates in a different way: what is remembered is not the mundane events of a day, transformed by re-telling into drama. Instead, memory becomes a resource, a place where any imaginative version—such as Mavis’ tale—is archived so that it may be re-told by others on a later occasion. For a very long time, individual human memory was the only place where such things could be stored and, it is clear, memory in that sense was (and probably still is) a prodigious resource: the entirety of an epic poem like Homer’s The Iliad, 16,000 lines long, might be stored in a single memory, along with its slightly shorter companion, The Odyssey (12,000 lines). In a profound sense, however, this storage is not an individual accomplishment. We hold these things in common.
Note that both of these forms of story-telling—the tale of the day’s events; the explanation of the lives of the gods in the sky—are essentially night-time activities. There is an ancient connection between night-time, story-telling and the fire; which is reprised even when we sit alone before the flickering light of the TV screen in the evening. Note, too, that the two forms might be characterised as proto-non-fiction and proto-fiction, respectively—a point that certainly deserves further consideration, but one which I don’t have time to give now.
Voice, like memory, is a concept we are all familiar with; yet, in this application, it is difficult to pin down. There is a belief, for instance, put forward by American writer Philip Gerard, that All nonfiction is really told in the technical first-person point of view. This is clear enough: when you tell the story of the events of your day, you will do so in your own voice. I did this, I did that; this happened, then that. Even so, in the midst of your re-telling, you might assume the voice of someone else. Your boss, perhaps, or a co-worker; the guard on the train who challenged you because you didn’t have a ticket. Within a first person narration, then, you may adopt the voice of another. When it comes to the writing of fiction, these other voices take on names and characters and stories of their own; even if, as in non-fiction, there is, somewhere, howsoever concealed, still a first person point of view: that of the author.
There are many dimensions to voice: tone, for instance, which may be passive or active; detached or involved; comic or serious; ironically distanced; deeply implicated. A voice may be a lying voice; it may assume a monopoly on truth that we are at liberty to disbelieve; it may be a sole witness, with all the deficits that implies; it may function as a channel, a medium, through which other voices come. There are choices to consider: will you use the first, the second or the third person? I, you, or she? Him and her? We? They? Or the free indirect style, an intricate combination of first and third. And so on. Even if you decide to use the time honoured technique known as the eye of god, isn’t that really just a masking of the ‘I’ as another, to misquote Rimbaud?
But aiode can also be translated as song. This suggests an aesthetic dimension to voice. What this means, I think, is that whichever voice you choose to write in, needs to have a seductive dimension to it. It needs to have something to which people will want to listen. This doesn’t mean everything should be dripping with sentiment; there can be voices that are bracing to listen to because of their anger, perhaps, or their biting wit; or because of the information which they carry; some of us are comforted listening to the distillation of pain that some voices are capable of transmitting. The point about aiode is that writing must be listenable, even when it is not, or cannot be, sweet. Perforce, however, it must be, like song, rhythmic. In silent reading, this rhythm is heard in the inner ear; but is no less powerful for that. It may be the most powerful thing of all.
Melete, occasion or practice, is equally mysterious. The word is cognate with meditation or pondering. It refers, I think, to the process of thought that precedes any utterance and, indeed, any attempt to write. This is not an easy thing to understand. Most of us are familiar with the phrase: I’ll sleep on it. And, experience attests, a problem that seems insoluble the night before often finds a solution in the morning. But the way in which that solution has been arrived at may not be clear. By the same token, the sort of contemplation that precedes any act of writing seems to need to be unspecific, dispersed, even unthinking: as if we might think about something by not thinking about it, even by avoiding thinking about it. There are processes at work that are not only unconscious, but seem to need to remain that way.
That leaves the other two terms: occasion and practice. How do they fit in with the primary meaning contemplation? I can think of a number of ways. One involves rehearsing another Greek concept, kairos, or timing. It means the right, the critical or the opportune moment, and is associated with archery and with weaving. There is a right time to loose the arrow, just as there is propitious moment to pass the shuttle through the threads on the loom. In the same way, there is a right moment (occasion) to write and it will have been preceded by a period of contemplation which cannot be prescribed. The related term, practice, I associate with discipline; even if that means, in the phrase coined by Australian writer Frank Moorhouse, the discipline of indiscipline.
