Doorway of Dreams
[dropcap]A[/dropcap]s a young reader I had a bookmark which read, Dare to dream the impossible against a glittery backdrop of Pegasus in flight. When the bookmark wasn’t wedged between the pages of a worn Judy Blume paperback or illustrated classic like A Little Princess, it was jammed among the rest of my bookmarks, a bouquet which sprouted from the small jar in my room. The bookmarks shared similar dreamy backdrops, unicorns, fairies, and sayings. I’d never paid much attention to the peripheral instruments of my reading, or so I thought, until this afternoon. Dare to dream the impossible. I couldn’t shake the phrase from my mind. Why?
“The things we do before the age of five are built into the package,” author Margaret Atwood said last week, at the 2012 Key West Literary Seminar. She was leading a lively panel discussion with Michael Cunningham, Gary Shteyngart, and Dexter Palmer. She added, “All kids do it, but writers don’t stop.” Substitute any type of artist for writer and who she’s referring to remains the same—those of us who refuse to believe we must grow up to be accountants, bankers, and lawyers, or at least we refuse to only be those things, to deny ourselves the multi-faceted nature of what it means to be human.
I’m not going to attempt to answer why some of us, and not others, refuse to stop twirling or play-acting when the rest of the kids have heeded the whistle and left the schoolyard—the reasons are simply too mysterious, and I’m not a psychologist. What interests me is the dare to dream saying, how the messages that surround our inventing as children may have as much to do, later on, with how we invent our paths as artists and the opportunities we carve out for ourselves to fully realize our visions.
In the past several months, I was wracked with doubt over two pursuits—my first novel manuscript as it made the rounds with agents, accumulating rejections, and whether or not to audition for a spot as a troupe member with the Orlando Bellydance Performance Company. To top it off, I was sending out stories but none were getting picked up. For months. What was going on? Was this some kind of test from the universe, a “dark night of the soul” period in which my faith in myself, as an artist, was being tested?
If what the universe was telling me was that I was a giant failure, there was only one thing left to do. Keep going, because what did I have to lose? The worst case scenario was that I would have to write the book over again. Or write a different, better book. And if I auditioned and didn’t make the dance troupe, I would have to try again next year. Nobody would be dead; only my ego would be at stake.
So I kept sending out queries, I came up with my first choreography. And one chilly night in December, I auditioned.
My theory is this: sometimes you’ve got to venture into the thicket of doubt so deep, there’s no way you can miss the bright shining doorway when you stumble upon it, thrown open for you. By daring to dream the impossible, you’re forging ahead toward that castle in the clouds while you’re getting snagged by nothing but thorns in the thicket. The reason the saying is dare to dream the impossible is because the flip side is be careful what you wish for. It may surpass your wildest dreams.
How to call forth such wild dreams into your reality? To dare suggests doubt, as a dare is a taunt, a challenge, something against the odds. (“Consider the actual meaning of every word you use,” Margaret Atwood said in workshop. “Visualize what it is you’re actually conveying to the reader.”) A dare is planted in each step toward making the seemingly impossible a plausible reality. To take up a dare means you might lose, but you sure won’t get there if you pass up your chance.
For me, the chance to meet Margaret Atwood, one of the contemporary writers I most admire, let alone study with her, was about as far-fetched a dream as you could get. She’s the literary equivalent of Lady Gaga; at her signings and talks the line snakes down the block; she doesn’t teach on a regular basis, anywhere. So last summer, when I saw that she would be offering a workshop on first chapters of futuristic novels at the Key West Literary Seminar (aptly dubbed, “The Time Machine Doorway”) I was ecstatic; my new project was indeed a dystopic novel. The program was costly; I didn’t know how to afford it even if I was accepted. But I applied anyway.
And I got in. Much to my amazement, when I asked about financial aide, the director wrote back with an excellent offer, making the workshop and seminar a reasonable rate.
I had a spot in Margaret Atwood’s workshop. The impossible was suddenly made real.
Fast forward several months. Twelve of us are gathered around the backyard table in Key West; occasionally a rooster crows from next door. Margaret is leading us methodically through one another’s first pages, showing us how to line-edit like pros. “Sometimes we get caught up in lyricism when we really need to be focused on character and action, and what is being said,” she says. This is how she edits her novel drafts, she tells us—six to ten times.
We cut and condense. We toss around synonyms, always on the hunt for the better-fitting word. We consider premises, and what questions must be answered. “You’ve written an arresting first chapter,” she tells me. “We just need to know what’s going on in this future world.”
One often pictures doorways as leading to one place, or revealing one thing, when this isn’t entirely accurate. A doorway, when it opens, may reveal a number of different truths. I left the workshop with a clear path on how to move forward on this new novel, in a genre which is largely uncharted territory for me: speculative fiction. I also realized that the line-editing I’d done on my first novel manuscript wasn’t nearly as ruthless as what Atwood showed us, and I decided to re-edit the manuscript as soon as I got home before submitting it to any more agents.
Beyond her instruction, Atwood demonstrated that when a writer has reached what most would consider the pinnacle of success, respect, wisdom, humor, and kindness prevail. I’d entered the workshop with no expectations whatsoever for how she might conduct the class. I wouldn’t have been surprised in the least if she had shoved our manuscripts aside, peered down her nose, and informed us, diva-style, she was going to lecture for the next three hours. What a relief that she didn’t. I’m not only grateful for the time she spent with us and our work, but for the way that time was spent, for I left feeling more optimistic about my writing future than I have in months.
To top it all off, on the eve of our final workshop, my dance teacher Suspira posted the roster of who had made the dance troupes. My name was listed under Gypsy Sa’har. It was the troupe I was hoping to make. I shared the news with my new writing conference friends, unable to erase the smile from my face, while at the same time new questions surfaced: how am I going to balance two professional artistic disciplines? Will I be able to? But I’m learning to welcome the doubt.
Now that a few days have passed since my trip to Key West, I wonder how much of these magical moments depend on the long-ago messages springing from sparkly bookmarks I used without thought as a girl? Had my reading life not been peppered with those markers, would I have ended up a different kind of artist—unsure, less of a risk-taker?
That the daring and dreaming pays off is perhaps not terribly surprising. We’re all too familiar with sayings like “no risk, no reward.” But more astounding is that the doubt pays off too. Without doubt, there’d be no amazing moment of surprise as a literary great affirms the work you’ve done and instills her faith in you. There’d be no holding of breath while waiting for the webpage to refresh, and reveal your name as a new member of the dance company. There’d be no tears of joy as you receive a story acceptance as you leave the Hemingway house, alone among the last tourists as they exit the gate in the setting sun. Without doubt, the other face of dare, there’d be no awe and gratitude when you get home and open the message from the literary agent you’d spoken with a month before. If the manuscript is still available after you complete another edit, she’d like to have an exclusive. She can’t seem to get your novel off her mind, after all.