Wendy C. Ortiz Chronicles a Dreamscape
Talking with the author of the surreal new memoir, Bruja
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The idea of pure transparency is pivotal when discussing the work of Wendy C. Ortiz. Her most recent book, Bruja, is described as a “dreamoir,” and the book opens with a definition of the form— “a narrative derived from the most malleable and revelatory details of ones dreams, catalogued in bold detail. A literary adventure through the boundaries of memoir, where the self is viewed from a position anchored into the deepest recesses of the mind.” From there, Ortiz launches into those malleable and revelatory details. The most shocking and exciting part of reading them is recognizing that through this catalog of unguarded and subconscious moments, we really do see a sort of narrative emerge — a recurrence of characters, settings and situations. The book itself is organized by month, opening in the spring, with April. Each dream ranges from a few sentences to a few pages, with the only discernible indication that the dream is ending and another beginning is through an artful use of white space. One passage appears this way:
“I found an invisible button and pushed it.
Everything — everything — turned white. A complete blank white slate, no forms, shadows, dimensions.
It reminded me of Bugs Bunny cartoons when the animator showed up and erased the backgrounds around the characters, then erased the characters.”
The secret conceit — and the brilliance — of this book is Ortiz’s ability to cause the reader to relate. It’s a feat that ought to be impossible, considering we’re reading the transcriptions of someone else’s dream. But after a few passages, we can’t help but reflect on our own dreams, our own subconscious desires, the recurring settings that transfer in and out of our dreamscape like a computer background, and the recurring cast of characters from our lives that transport themselves into our own personal dream spaces.
Ortiz and I talked about social media, the book’s cover art (Bruja’s is the work of another LA-based artist named Wendy Ortiz), and giving over to your most personal moments.
Nicholas Rys: I’m very curious about the inception of this project, how the idea of publishing a chronicle of your dreams as a work of literature came about? I think it’s beautiful.
Wendy C. Ortiz: Thank you. Initially it was text I captured from a website I was keeping, exactly like the text that would become Hollywood Notebook. I was keeping notes on dreams at the same time. When the website went down, I knew I’d want to work with the text down the road, so I saved it. When Michael Seidlinger asked me if I had anything for him to look at for CCM, I knew this was probably something he could appreciate. In my first emails with him I called it a dreamoir and explained briefly what I meant by that term, and he was immediately on board and supportive of the work.
Rys: So I’m fascinated by this book conceptually and the process of it. Is it safe to call this a dream journal? Did you take notes right after you’d wake up or did you write these much later?
Ortiz: It’s safe to call the original text a dream journal, though when I published it online I made sure to never use the word “dream” or point out that it was a collection of dreams. At different periods in my life I’ve kept some kind of dream journal, and have several volumes of them, sometimes in small notebooks or more formal journals, some on loose pieces of paper I kept. I typically wrote them just after waking, but would impose some form on them before publishing them on the website.
Rys:Are the passages laid out chronologically?
Ortiz: These dreams are totally chronological. The original version had exact dates, but in editing, we decided to go with just the months, and several dreams were edited out.
Rys :For some characters, full or first names are given, while others go by abbreviations like Sh or N. could you tell me about the process? Were you protecting certain identities? How did you decide who would be anonymous and who be given a name?
Ortiz: I mainly wanted to keep hold of the pseudonyms I’ve given others in all my previous writing. “Abigail,” for example, is a character in Excavation, and she appears frequently in Bruja under that pseudonym. “Michael” shows up constantly in Bruja, but has made only one appearance in a published essay. “Sh.” and “S.” appear throughout Hollywood Notebook, and so on and so forth. A few names are not pseudonyms in Bruja, and my feeling was that they did not need protection, and frankly, I enjoyed what could be read into the dream. “Sandy” appears in Bruja, and she is Sandy in real life.
Rys: How does the title relate to the book?
Ortiz: My grandmother and my mother are women who I describe as witches, with their particular abilities and insights, though they would never describe themselves as such. For much of my life it’s felt like a given that I have some sort of vibe that others have described as “witchy,” and my partner and I see this in our daughter as well. A bruja, to me, is one who can, among other things, live on other planes than just the one we think we know and refer to as reality. In Bruja, I’m describing the world I lived in while asleep, that felt just as real, just as emotional and vibrant and frightening as the world I lived in during the day. In that sense, I lived in two different planes and tried to document that experience. The word bruja, Spanish for witch, then, just references one of the identities I inhabit.