The other implication of practice is more obvious: anyone who wishes to write, and to write well, needs to practice the craft over a period of time: in just the same way a weaver needs to practice weaving; and an archer, archery. Failures need to be made, and learned from. Successes, too; which, though this is seldom admitted, are always relative and therefore partake of failure too. I am an advocate of keeping regular hours in so far as writing is concerned; regular habits as well; but I know enough to know that this does not work in the same way for everyone. Anyone who wants to write has to evolve a practice of their own, one that works for them. This will be adapted to their living circumstances; if their living circumstances cannot be adapted to the demands of writing; which is the better way.
There is another aspect to melete: it is a quality we use extensively, and again to a degree unconsciously, when editing. And, as we trim here and add there, re-order our words, sentences and paragraphs, those other qualities, and particularly voice, are refined. Memory, too, may be augmented, revised or provoked at the editing stage. Melete as it relates to editing is about form. A first draft of anything will sprawl in some directions and not go far enough in others; these tendencies must be corrected. But form itself is hard to define because, for most people, it is intuitive rather than prescriptive. It doesn’t feel right, we say, and so we adjust until it does. That said, I think in every piece of writing there are parts that don’t feel right; but the revision that will make them so wasn’t found. A poem is never completed, the French writer Paul Valéry said; it is only ever abandoned.
I have talked about the how of writing; not about the what. This is because content, so-called, is personal. What we choose, or feel compelled, to write about, is our own business; no-one else can tell us what to say. Or can they? American novelist Richard Ford, after publishing two commercially unsuccessful novels, gave up literary composition and became a sports-writer instead; then, when the magazine he worked for folded, he lost his job. He went home and said to his wife: I don’t know what to do. And she said: Write a book about a happy man. Hence, Frank Bascombe. So there are external means of generating subject matter. A publisher once told me that books about Australian explorers Burke and Wills sell; that was the provocation for me to write The Supply Party: Ludwig Becker on the Burke and Wills Expedition. And it did sell, comparatively, well.
Some people find subject matter through the exploration of form. Members of the OuLiPo movement invent constraints within which to operate: a novel, La Disparition, by French écrivain Georges Perec, that never uses the letter ‘e’, is an example. Poets conjure algorithms which they use to make poems from text sampled from the net. Brisbane writer Brentley Frazer wrote an incendiary memoir by means of English Prime, a constraint in which you may not use any of the tenses of the verb ‘to be’. I have two methods which I find useful for making new works, neither exclusive to me and both generally available to anyone who writes. They are the explorations made available through the practices of psychogeography and hypnogeography. The one is concerned with real locations; the other, the realms revealed to us in dreams.
The Becker book is, for instance, an exercise in psychogeography. He was the artist and scientist on that doomed expedition and, although he did not survive, the works he made during its progress do. I retraced his steps, with a particular focus upon finding the places where he painted. Psychogeography, the activity of mapping human traces in the landscape, more usually refers to the built environment; here too I have found subject matter: by taking random walks through the city and its surrounds. A few years ago I made a series of visits to Rookwood Cemetery in Lidcombe, Sydney—the largest necropolis in the southern hemisphere—and, although I did not find the grave I was looking for, I found much else besides.
In 1956 French writer, the Situationist Guy Debord, pioneered an exercise he called the dérive (drift), in which the seeker, alone or in company, takes a random walk and records what they encounter along the way. He defined it as a mode of experimental behaviour linked to the conditions of urban society: a technique of rapid passage through varied ambiances. A dérive is analogous to a waking dream, in that the observer is required to remain alert to whatever occurs along the way. It is also a simultaneous act of experiencing and recording that experience; the observer / participant must be at all times cognisant of the quotidian and of what is incongruous, unexpected or merely strange.
