Thursday, February 13, 2014

How active dreamers save a future world: Guest blog by Judith Moffett

Active dreamers will revel in the account of the role they can play in a future society in science fiction writer Judith Moffett's new story "Space Ballet." At a future Center for Dream Research, trainees go into "dream reentry rooms" and teams of dream trackers work together in group shamanic journeys. Here they must play space detectives to head off a catastrophe that imperils the world, and they do it by applying core techniques of Active Dreaming. Judy was inspired to learn those techniques after a "chance" encounter with Robert Moss on an airplane he wasn't supposed to be on. Her novel The Bird Shaman was shaped in part by a subsequent run of synchronicity and by Robert's books and workshops. In this guest blog, she tells the story behind the stories.

Guest Blog by Judith Moffett

I met Robert Moss under circumstances so astonishing that I think I must begin by describing them. 
     Background:  My husband, Ted Irving, died of lung cancer in Cincinnati in March 1998, shortly after we had moved there.  When the academic fall semester began I returned to the University of Pennsylvania, where we had both taught before Ted’s retirement; I was trying to decide whether to come back permanently to Philadelphia and to Penn.  A few weeks into the semester I flew back to Cincinnati for a long weekend of work in our house there.  What follows is my lightly edited journal entry from October 4, 1998.

“A very weird series of events occurred on Friday, the day I flew to Cincinnati.  I got on the plane to find an older woman sitting in my assigned seat.  When it became clear that she was traveling with the woman in the seat beside her, and that her proper seat was right across the aisle, I offered to switch with her.  The small fuss attracted some attention.  After I sat down I fished the Raymond Moody book on mirror-gazing out of my backpack, whereupon the gent seated in the row ahead of the two ladies turned and inquired, “Is that one of Raymond Moody’s books?”  He was a large, ruddy, white-haired bloke; I’d noticed him earlier.  When I acknowledged (with embarrassment) that it was, he said he did work along the same lines, and passed me two trade paperbacks with New Age looking covers [a false impression], both something about dreaming.  Hm.
     “He asked me to write down the titles of some of my books, which I was doing when the guy sitting next to him decided to move to an empty row.  So I took the vacated seat next to the dream-book writer.  Turns out he wasn’t even supposed to be on that plane, he was supposed to be on a direct flight to Cincinnati from New York, and that such developments, he said, usually meant he was supposed to meet somebody on the plane; it had happened before.  His name was Robert Moss.     

  "In no time flat he’d found out about Ted.  In no time flat I was bawling my eyes out—through almost the whole flight, in fact   He said he sensed Ted’s presence, wanted to know if I’d been contacted by him since his death, said T was enjoying himself a lot—he picked up on the copper mask from the Sutton Hoo burial, nosepiece and cheek pieces, some sort of metal [Ted was a Medievalist who had worn a cardboard copy of that mask into his Old English classes]—but that T was also very concerned about me.  Robert suggested that I needed to release him, that my grief was holding him back, or soon would be, and that writing would be the best way to work everything through.  The whole encounter was astonishing, given that the guy was a total stranger and that sitting there within his aura I had no control, I couldn’t not cry.  I cried and cried.”  I had been crying a lot, but never in public, and was shocked by my absolute inability to contain my grief.

