Dream Life by Michelle Herman

I stumbled upon the work of Michelle Herman in a Borders store that is now closed.  Her short novel Dog caught my eye and I noticed that she was from Columbus. So I decided to read the book and look into the possibility of a Q&A. I ended my exploration with an appreciation of her work and, after the interview, an appreciation for her as a person.  And in many ways her fiction and non-fiction make you feel like you know her as a person not just as an artist.

Dream Life is part of Amazon’s Kindle Singles (“Compelling Ideas Expressed at Their Natural Length”). Here is the blurb:

Why do we dream? Why do we dream what we dream?

Novelist and essayist Michelle Herman looks at dreams and dreaming every which way: from ancient dream interpretation to Freud, from the way birds dream to the way babies do, from Jung to contemporary sleep and dream scientists, from her own dreams to the dreams of everyone she knows. In this mash-up of science, cultural history, psychoanalysis, and autobiography, she reckons with the art, the purpose, and the meaning of our dreams.

I am not really all that interested in dreams to be honest. I don’t have dreams that I remember and I don’t find the subject all that fascinating – neither Jung nor Freud nor sleep science. But I think Michelle is a talented writer and I wanted to see what she had to say and how she said it. Plus, it was $2 – what is the worst that could happen?

It turned out to be an interesting read. A deeply personal take on a unique subject – creative non-fiction that uses a subject as a jumping off point for more. More after the jump.

Paul Diamond’s Amazon.com review captures it well:

Are dreams a mash of cognitive nonsense, or do they speak to our lives in a meaningful way? Can they tell us things we otherwise wouldn’t have known? Michelle Herman explores these questions in a revealing narrative about her life, complete with vivid accounts of her dreams–disjunctive, conflicting iterations of non-reality that feature emaciated animals, the apocalypse, and age-morphing grandparents. Around these she merges the intellectual (Jung and Freud) and neurochemical study of dreams. The paradox of this piece is that Herman admits that most people aren’t interested in hearing about each other’s dreams, and yet she pulls readers by the hand into her dream life, and her waking life, neither of which escape analysis. But she remains engaging by forcing the random, obscure, and unshapen nature of dreams (and life) into a compelling story.

I think that really gets at the heart of it. If you are fascinated by dreams and interested in them as a subject this would be a must read I think.  But you don’t have to be deeply interested in dreams.   Instead you could, like me, just be interested in seeing how a talented writer tackles a subject like this – enjoy the journey.

And it is Michelle’s ability to be engaging and to explore issues and ideas we all wrestle with (family, relationships, changes in our lives, etc.) that makes reading her so interesting. She pours so much of her life and personality into the writing that it feels more like a conversation with an interesting person than simply a non-fiction essay. You can imagine her life and her relationships – and use that as a lens through which to see your life or just to think about what it means to be human (if you tend towards abstraction like I do).

She never gets too deep into the discussion of dreams and their meaning before bringing it back to the concrete and engaging aspect of her own life and experiences. But along the way she offers some information and insight into dreams, why we have them and what, if anything they mean.

As I said, I am not one to wake up aware of my dreams and even when I do I am more like to quickly shrug hem off than think about them.  But if pressed to take a side I would land somewhere in between the sleep scientists who think dreams are simply bits of pieces our minds recycle (junk) that prepare us emotionally and mentally for waking life – a sort of brain recharge and psychological tune up – and the Freudian or Jungian view of dreams. Do dreams mean something? Probably, but not necessarily a secret window into our souls.

Wherever you fall in the what do dreams mean spectrum, check out Dream Life and the other work of Michelle Herman.

Kevin Holtsberry
I work in communications and public affairs. I try to squeeze in as much reading as I can while still spending time with my wife and two kids (and cheering on the Pittsburgh Steelers and Michigan Wolverines during football season).

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