Dreams, then, are a resource, in the same way that travel is: other places, either dreamed or real, past or future, are a provocation for writing. Less familiar than psychogeography is the term for exploring dream spaces: hypnogeography. Less accessible terrain too. The ability to dream is not like the ability to travel. You cannot buy a ticket and go. The process seems to be, intrinsically, haphazard. Even those who attempt lucid dreaming—that is, to be able, from within the dream, to direct the dream—are subject to random influences. Dreams would not be dreams if we knew how to script them; they would be writing. So the practice of hypnogeography has its serendipitous side; as does, in a different sense, psychogeography. Both demand sustained attention if they are to provide good content.
Here are some materials given me over the last couple of nights. My cat, Monkey, who disappeared, fate unknown, more than twenty years ago, returns in a dream. She is as possessive, as querulous and as ambivalently loving as she ever was in life. Naturally, I think she is real and feel a sorrowful sense of times past when I awake and find it is not so. The sister of a woman I was once infatuated with (she has no such sister) visits me and we make love. When I wake, I feel that whoever came to me was (is) real. I see a drowning world, with strange animals fleeing up a road, as the sea rises through watery meadows and past the lighted windows of a house in a dell. It is beautiful and doomed. I am sent to interview Sean Penn. His manager, a black man chewing on a cigar, asks me to deposit a plastic bag of skinned eggs in a bin. I say it must be difficult finding the right props for a movie. He sighs and repeats the word: eggs. And so on.
I doubt I will use any of these materials in writing—except, of course, that I just have. Dreaming, like travelling, is a process which blends the known and the unknown in unprecedented ways. Writers are often advised: write what you know. And then: write what you don’t know. But these are really two aspects of the same thing: the known always has an unknown dimension, just as the unknown is in some sense already known—known and unknown are inextricably intertwined, in a double helix, like DNA. In dreams our minds mix memory and speculation, past and future, imagination and reality, in a manner that is instinctively intriguing. That said, it remains a challenge to write a dream in such a way as to engage an audience. We have all had the experience of sitting there, bored, while someone recounts their dreams; just as we have all experienced the tedium of having to look at the dullness of holiday snaps.
The Surrealists were pioneers of both hypno and psycho-geography. Contemporary English writers Iain Sinclair and Geoff Dyer have practised versions of psychogeography; while the German / English writer W G (‘Walker’) Sebald is a special case, blending the psycho and the hypno with the more purely historical in his work. In the United States, poet Robert Kelly has been an eloquent theoretician of hypnogeographic exploration. He emphasises the repetitive nature of dream geographies and their compulsion towards the revelation of the forbidden. The entire body of work of poet Emily Dickinson seems revelatory of unknown countries of the mind.
Going to other places in search of knowledge is an ancient practice. Shamanism, it has been claimed, is the single pan-human belief system, with roots in the Palaeolithic; and the investigations of psycho- and hypno-geographies have clear analogies with the spirit journeys of the shamans. It is a process of plumbing the depths of the unknown for that which may then be figured, not as the known, but in a structure that allows another to experience the unknown: the banality of holiday snaps is really because their unknown dimension has been leached from them. On the other hand, when I write, I am not on a mystical quest and nor do I imagine, when I dream or travel, that I am entering a spirit world. The true mysteries are human consciousness, and the universe it both inhabits and mirrors. Writing is a means of exploring the interface between these two immensities. It is about the future.
I look again at The Supply Party and see that the opening section of the book recounts a dream I had in Melbourne before the road trip proper had begun. There are a number (nine?) of primitive heads upon a tabletop, which I am trying to count but cannot. It prefigures the journey I was about to take; and exemplifies the value of both hypno and psycho-geographical exploration. To write is to attempt to add something new to the world; and, to quote the aphorist and scientist Georg Lichtenberg, to see something new you must make something new. And that, in turn, seems to imply some kind of adventure or voyage of discovery. It does not matter if the voyage is into inner or outer space; what is important is that it is a journey to somewhere you, as the travelling consciousness, have not been before. Your readers either.
