Zak Nelson awoke one morning from unsettling dreams…

I’m not sure what time it was. Maybe 4 am. I was having a strange dream. It segued into another dream, which mirrored the first thematically if not substantively. I woke up. In my stupor I thought I was awake because of a need to relieve myself. Standing over the toilet with my eyes still crusted shut with sleep, I realized this was not the case as the dream began playing back to me. I ran back into the bedroom, fumbled around my dresser for pen and pocket notepad. I took them back with me to bed where, propped up on one elbow, I began to write what I could remember.

I couldn’t see anything but the vaguest impression of what I was writing. It reminded me of the blind contour drawings I did for the figure drawing class that I took. I only attended a couple sessions before dropping the class, but it was enough to get some practice seeing a shape and building my hand-eye coordination. I wrote, and hoped the scrawl would make sense the next day. It amazes me how long it takes to write down the details of a dream that occurred in such a short span of time. I wrote and wrote, filling pages of that tiny notepad. At one point Angie woke up and asked what I was doing. I couldn’t be interrupted for fear of losing the thread of the dream.

When I was satisfied that I had committed as many details as I could remember to paper, I lay back in bed. What did the dream mean? I’m not much one for the symbolism of dreams, but I am interested in a dream’s own internal meaning and logic, and always on the lookout for possible stories. This one was a doozy. And it raised questions about emotions that weren’t mine—they belonged to the dream—but were nonetheless curious to me. This led to another thought: this could make such a wonderful story, but I felt like it wouldn’t ever be fully mine. The conception of the dream was, in a word, immaculate. I didn’t labor at it. It just came to me, the same way the dream came to me when I was seventeen that turned into my first published story. I felt like it came to me, or through me, but not from me. Not completely. At best I’d just be a scribe. And this led to another thought: do geniuses have this problem?

I’m not calling myself a genius—the word is so overused anyway—but I wonder about people for whom inspiration and talent flows instantly and naturally (not on command, though). Do these people have the same frustration, the same feeling of being unworthy? I wondered as I lay there: if geniuses were to work at it, would they produce the same results as regular people? Is the product of their genius somehow beyond their control? Call it divine, if you want—my argument here isn’t teleological, strictly speaking. But look: there are hard-working geniuses and slothful geniuses. Some feel committed to working, maybe because they feel they can earn their talent, or else duplicate it and control it consciously. Others perhaps don’t try, acknowledging their “genius” as a fluke, whether of holy or synaptic origin; maybe those ones recognize that their applied efforts will yield results along the same bell curve as the rest of us: some will succeed wildly, some will fail miserably, and most will accomplish a respectable body of work in their lifetime that will yet never match the output of the lightning strike of what we call genius.

Who the hell knows. I’m overusing the word “genius” here, too, and it’s probably a sign that the word inhabits a place in the culture, and not a universal meaning: that’s what makes its meaning debatable and flexible. Anyway, getting back to the dream: there’s a feeling of not quite owning it, even if it were to become a story. But I will write it, and since there are no laws against taking credit for divine inspiration, I’ll reap any benefit I can should it prove successful. If it’s a failure, then it will be one of execution: the germ of the idea itself is almost unimpeachable, coming as it does from the dark corners of my noggin where truth is all there is.

With that, I return to my application for the University of Montana. (Iowa was mailed in yesterday; Syracuse the day before.) I have only four more applications left to go. And I’ve finally gotten the hang of the statement of purpose/personal statement. It’s interested to me that my purpose for study at each of the different programs, while generally the same, is slightly different, owing not to my own inconstancy but to my breadth of interest and the fact that different programs have markedly different pedagogies and faculties. They each promote and allow for slightly different leanings, each of which is a subtle thing. Suffice it to say, when I finish, I aim to have a publishable novel, a bunch of stories, and a more refined voice and even more refined instinct as a writer, which I will be able to trust and rely on throughout my life, whether or not the lightning ever strikes me again or a divine wind blows in my ear and tickles my brain.