A bruja, to me, is one who can, among other things, live on other planes than just the one we think we know and refer to as reality.
Rys: So I’m curious if writing about your dreams adds more distance or makes you feel, I don’t know, almost more vulnerable, like you are giving over your subconscious, in some way. I suppose I’m curious how writing about your dreams compares to writing about other, personal aspects of your life? I’m really in awe of how brave you are, specifically as a memoirist, in the manner in which you confront difficult, personal experiences so artfully and sincerely. I’m curious if writing about such an unguarded and private aspect of your life feels logical, as you’ve already given so much of yourself to “The Reader”, or if it was in some ways different, more difficult, more challenging? Does any of this make any sense?
Ortiz: This makes total sense! I do feel an additional sense of uncomfortability with this dreamoir. It’s like removing another veil. Some of the dreams I omitted felt they like they gave away too much of my psyche. Seeing dreams placed this way — and taking into consideration when the dreams occurred, what else was going on in my life on this plane — feels very revealing. But then there is the way in which a dream works as a lens, and it can also obfuscate. I like this element — you might feel you understand more of a person via their dreams, but you might actually understand less.
Rys: Did you find any dream/passage surprising as you read it back during the edits?
Ortiz: I’m always surprised reading the constant dream conversations and conflicts I was having when it comes to partners. Do I marry this one or that one; I don’t want to be married at all; I want both; I met “The One.” It’s hilarious.
Rys: I love the book because as it progresses the reader can begin to see recurring images, motifs form water/water creatures, traveling/packing for traveling, settings that pop up again and again. This is fascinating to see unfold, to watch settings recur and characters drift in and out. Inevitably — perhaps it’s unavoidable as someone else who writes — but I found something at least vaguely resembling a narrative structure emerges. Was this something you thought about from the onset? Was it something that just happened to emerge as you were writing the book?
Ortiz: I did not set out with a narrative structure to impose on the book but imagined it would become on its own through the editing process. I also see a narrative structure that no one else has access to because I was the dreamer and the main player even in the labyrinth that is dream life. I also imagine that the lack or presence of “narrative structure” in the book will depend on the reader and how she reads (into) it…
Rys: Could you tell me about the cover art?
Ortiz: On instagram I found another Wendy Ortiz, an accomplished artist. I had been receiving stray emails meant for her, and started following her — and my first thought was, These are the kinds of images I imagine I would wish to illustrate if I had even one artistic bone in this body. Her images are haunting, beautiful, and dark. I got in touch with her and she lives in Los Angeles, too. I’m very pleased and fortunate that she was open to letting me use her work for the book cover.
Rys: What is your writing schedule like? Do you find an importance in a daily routine?
Ortiz: I don’t have a schedule, really. Every morning I write two longhand pages in a journal, that’s it. It’s more of an exercise, a wish to keep going with the journals I’ve kept since I was a kid, only there’s a discipline to it now. It’s total bullshit writing with occasional moments of aha, but mainly it’s what I will use maybe ten years from now when I write the memoir about this particular period of my life.
Rys: You are very active on social media which, in some ways, is a sort of self-curated live stream of our day to day — I’ve been sort of thinking about the ways that social media is almost like an extension of or at least connected to the concept of memoir — to what you do. Do you have any thoughts on this?
Ortiz: I have so many thoughts on this. The platforms I use — fb, twitter, instagram, tumblr, snapchat — for each I utilize what could be described as a different persona because they each definitely have a different and particular audience. I sometimes think, if these platforms were layers, the outermost would be fb, next would come twitter, then insta, then tumblr, then snapchat, snapchat having the most potential for the innermost layer, because it’s there I could tell a secret and have it be deleted from my story and from the snapchat servers 24 hours later. Each layer requires a different persona. This, to me, is fun to untangle, get tangled in, and mess with. Also, I find that a lot of readers seek me out in these places and do seem to appreciate the occasional windows into my day to day life — and that sometimes even builds into relationships with readers and other writers where these virtual spaces can be generative, warm, and supportive.