Dream Logic in Serious Writing

When you’re writing in a technical, persuasive, literary, or otherwise serious mode, you may be tempted to keep things “down to earth” by avoiding leaps of imagination. It seems common sense that introducing absurd elements, bold metaphors, and fanciful, flowery, or frivolous descriptions will bump the reader out of the mindset you’re trying to cultivate. But the opposite is true – the reader’s imagination is often your most powerful tool.

There is a certain hard-nosed style that’s appreciated in American business communication, including marketing and documentation. Time is money, and taking the reader’s time away from brass tacks is effectively theft. You’re here to increase profit, not to have an aesthetic experience.

Business writing imagines that the reader makes decisions on behalf of a corporation, or from a fiduciary point of view, to the exclusion of their personal interests. This is of course a fiction – offer the CEO a big buyout and they may suddenly decide their utmost concern was not the future of the company.

Similarly, the literary and critical modes assume that your bottom line is the elucidation of the human condition through art. You’re reading with a certain hat on, so to be effective, the writer is addressing not you, but the role you’re playing.

We might generalize that the effect of seriousness is achieved by reifying, not undercutting, the bedrock of the reader’s motivation and mindset. Conversely, comedy is mined from recognizing the underlying absurdity of the supposedly serious, showing normal life and its values as an arbitrary set of rules.

It would stand to reason, then, if imagination were reserved for unserious genres like fantasy or comedy, and seriousness were concerned only with observations and facts. But that’s not the case – the very argument for talking “brass tacks” and on a solid “bedrock” is metaphor. The idea of being grounded, businesslike, and serious is itself a concept we must imagine to generate.

To project the “greater good” for a given context, you have to imagine what it “wants”. Your business wants to operate more efficiently and discover fruitful opportunities. In the immediate view, that means saving time and cost by eliminating waste, or filtering the information in your feed to the most consequential items. Without understanding how the reader imagines improvement, the writer has no handle on what’s interesting or even relevant.

In the long term, though, the role of imagination is even more critical. Strategy amounts to the ability to project the future not just on its current trajectory, but as it may be bent to the purposes of its participants. For example, before 2008, it required a huge leap to see that a well-designed hand-held device would take the place of the phone, camera, newspaper, notepad, walkman, etc.

The ability to move the mountains on which cities are currently built, to change the landscape of what people want and consider good – this requires seeing as contingent what others see as given. So, to imagine the displacement of the gas automobile as the primary mode of transportation, you have to unpack the purposes it serves. The car is on-demand, fast, goes whatever route you prefer, shows your socioeconomic status, means freedom. Just improving passenger rail service doesn’t make the train a suitable replacement for the car.

Dream logic, roughly, is when an object or person is not just itself but an avatar for larger concepts and obeys the rules those larger concepts demand, regardless of fidelity to the physics of that object. In a dream, you’re at school but the teacher is your boss, and the building is a maze, and you’re an adult. The players are subordinate to the play, and impossibilities are rendered irrelevant as needed to move the themes forward.

If I want to persuade you that the future can be substantially different from the past, I need to show you how something currently impossible will be possible – not just explain it to you, but let you see and feel that new world. I need to evoke your imagination, and this can’t help being an aesthetic experience detached from the “grounding” of your current viewpoint.

The “fact” that people only use two screens (tv and computer) is an impediment to building the smartphone. If you’re grounded in the “fact” that people need internal combustion cars to get around, you’ll be less able to design a sustainable system.

It can’t be, therefore, that evocative, metaphorical language is only for unserious writing. The inherently destabilizing effects of absurdity are equally at home when the reader is heavily invested. If anything, the reader who is committed to their role is already detached from their personal reality and willing to go on a ride.

Seriousness lies not in concreteness but in stakes. As long as you align your perspective with the reader’s role, they will accept and appreciate creativity even – especially – when it’s not literal.