But the other aspect is also primary: I mean the ability to write down what you find in a way that is compelling to others. That is where I feel that the elder muses still have something to offer us: not so much in terms of inspiration as in the ways in which we might conceptualise the writing process and so find ways of making our practice more skilful, more evocative, more demanding, more true. And what of the flying dreams themselves? They were, I think, a kind of bonus, as well as a reminder: when you are writing well, when you are truly fulfilling your potential as a scribe of the infinite, then the experience is one of unalloyed happiness, of a projection of the self beyond all limits, including the limits of egotism. To live is to fly, sings the song by Townes van Zandt; Low and high / So shake the dust off of your wings / And the sleep out of your eyes.
Take a walk—a dérive—through an unfamiliar neighbourhood and make mental notes along the way. Afterwards, write up said notes and augment them with whatever you can find out from research. Make sure the result is finished enough to be read by someone else: partner, family member, online audience, friends or strangers.
Leave notepaper beside your bed. Write down any dream that wakes you in the night: at the time of waking—this is important. In the morning, add whatever you feel is lacking from the night-written text. Keep both versions; use them to make a third.
Record, in a private place, walks and dreams (and other things) that you don’t want anyone else to know. Work these up until you understand why you don’t want others to see them; or, if you decide that you do, publish them. Be attentive to feedback, especially silences.
Open an atlas at a page representing a part of the country you do not know well. Take a pin in hand, close your eyes and drive it into the map. Go on a trip to the nearest town to where the pin landed. Stay three days. Write down everything you see, including the conversations you have. Amplify what you have learned with research.
Get lost. Then get found again. Record all you see along the way, and any interactions as well. Once again, amplify.
Parmenides and Empedocles: The Fragments in Verse Translation; Stanley Lombardo; Grey Fox Press, San Francisco, 1982;
The Elder Muses: http://www.mythindex.com/greek-mythology/M/Musae.html; accessed 2.11.17;
Mavis Malbunka: https://aso.gov.au/titles/documentaries/tnorala-baby-falling/clip3/; accessed 3.11.17;
Writing Creative Non-Fiction; edited by Philip Gerard and Carolyn Forche; Story Press, Ohio, 2001;
The Frank Moorhouse quote is a personal communication from, I think, 1988;
The Richard Ford anecdote he told at a talk in Wellington, NZ in March, 2005; Frank Bascombe is the hero of Ford’s The Sportswriter (1986) and three other novels;
The Supply Party: Ludwig Becker on the Burke and Wills Expedition; Martin Edmond; East Street Publications, Adelaide, 2009;
Scoundrel Days; Brentley Frazer; UQP, St. Lucia, 2017;
Definitions; Guy Debord; Internationale Situationniste #1; translated by Ken Knabb; Paris, 1958;
Lichtenberg: Aphorisms and Letters; translated by Franz Mautner and Henry Hatfield; Jonathon Cape, London, 1969
To Live is to Fly; from the album High, Low and In Between; Towns van Zandt; WEA Records, Los Angeles, 1971
The Beach Beneath the Street: The Everyday Life and Glorious Times of the Situationist International; McKenzie Wark; Verso, New York, 2011;
The Complete Poems; Emily Dickinson; edited by R. W. Franklin; Reading Edition, 2005;
dérives; a taxi driving blog (2005-2010); Martin Edmond: http://fluvial.blogspot.com.au/;
Edge of the Orison: In the Traces of John Clare’s ‘Journey out of Essex’; Iain Sinclair; Hamish Hamilton, London, 2005;
Hypnogeography; Martin Edmond; Kilmog Press, Dunedin, 2010;
Nadja; Andre Breton; translated by Richard Howard; Grove Press, New York, 1960
Paris Peasant; Louis Aragon; translated by Simon Watson Taylor; Picador, London, 1971
The Rings of Saturn; W G Sebald; translated by Michael Hulse; Harvill, London, 1998
Zona: A Book About a Film About a Journey to a Room; Geoff Dyer; Canongate, London, 2012.