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"Dogs, Redheads, and Concoctions": An Interview with Helen Betya Rubinstein

Helen Betya Rubinstein's writing has appeared in Okey-Panky, The Kenyon Review, The Millions, The Rumpus, and elsewhere. She was the RP Dana Writing Fellow at Cornell College and the Provost's Postgraduate Visiting Writer at the University of Iowa.

Her essay, "Recurring Dog & Rare Thing (9 Years, 13 Dreams)," appeared in Issue Ninety of The Collagist. 

Here, Helen Betya Rubinstein talks with interviewer William Hoffacker about keeping a dream record, creating a found essay, and a year without teaching.

In your essay, “Recurring Dog & Rare Thing (9 Years, 13 Dreams),” each dream is dated. What can you tell us about the process of recalling these dreams? Do you keep a regular record of your dreams, or are the dates only approximations?

I’ve been keeping a record of my dreams since 2005, and the dates in the essay are exact. The record began as a writing exercise: I found that, in recording the dreams, I’d reliably discover details I wasn’t conscious of until I was already writing them down, and it seemed worth cultivating a practice in which writing causes me to remember (or invent) more—something related to what John Gardner calls the “fictive dream,” or what now gets called “flow.”

But the truth is that after so many years of recording my dreams, I often dream of writing down dreams, and almost always spend my first few wakeful moments composing a dream-record in mind while gathering the energy to open my eyes and reach toward my notebook. So it’s possible that the exercise has finally backfired, leading me to strengthen the composing-before-writing muscle instead of the one that composes through writing.

Still, I can’t quite bring myself to quit the surprises of the dream-record—the way that, ten or twenty minutes after recording a dream, I’ve already lost the memory of writing it. It’s as though the act of recording the dream is part of the dream, and comes from the dreaming self. Even the handwriting is different. This is why I think of “Recurring Dog & Rare Thing” as a found essay: I don’t know the writer of these texts, even if all the details she uses are mine.

Given that dreams are themselves (bodily, reflexive) fictions, it felt especially interesting to collect them as an essay. The dates ground them in a world outside the imagination.

Clearly these dreams contain some common elements: dogs, babies, pregnancy, marriage, family. Why these thirteen dreams? Are dreams of these themes rare for you but show a pattern when strung together? Or have you had many more dreams of this kind, and these thirteen comprise just a handful of examples? And if so, how did you select them out of all the others?

This project began when, out of curiosity (and as research for a larger project), I decided to review all the dreams I’d ever had in which I was pregnant. There were fewer than I thought there would be, but the inquiry led me toward other dreams, and by the time I’d reviewed nine years of dreaming, I’d flagged about 150. I hadn’t planned to make an essay of what I found, but I felt tickled by the collection as I’ve been tickled by other collections of material that have led to found-text projects: I just wanted to edit and rearrange the material until whatever was ticklish about it came into focus. So I cut and carved away until I was left with these bits. Pregnancy, babies, and marriage are what I started with; dogs, redheads, and concoctions were the surprises.

Usually I’m averse to hearing about other people’s dreams, but reading this essay was a delight thanks especially to the playful quality of the language. Right out of the gate: “My family with Ben Jacob’s family, which had lots of girls, happy, dating girls. We all looked at a wife’s jewelry, and then Ben came in with a baby on his back—happy. The wife was his.” (I confess my eyes initially skipped over “The wife was his” and I’m so glad I discovered it on rereading.) The sentence fragment to start, the repetition of words, adjectives qualifying the nouns they come after—all creating an air of strangeness befitting the logic of dreams. Can you describe the process of achieving this effect? Do these formal choices occur naturally when dealing with this subject matter (or perhaps throughout your writing more generally), or did you have to consciously work at this playfulness in revising the piece?

The language and syntax are faithful to the original record of the dreams—my only edits were for clarity, efficiency, or privacy (I changed names). In one sense, this is just note-taking language: the language I use to talk to myself, since I recorded these dreams with zero intention of ever sharing them. In another sense, the language is evidence of the whims of the dreaming self, the writer who is and is not me. It’s just as much fun to discover writing choices “I” made but have no memory of making as it is to discover scenes I have no memory of imagining or recording. The style of the dream-records seemed to shift over the years, becoming less overtly playful, though they still surprise me with syntactic twists that are probably reflections of whatever writing problems I’m trying to solve in waking life.

I resist the notion that other people’s dreams are uninteresting. Dreams are a parallel language for narrating one’s life. Even if a dream-story is dull on its surface, a dream recounted always reveals a bit about who the speaker is—their character is expressed in the dream’s details and structure, the same way a fiction writer’s character is reflected in her fiction. Dreams—which aren’t controlled in the way fiction is controlled—are an indirect but intimate way of knowing someone, like eating the food they cook, seeing their handwriting, watching them dance, or smelling their clothes.

According to your web site, you are currently “spending the 2017-18 academic year on the road (aka the Nothing Nowhere year, the Rambling Woman year, my year at large…).” Besides writing (which I’ll ask you about next), what have you been doing in this special year, and what kind of impact has it had on you? Would you care to mention any favorite place(s) where your travels have taken you?

I spent five weeks working at Carter Notch Hut in the White Mountains in New Hampshire, cooking, cleaning, and serving as human pack mule. I also spent a night on the beach at Prince Edward County Island in Canada, which I learned is not the same as Prince Edward Island (but is lovely anyway). But I’ve mostly been reading, writing, and sitting still, thanks to the support of several artist residencies, where I’ve met other artists whose work expands my sense of the possible: at the I-Park Foundation, for instance, I witnessed the construction of a gigantic floating baby carriage and, for a fellow resident’s film, took on the persona of a bigheaded monkey.

As for impact—this year is the first since 2008 that I haven’t been teaching at a college, and as much as I truly miss students and syllabi, the lack of semesterly schedule has uncorked something. Maybe it’s slowed my experience of time.

What writing project(s) are you working on now?

I’m reluctant to say. But if anyone happens to read this who…

-       wants to translate 250 pages of handwritten court transcripts from the Soviet Union in the 1940s;
-       has polycystic ovary syndrome and wants to talk to me about their womanhood;
-       teaches writing and wants to be in conversation about subverting workshop conventions;
-       has ever talked about New Orleans, and wants to tell me what they said; or
-       is interested in publishing or contributing to an anthology of fiction flirting with fact

… I’d love to hear from you.

What have you read recently that you’d like to recommend?

I loved Anna Prushinskaya’s A Woman Is a Woman Until She Is a Mother. Masha Gessen’s Ester and Ruzya astonished me with its depth. Renee Gladman’s Calamities delighted me, Inara Verzemnieks’s Among the Living and the Dead made me cry, I spent last month ravenously listening to Rachel Zucker’s Commonplace podcast (if that counts), and I can’t stop rereading Eve Sedgwick’s “Paranoid Reading and Reparative Reading.” And I have to recommend my sometime-collaborator Nicholas Muellner’s slippery and delicious In Most Tides an Island.

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