Discover more from The Midwest Creative
The Artist's Work
Finding power in the process of reworking
Earlier this week, I attended the unveiling of the May/June issue of DSM Magazine. Connecting with this magazine and the people who produce it has been one of my favorite things about moving to the Des Moines area.
I first discovered DSM when I was working at the Quad-City Times, helping to grow their Bettendorf Magazine. DSM’s Instagram was a guiding light as I hope to establish a brand and find the roots of creativity throughout Bettendorf.
I attended this event with many of my coworkers. My boss, Sherry Gupta, used to work for the Business Record and Principal Financial. She’s connected with most of Des Moines (and is one of the kindest women I know) so walking next to her is the easiest networking I’ve ever done.
She introduced my coworker, JJ, and I to Dr. Jackie Thompson.
Dr. Thompson has a Doctor of Musical Arts degree. She auditioned for her undergrad music program after only having two years of piano lessons from age 6-7; her professors couldn’t believe she hadn’t been training her entire life. She’s now an ordained Elder in the United Methodist Church. She’s involved with the Iowa Arts Council and works with CultureALL as a Cultural Ambassador and Open Book.
She’s absolutely brilliant.
JJ and I walked back to our cars absolutely mesmerized by Dr. Thompson and her intense curiosity about everything around her. She dropped three nuggets of wisdom on us that stuck with me:
You must approach the world with a hunger to learn
Only fool’s dismiss a young person’s voice
The artist is never done working on their work
Number 3 came up after I told her I feel inept at revising my own work. She quickly shut that down. If you have an artist’s brain, then you are always working and reworking and molding your work into something new, she told me. After you publish, there is still editing to do.
So with that advice in mind, I turned back to an essay I wrote last year and abandoned. I removed the excess, I focused the point. My work is never done, and my relationship to my work will continue to change as I grow older.
When I wrote this piece, my fiancé was still my boyfriend. I was struggling with anxiety more often. I was stuck in a job that I knew I was quickly outgrowing. And I still questioned if I had a future as a writer.
But, my relationship to the liminal remains the same. So I’m pushing publish on this essay, and waiting to see what edits I’ll make tomorrow.
A few things I remember for no discernible reason:
When I learned that “Sean” was pronounced “Shawn,” after reading the description of an episode of Degrassi and hearing the troubled boy’s name all episode.
A classmate, in maybe first grade, telling the class her favorite color was red. I don’t remember hearing her mention the color red again. I don’t even really recall her wearing the color red unless sporting our school colors. She’s a teacher now, which I can imagine she’s great at, and I’m pretty sure she recently moved in with her boyfriend, and I really hope she’s happy because she’s a good person and she deserves to feel good and I still think of the color red when I think of her.
The exact lyrics I wrote to a song in elementary school. How the stuffed animals I positioned at the bottom of the hill looked as an audience, how blue the sky was, my mom chuckling as she watched me strum a left handed-guitar clumsily with my right hand and sing: Lizzy’s going, Lizzy’s going, Lizzy’s going wild/She’s jumping, she’s singing, she’s dancing around.
The first time I heard my parents yell at each other. I was in first grade and my backpack that I needed was in my mom’s car and my dad came in and apologized to me after they stopped fighting. I also remember the dream I had a few weeks later, when I convinced myself my parents were going to split up. Picture by Sheryl Crow and Kid Rock played throughout the dream like a dramatic closing scene from a CW teen drama. That was the first time but not the last time in my life that I couldn’t listen to a song because of the emotional memories it brought back.
I can recall the tiniest, minute details. Moments that have no bearing on the plot line. Words that should mean nothing.
Some dreams that have stuck with me throughout the years:
The first nightmare I ever had. I am in Kindergarten. I am in a basement that is supposed to be my grandparents’ but isn’t. The basement is filled with arcade games and I stand on the back of one of those racecar simulators while an old man drives. I do not know who he is and he yells at me to get off his seat, but I can’t because he is actually driving and the pavement races by and I don’t want to get hurt. He morphs into an actual face and stands and grabs my hands and swings me around the room like Miss Trunchbull swinging Amanda by her pigtails in Matilda. For weeks after this dream, to reasons still a mystery to me, I can’t eat a chocolate pudding Snak-Pak without feeling nauseous. Although now that I write that, it seems it may have to do with the forced chocolate-eating scene in the same movie.
