This morning I woke with a scene from a dream still vivid in my mind: in some kind of apocalyptic sci-fi/thriller setting, with explosions and dangerous pursuers (yes, I watch too much TV) I’d managed to do some neat programming trick and someone had asked me, “How did you know that? Were you brought up with technology?”
In response, I’d launched into a description of when and where I had learned about computers etc.
I don’t remember the whole conversation – I think there was a scene change that cut it short – but what I started to say was quite clearly my own personal experience: it included references to a course at university and my first job as a programmer/ analyst – back in the days when we used punch cards, and when jobs were batch processed overnight and a single misplaced comma or missed space could put a project back 24 hours.
What surprised me about the dream was how accurate my reply was: although the rest was as surreal and extreme as dreams usually are, that answer was pretty much what I would say if someone asked me the same question in real life.
Thinking about that, I remembered a conversation with school friends, back as a young teenager; I told them I was always me in my dreams, which they thought must be very boring.
I realise now that it might have been more accurate to say that I dream in first person, or that I am the actor who stars in all my dreams: however fictional or far-fetched the setting, I have a very clear sense of self.
In some ways, this seems to be the opposite of what I say about my poems: don’t confuse the narrator with the writer. Even when the poem is written in the first person, I am very conscious of the distinction between writer and narrator.
However, after more thought, I wonder if in fact the two situations are not so very different.
My life does provide raw material for my writing and at least some of my poems do evolve from personal experience. In the dream, I filled in the information I required from real life, and in poetry, too, where reality is useful I may well stick to the facts; doing so ensures that things will be internally consistent and there won’t be too many distracting factual errors. (This ties in with using facts and details from a real experience to supply the information for an alibi, or the idea of telling as much of the truth as possible when you lie so that you don’t have to remember too many invented details.)
But real life is only a stepping stone to the poetic. I believe facts can – and should – be sacrificed if they get in the way.
Perhaps with both dreams and poems, I am an actor, trying out roles, experimenting with alternate realities. And perhaps I like writing in the first person because it allows me to “inhabit” the space of the poem and the role of the narrator more completely: I don’t want to watch a film on TV, I want to take part in the action as I do in my dreams.
(Incidentally, the collage is not mine, although I have permission to use it; it was a mock-up for a book that never got published. The dream may have been apocalyptic, but as far as I remember it was not catastrophic.)
Lots of other posts on the blog deal with the topic of the narrator to a greater or lesser extent. You’ll find a complete set of such posts here.