Robert was flying to Cincinnati to conduct a weekend workshop, and also to give a lecture that same evening at a Quaker meeting.  When his contact person arrived at the airport to collect him, she took my phone number and said she’d try to arrange a ride for me so that I could attend the lecture.  I thought then:  if it’s supposed to work out, it will; but actually I was thinking of taking a taxi clear across town, I was that intrigued. In the event I’d been home only a few minutes when the phone rang:  a ride had been arranged, everything had fallen perfectly into place.  I spent that evening hearing Robert speak and fighting tears.   Back in Philadelphia a few days later, deep into Conscious Dreaming, I was still wondering what had hit me.
    In the fifteen-plus years since that remarkable encounter, I have followed Robert’s trajectory and bought each of his books as soon as it appeared.  His subject matter initially drew me in, but what insured my dedication over time was the quality of the writing.  For me, good writing authenticates the substance of what it’s being used to say.  For me, then, Robert’s excellent prose gives him authority above that of every other writer on my dream-book shelf.
     I had been logging my dreams and working with them for years before we met, but my focus had been on searching for evidence of repressed memories—treating dreams as windows on the past, rather than the present or the future.  Robert’s books helped change that.  Something he said also brought about a paradigm shift in my personal life:  that people often interpret dreams too symbolically and lived experience too literally.
      The book besides Conscious Dreaming that gripped me the hardest was Dreamways of the Iroquois.  I found the idea of shamanic dreaming deeply fascinating, and practiced hard to get somewhere with it myself.  My efforts weren’t entirely unsuccessful, but I had to realize at some point that a shaman dreams on behalf of his/her community, and that I wasn’t making better progress because I had no community to represent—and also, alas, because I’m not, except in special circumstances, a particularly gifted dreamer. 
     So instead I gave my ambitions to a character in a science-fiction novel I was working on, whose “community” in this case was the human race.  (I hadn’t exactly “worked through” my grief by writing, but writing did prove to be a superior distraction from it.)  My character, a young woman called Pam Pruitt, is a very reluctant shaman, but I endowed her with all the native abilities I lacked myself, deriving these from my general research but especially from what Robert had written on the subject.  When a child in her custody is abducted, Pam has a whopper of a conscious dream that shows her where to look.  (Pam’s dream is partially modeled on a passage from Robert’s novel The Interpreter.)  When a friend who should not be fertile conceives a child, Pam learns about it in a dream.  After more such episodes, even she must finally concede that she can do what shamans do, and must embrace her fate in order to help her people.

One episode in that novel fictionalizes something that actually happened to me. A Cooper’s hawk flies into Pam’s window, breaking its neck.  The event, in context, demands to be interpreted.  The day it happened to me, I wrote up this disturbing experience and emailed it to Robert, who made time in the midst of a weekend workshop to suggest an interpretation, and also to advise me what to do with the hawk’s body—advice that got worked into the novel as well.  The book is The Bird Shaman and the bird shaman is Pam.

More recently, I was approached by David Hartwell, an editor at the online fantasy and science-fiction magazine, with an invitation.  Editors of the old-time pulps would sometimes acquire an illustration they thought would make a first-rate cover for their magazines.  They would then show it to several writers, in hopes that one of them at least could write a story that the painting would appear to illustrate.  Readers, of course, would assume the story had come first.  David thought it would be fun to try this and see what happened.
When I first saw Richard Anderson’s painting “Jellylite,” I thought I would have to turn the invitation down.  I couldn’t come up with a single story idea that could be set in the world depicted there, whose space ship and tethered astronauts suggested “hard” science fiction—robots, rockets, computers—which I don’t write.  Then, cudgeling my wits for ideas, I suddenly thought:  what if the picture could be treated as a picture in the story, rather than as a setting?  And immediately after:  what if it’s a picture of a dream?
     That prospect was exciting.  I told David I would accept his challenge.  In fact, once I’d had the idea, the treatment came easily.  If this was a picture of a dream, it begged to be interpreted; what if there were an institute for training gifted young dreamers to interpret their dreams?  A reason for establishing such an institute had to be devised, but that was easy too:  what if society had been forced to take precognitive dreaming seriously, as a viable means of preventing catastrophes (lots of backfill to establish how this had come about).  I didn’t have a clue what possible catastrophe the picture could be illustrating, but that’s the fun of creative work:  as you start to tell the story, your unconscious busily begins to organize a solution to your conundrum, which you will discover as the story takes shape around it. 
      And my strategy for pursuing the solution?  That was a no-brainer:  the students would use Robert’s techniques for dream exploration, which I had learned and thoroughly internalized years earlier. 
      Just as the true-life story of the Cooper’s hawk got woven into The Bird Shaman, something personal went into the new story, “Space Ballet.”  Bob Christian, the professor who teaches the dream interpretation class, was twelve years old on the eve of 9/11.  He has a dream anticipating that event and tells it to his mother, who writes it down.  What she writes is quoted in the story.  In fact, Bob’s dream is mine, one of the few precognitive dreams I’m sure I’ve ever had.  The description is adapted from my dream log entry for August 8, 2001, which I emailed to Robert after the attack.  He replied that others had sent him similar dreams.  That fact—that reports had come in from multiple sources—becomes part of the rationale, in “Space Ballet,” for setting up the Center for Dream Research.   
     I didn’t consult Robert’s books while writing the story; I didn’t need to.  And I figured out what the picture was saying at the same time the students did, just by letting them follow Robert's methods and giving my imagination a loose rein.