(Months later, I would freeze in a bone-deep fear as I saw the old man from this dream sitting in a van in front of my family’s garage sale, as real as I was. It turned out he was the patriarch of a large family in my hometown, with several grandchildren who went to school with my siblings, and I had probably seen him many times without realizing it.)
I’m standing in a nondescript high school, waiting for a basketball game to start. My teeth suddenly disintegrate in my mouth. My friends talk to me and I fumble with the moving bone fragments in my mouth, trying my hardest to avoid opening my mouth to respond and having them see the war zone.
(In high school and early college, I regularly had variations of this dream where my teeth would fall out. A few times, I’d physically feel the bone fragments poke my gums and the unbridled urge to spit them all out as quickly as I could. Other times it’d be just a few teeth popping out of place and I’d fill with intense dread, knowing I’d suddenly be the person with missing teeth when I woke up. I occasionally have these dreams now and recently convinced myself mid-dream that I still had a few baby teeth at age 25 and nature was just finally catching up to me.)
My sister has died. I am at the local swimming pool when my family’s old landline, that we had just decided to get rid of, appears in my hand, ringing. The caller ID shows my dad is calling. I see my grandma close by, watching me. My dad speaks to me in riddle to tell me my sister has passed. I cry, everyone cries, but when I walk over to the concession stand to ask if they will make a cake for my sister’s funeral, she’s the one taking my order. I tell her exactly what I need and why, and she is annoyed with how confused I am.
Just a few weeks ago, after reading a book that mentioned an infested New York City apartment, I dream a cockroach skitters across my pillow, right in front of my face. I spring from my sleeping position, ram-rod straight, smacking my pillow and hoping to god the dream roach will go away. My boyfriend was still awake and questioned me, confused, until I mumbled something about a bug and gingerly laid back down.
Almost every morning, I can remember my dreams from the night before. They are incredibly vivid, tangible, and intensely emotionally affective.
In her essay collection, “The Collected Schizophrenias,” Esmé Weijun Wang describes dreams as working within the liminal, a space beyond what we know as reality.
“Dreams are the most common expression of liminality – more common than, say, seeing or feeling the presence of saints, angels, or God, which are all liminal experiences. To work with the liminal is to probe the notion of what is real versus imaginary, or even psychotic,” she writes.
To dream is to enter some sort of in-between, an existence outside of the binary of real and unreal, a space where you are conversing with no one and everyone and searching for an answer you cannot ever know but cannot ever stop searching for. My bones hear the messages from the ether of my liminal dreams, yet they live within me in the same way as the secret my best friend confided in me underneath her walnut tree in third grade.
I look online for information about why some people remember their dreams, and some don’t. The research cited is spare, sort of expected when working within an intangible world, and focuses more on why people don’t remember their dreams.
An article on Healthline posits a few theories, one of which is that dreams occur when our brain is processing information, filing away the important stuff and getting rid of the junk. So the brains of those of us who remember our dreams believe everything that happens during the night may be important later.
Another article claims people who remember their dreams tend to be more creative, introspective, often anxious. Maybe my subconscious has been keeping a catalogue of information to draw on for material later. I am a writer by blood.
I believe I remember my dreams so well because I have anxiety, as anxiety is the friend I’ve known the longest. Among many of those strange, obscure memories that stick out to me, the strongest feeling underlying them all is the discomfort of the world spiraling out of my control.
A day in third grade. I walk around the playground going from person to person to see if they’d let me play with them, continuously walking because if I stand still I’ll have to face the fact of loneliness, feeling my stomach crumple a little more as I understand there is no place of belonging.
In tenth grade, I spend the entire day trying not to throw up, crying in the bathroom a couple of times, because at the end of the day I will find out if the position on the softball team I want, believe I need, will be mine, and if everyone finds out that I do not earn it then they’ll finally see that I’m falling behind.
