Lessons in Shared Dreaming

By

“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.


27 Comments

  1. Chris Yokel

    This is an excellent piece Sarah, and a great way to look at Inception that I had not though it of. It also helped to illuminate the creative process. Thanks!

  2. MargaretW

    Brilliant! You have managed to help me take a fresh look at how I write and why. I guess I’m going to have to go see this movie.

  3. anne

    Still pondering the movie and this post gives it a whole new spin. Makes me want to write all the more, thank you for articulating so well the relationship between writer and reader.

  4. Laura Peterson

    Sarah, the first two paragraphs here made me REALLY want to keep reading…but the movie is still on my yet-to-be-seen list, so I’ll have to return to this later. Thanks for whetting my appetite, though!

  5. Kim

    “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.”

    This is exactly what I was thinking during the movie too. And with a loaded name like Ariadne (variant of the Greek word for “most holy,” considered in some histories to be the goddess of the labyrinth), Ellen Page’s character is the one who really intrigued me in this film. I’m looking forward to re-watching this when it’s out on DVD.

  6. Chad Ethridge

    Awesome! I enjoy hearing what others bring to stories, art, film, etc. as well as what they get out of them. I work as an architect (not the IT type) and strive for built integrity coupled with imagination. Like any story, the contents of a built environment can betray us. Using believable materials in an unbelievable way is the aspiration of the artist. This is something I strive for in all endeavors.

  7. Gail Hafar

    One thing that I have thought over since seeing the movie is the idea that movies (generally those falling under the category of science fiction) are a conduit for planting ideas for future technological (and other) advances into the minds of the audience. It’s a theory (probably shared by many) I have had for a while. I believe human beings are made with an infinite ability to create, but I think we need our minds prepared for what is to come by those who utilize that ability so that it is received and believed (and purchased) by the masses when it actually comes to useful fruition.
    If you look back at films gone by, movies like Lawnmower Man (not a movie I would recommend, but it furthers my point) or Strange Days in which the world of virtual reality and virtual reality gaming were explored only to find years later that these ideas are not only possible but a reality. Another one that I love (and would recommend seeing if you haven’t) is Minority Report which has an endless number of ideas planted into the minds of the audience to prepare them for all sorts of nanotechnological advances that since have come to pass in the general public… (the pre-cogs may be a stretch, but who knows?). Even movies like Wall-E are a kind of prophetic attempt at incepetion… both warning people of the possibilities of the future if we don’t get our act together and planting ideas of robotic technological advancement that will massage our minds into being ready to receive these advancements when they are introduced for public “use.” I could go on with many others…
    The further genius of Inception is that it not only, in my opinion, could be planting ideas of capabilities to come in our world should the good Lord allow it… it is also a story of the possibilities within that invention, a wonderful development of characters and plot, and also what you say it is, Sarah… its really an phenomenal movie. Thanks for your entry!

  8. Gail Hafar

    oh, and further, it so powerful exemplifies how deeply our minds are affected by what we see and hear… and how serious God is when he says we ought to think on the lovely, pure, etc… what our minds ingest really does affect the world.

  9. Aaron Roughton

    “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.”

    Fantastic thoughts. I would have liked to have been able to quote this perspective during many RR discussions. Thanks for this post.

  10. Josh

    @ Aaron Roughton –

    Agreed. Let’s annex “music” onto the statement, too, so that it reads, “I wonder sometimes if this is the element so many find to be missing in modern ‘Christian’ stories, both in literature and film [and music].”

    I was once had an unusual request made of me: I was asked to play a set of worship songs which contained no minor chords. Of course, I think what the person had in mind was that I shouldn’t play any *depressing* songs. But minor chords (i.e., dark-sounding chords) are found even in the most joyous Christian songs, and are necessary because they make the happy parts shine all the brighter.

    -Josh

  11. Andrew Peterson

    @andrew

    WONDERFUL, Sarah. I was so busy geeking out over the film I didn’t connect any of these dots. Thanks for putting so much thought into this post. It’s helped me to see better. And it couldn’t be a more appropriate subject for the ol’ Rabbit Room.

  12. J

    oooo, you had me right up to the end, but the Hamlet reference is to a part in which he is contemplating death and suicide – the words seem to match what you’re saying, but the source’s context does not…

    otherwise I thought it was a thought-provoking and enjoyable post

    I’ve been wanting to see Inception – it looked fascinating – and this makes me even more eager!

  13. Allison

    “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.” YES!