Judith Moffett is a retired English professor and the author of fourteen books in six genres:  science fiction, poetry, Swedish translation, creative nonfiction, literary criticism, and memoir.  Her work in science fiction includes four novels and a story collection, as well as a number of uncollected stories.  Her novel Time, Like an Ever-Rolling Stream was short-listed for the James Tiptree, Jr. Memorial Award; her short fiction has been nominated three times for the Nebula Award and once for the Hugo.  In 1987 her first published story, “Surviving,” was given the first Theodore Sturgeon Award for best science-fiction story of the year; the following year she won the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer.  Judy lives with her poodles, Corbie and Lexi, in Lawrenceburg KY and Swarthmore PA.  Contact her through her website. You can read her story "Space Ballet" here.


Justin Patrick Moore said...

Good to hear of this flow of writing and synchronicity emerging on route to the Queen City. Thanks for sharing Judith. I'll be sure to check out your books and story.

Cincinnati, Ohio

P.S. I dreamed I was in the fiction stacks last night with a Science Fiction editor who was asking me what I was reading by new writers. I picked up "Sly Mongoose" by Tobias Buckell.

Buckell's books are published by Tor and he lives in Ohio.

Judy said...

Thanks for responding, Justin. I grew up in Cincinnati from age 3 to college.

I probably should have said in the blog that The Bird Shaman can be ordered from Amazon at:

Patricia said...

Thank you Judith for witing this. It is inspiring for me. As I became an active dreamer I also began to write. As I did these two things I began to write without struggling. I throw away the word dyslexic every time it wants to come back and dress me.
Science fiction is one of my favorite genres. It will be fun to read your book as I have had so many dreams of a possible future. This story is rather amazing stuff to me. From my perspective, science fiction is like potential energy that shoots it's path into the future. I imagine the writers as master archers and the future as thier targets.

Justin Patrick Moore said...


Just thought you might like to look into the work of Samuel R. Delany. He is one of my favorite novelists and has written around 40 books. He is dyslexic but that didn't stop him.

Oh, and I published issue 8 of my occassional journal The Dyslexicon this past year. The theme was Dreams, Time Travel & Spiders. It included sci-fi stories, dream reports, essays and poetry. Keep your pen to the paper and your keyboard clacking.


Judy said...

Patricia, your image of SF writers as master archers shooting arrows into the future is a hoot! Mostly, though, we're not trying to predict the future but to imagine what a particular future would be like IF such-and-such were to happen, or to go on happening. In my American Novel of Science Fiction course at Penn, I used to stress that SF asks What if? (ex.: What if a lot of dreamers correctly predict a catastrophe?) and that the resulting story is a thought experiment which tries to hit the target of one possible answer. The potential energy you mention is what fuels the thought experiment. I hope you like the experiment I ran in The Bird Shaman.

Delaney's books are difficult but immensely rewarding if he is your cup of tea. I didn't know he was dyslexic. As Justin says, it sure didn't hold him back! If you haven't tried him, Dahlgren might be one place to start.