My freshman year of college, a group of girls on my dorm room floor are planning to go out for a girl’s birthday, a girl that is not very kind and I do not particularly like. I should not care but I cry anyway because I have nothing else to do and I feel like they are my only access to acceptance and even bad acceptance is better than none at all, and it seems like I have no chance of finding a group of friends within the next three and a half years if I cannot establish one right here and now.
I want to forget.
When I have anxiety now, which is not as often as it once was (shout out to you, Prozac), and I can’t pinpoint an exact reason why I have it, I always wonder if I am forgetting something. I live my life in to-do lists. I keep them physically and mentally and constantly and yet somehow I do not trust them. A task is a fickle little guy, sliding right off the page and running to hide. An alarm to set, a question I wanted to look up, an event that I am supposed to be anxious about but has suddenly slipped my mind
I find it fascinating to talk to someone who rarely remembers their dreams. Especially when my own dreams have such a profound impact on my waking moments.
I recently apologized to my boyfriend for cheating on him in my dream, because even though I knew it wasn’t real, I still felt consumed by that guilt.
I’ve dreamt of snakes that can jump, that can sense my fear, that taunt me, swiping and pouncing at me as I run past a row of trees, and I spend the entire next day nauseous.
The worst dreams are when someone I love is livid with me. I wake up feeling marooned and beaten and confused. My loved ones take on another persona in my dreams and in those moments directly after my alarm blares and I immediately hit snooze, I find it nearly impossible to separate the two.
Weijun Wang considers the way memories from her psychotic episodes live inside her physical body.
“I consider those photographs to be a peculiar example of what memory can, and cannot, accomplish. I look at those…and am immediately thrust back into that place and that time. The anxiety that pervaded those days returns.”
When I recall my dreams, I feel that same lack of physicality, I am somehow here and within the night before at the same time. Perhaps this is the liminal.
I find it fascinating that people who do not dream have not had their lives altered by an unreality and then I realize they must find it fascinating that I do.
I worry if I cannot remember yesterday then I cannot properly learn about tomorrow. Forgetting is a thief of protection. Everything I learn informs everything I will encounter, foundation building on itself. My experience matters to me and has built me into this person who is excited and mostly in love with being a human.
The Midwest Creative is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.
The Midwest Creative is a proud member of the Iowa Writers Collaborative. Check out my colleagues’ work and consider subscribing to their columns.
Laura Belin: Iowa Politics with Laura Belin, Windsor Heights
Doug Burns: The Iowa Mercury, Carroll
Dave Busiek: Dave Busiek on Media, Des Moines
Art Cullen: Art Cullen’s Notebook, Storm Lake
Suzanna de Baca Dispatches from the Heartland, Huxley
Debra Engle: A Whole New World, Madison County
Julie Gammack: Julie Gammack’s Iowa Potluck, Des Moines and Okoboji
Joe Geha: Fern and Joe, Ames
Jody Gifford: Benign Inspiration, West Des Moines
Beth Hoffman: In the Dirt, Lovilla
Dana James: New Black Iowa, Des Moines
Pat Kinney: View from Cedar Valley, Waterloo
Fern Kupfer: Fern and Joe, Ames
Robert Leonard: Deep Midwest: Politics and Culture, Bussey
Tar Macias: Hola Iowa, Iowa
Kurt Meyer, Showing Up, St. Ansgar
Kyle Munson, Kyle Munson’s Main Street, Des Moines
Jane Nguyen, The Asian Iowan, West Des Moines
John Naughton: My Life, in Color, Des Moines
Chuck Offenburger: Iowa Boy Chuck Offenburger, Jefferson and Des Moines
Barry Piatt: Piatt on Politic Behind the Curtain, Washington, D.C.
Macey Spensley: The Midwest Creative, Norwalk
Mary Swander: Mary Swander’s Buggy Land, Kalona
Mary Swander: Mary Swander’s Emerging Voices, Kalona
Cheryl Tevis: Unfinished Business, Boone County
Ed Tibbetts: Along the Mississippi, Davenport
Teresa Zilk: Talking Good, Des Moines
Larry Stone: Listening to the Land, Elkader
To receive a weekly roundup of all Iowa Writers’ Collaborative columnists, sign up here (free): ROUNDUP COLUMN
We are proud to have an alliance with Iowa Capital Dispatch.