    Sarah, this is fantastic. I had similar thoughts when viewing the film, about how it parallels our roles as sub-creators. Where does our inspiration come from? I found that to be a strong theme in the movie. I, of course, think that that flash of imagination comes from God, who created us to create in turn, to populate the world with beauty and truth and fantasies.

    I’m not a writer, though I’ve always longed to be. I say this because I’m not in the habit/discipline of writing. But, most of my best story ideas (that I “will write about one day when I have the time”) have come from dreams. When a character in Inception said that “You know how you only remember the middle of a dream?” That struck me profoundly. I still remember a vivid detail of something quite science-fiction-like that came from a recent dream. Now I only have to come up with a good back story and a cohesive ending and I have my first novel (ha!).

    I also loved how they talked in Inception about how the work sort of builds itself. The dream-maker creates something new that takes on a life of its own. In writing and in art (my two mediums), it is amazing how you can begin a piece with a certain direction and it seems to go somewhere you never expected. I hear professional writers and musicians and artists talk about this all the time and I love how it was echoed in the film.

  14. Cara

    This movie captured my mind in a way that I haven’t experienced in some time. Thank you for your thoughts. You’ve inspired me to go blog about this as well.
    You’ve hit on some wonderful points. I love how, as believers, we are able to draw the beauty and the good out of what we encounter, and see the truth within (even within the giant blockbuster hit).

  15. Jonathan Rogers

    Thanks, Sarah. This is so well-done, and it gives me a new appreciation for Inception–a movie that I liked, just not as much as I was supposed to like it. And I should also say that I thought there was nothing wrong with your use of the Hamlet quotation.

  16. Susan

    I loved your post, Sarah! Although I have yet to see the movie, I am now eager to do so. Your thoughts on the imagination and the creative process were inspiring and enlightening. Much food for thought. Thanks!

  17. Tom Murphy

    Lots of people will get focused on the dream aspect of the movie, but the real question at the heart of it was whether he would prefer reality with all of its hardship, toil, strife (and capacity for real love) or turn to the dream world where he ultimately was in control of all of his relationships (settling for the pale shadow of a rose-colored love he formerly had with his now deceased wife). That was the unanswered question at the end with the spinning totem (or tumbling, if you think he embraced reality).

    We are no different. Replace dreams with a chosen idol – work, friends, family, children, food, sex, chemical/substance of choice, etc, and there we are. Whenever we choose not to turn to Christ, we choose to escape the reality which is set before us.

    Yet, we can be certain that Christ has outrun our best laid efforts to escape His love. We are loved by God, from which there is no escape.

  18. Elisabeth

    QUOTE: “… a story world must also ring true to soul.”

    Absolutely.

    QUOTE: “There is a straight-shooting sense in our hearts of what is true about existence … 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 …”

    I agree with most of this, but my experience with modern “Christian” stories is a little bit different. Yes, some of them fail because they ignore the dark side of life or treat it lightly. But some of them fail because the dark side of life is all too dark and the redemption is … well … WEAK. There’s danger, in my opnion, in an epidemic of books where redemption is incomplete and unsatisfying. I don’t think they do God justice. Our souls know that and I think we tend to be more suspicious of God and redemption in real life too. Surely our representations of our faith must be true to life in THAT respect if no other.

  19. Sarah Clarkson

    @sarahclarkson

    Took me a week to get back here, but thanks for the comments! I loved your thoughts.

    Allison – liked what you said about dreams and wanting to make a story around them. I was reading a C.S. Lewis essay recently where he said most of the stories he wrote began with a picture in his head. A faun, a lion, etc. So, sounds like you are on your way to starting a good tale!

    Gail – ooh, interesting ideas.

    Elisabeth – I know what you mean. I think that a weak redemption rings just as false to the soul as a puny portrayal of evil. I think at heart, we long for a story to show usTolkien’s “eucatastrophe” in all its deep, unexpected grace.

  20. ginger

    Lovely post, Sarah. I’ve always loved reading books that can suspend reality for a little while. I tend to view good books as good friends. I am in awe of the gift of the writer who can create an entire world that envelops a reader. Great parallel with “Inception” & I think that you are onto something with the concept of allowing the Creator space to enter a story. How that looks, I am not sure. It just needs to be as intense as any other part of the story. In my view, this is where some of the “Christian” books fall short.

    “A blessed companion is a book, – a book that, fitly chosen, is a lifelong friend,… a book that, at a touch, pours its heart into our own.” ~Douglas Jerrold

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