“This is your first lesson in shared dreaming.”
Talk about a line to get a writer thinking. The minute Dom, a major character in the movie Inception, said it, I sat up straight and wished I had a pen in hand. I went to the theater expecting an action flick, I came out feeling that I had taken part in a swift, sparkling debate; the sort you have late at night with best friends, drinks and elbows on the table, eyes alight with big ideas. I love a movie that makes me want to be a philosopher. I love it even more though, when the movie is philosophizing about what I, as a writer, love best: the telling of a story.
Inception, I realized, is a conversation in the art of imagination. This is a movie about the making of dreamscapes – worlds made in the mind of one person and offered to another. As a writer, this captivates me. Isn’t story the same thing? What is a novel, but a dream world built in the mind of an author? What is a storybook but a wide, new space of imagination into which a reader is invited? Inception is an excellent movie for writers. With this in mind, I returned, late last Thursday night, notebook in hand, to jot down a few of the ideas flung to me by the movie. Perhaps they will spark a new debate and keep the ideas flowing…
I was struck first by the movie’s emphasis on the architecture of the imaginative world. In the beginning of the story, a brilliant young architect is hired to construct the landscape of a dream. As she begins her first exercise in creation, she is cautioned: the dreamscape must ring true. If it is to be accepted by the mind of another, it must taste and smell, feel and look, real. This is a challenge faced by all crafters of story. The scene must be set, the reader brought by words, almost unaware, into a world as personal, touchable as our own. We all have those books we have read where the scenes were so vividly wrought, we feel we lived rather than read them. Twenty years after reading it, I still remember a scene from The Wind in the Willows, where Mole finds his old burrow. The musty scent of his abandoned hole, the ache of homesickness suddenly relieved, the hominess of his fireside and newly swept rooms, I can see it all still because the imagined world was masterfully made.
Yet a story world must also ring true to soul. There is a straight-shooting sense in our hearts of what is true about existence; hunger for beauty, need for love, our own frailty, the crying need for redemption. If a story lacks that truth, my heart will write it off as a dream not worth pursuing. I wonder sometimes if this is the element so many find to be missing in modern “Christian” stories, both in literature and film. They portray the good of Christianity, but neglect the dark that makes faith necessary. The world is thus incomplete. All elements of reality must be included in the soul world of a story, salvation and sin, grace and guilt.
I found next that story is, truly, a shared dreaming. The dream worlds in Inception may be created by one person, but they are peopled by the subconscious of the others who enter them. I had never considered the idea that what I create as an author is, to an extent, unfinished until it is met by the imagination of a reader. I cannot transmit my creation, with all my own images intact, into the brain of another. To enter my dream, my reader must begin to dream himself. He brings his thoughts, the faces formed by his brain, his memory, his desire to the making of the story I have begun. Can a story be fully realized in isolation? I begin to think not. Inception reminds me that storytelling may start in solitude, but its end, its goal, is only realized in community. A shared dream.
And what is the purpose of this dream? What do I offer the soul of a reader through my gift of story? Most authors write their stories with some idea in mind, some truth, some knowing they feel they must communicate. An idea for “inception” if you will. And so, I have always thought that some nugget of truth must be one of the main gifts I give in any story, even if it is subtly or symbolically given.
While I can’t say much lest I give away the plot, I will say that Inception broadened my understanding of this gift. It helped me to see that sometimes the gift is simply the space of the story itself. An imaginary world creates a new room in the mind where the boundaries of material life fall away. In the reading of a story I inhabit someone else’s world. In it, perhaps I am freed to confront and recognize my own emotions and desires more clearly, as they are sparked to life and bumble into the story I am reading. Perhaps the gift of a good tale is the space in which to find and realize truth, to see it afresh, not merely have it imposed. Or perhaps, I make room so that another, more powerful Creator can implant an idea.
Is it possible for one human to plant an idea, untraced, into the mind of another? Inception asks this question, and I don’t know about a human being able to do that. But the Holy Spirit sure could. The whole time I was watching the expert “dreamers” in the movie struggle to implant an idea in their subject’s mind, I thought of God, sparking knowledge in us as we are unaware. God creates ideas, as he does worlds, out of nothing, he is the kindler of every act of creation. He is the silent partner in every “dream” we create. What if God himself joins writer and reader to bring a new idea into being? What if our stories, our shared dreams, offer a space wherein God can bring about the inception of his own perfect ideas?
So there you have it. Hamlet said he would “sleep, perchance to dream.” I think perhaps I’d rather write, for then I’m sure to dream, and the world I make is one that I can share.
Sarah Clarkson is the author of several books including the best-selling The Life-giving Home, which she co-authored with her mother, Sally Clarkson. Sarah is currently studying literature at Oxford University where she's not only a brilliant thinker and writer, but is also the president of the C. S. Lewis Society.