Consequences of Inconsequential Words
by Donald J. Bingle
I’ve always paid close attention to my dreams, not so much to analyze what they might mean, but to track the details of what my dreams have included. For instance, I know what colors I’ve seen in my dreams, what languages have been spoken, and what countries my dream persona has visited.
This attention to detail freaked me out once, when I noticed my dream persona had independent memories—not things that had occurred to me before and not things that I had dreamt before. No, my dream persona had memories of things that had occurred to him before. I found that disconcerting, that he had a life and it was different from mine.
During my college and grad school days, I had a recurring dream—very basic, but disturbing. In the dream, I would wake up, lying in bed. The room would look exactly as it did when I went to sleep the night before, but there would be a sinister, unseen presence that terrified and threatened me. I somehow knew that all I had to do was move to escape some ominous, impending attack, but I couldn’t move. I would struggle and sweat and eventually force myself to move, whereupon I would wake up, lying in bed with the room looking exactly as it did when I went to sleep the night before.
Scary, but straightforward. The recurrence of this dream coincided with times in my life when I felt a lack of control. Being an admitted control freak, you don’t have to read too much between the lines to understand why I was having the dream and why it was so spooky to me.
The scariest thing, though, was when the dream started recurring in layers. I’d struggle to move and force myself to wake up—I was aware enough of the dream, even when dreaming, to know it was a dream. I’d awake with a start in my bed with the room looking exactly as it did when I went to sleep the night before, but with an ominous presence in my waking room. In essence, I was dreaming that I was asleep and dreaming, then woke up, but was still in a dream—a second level dream. The layers increased until I could never know for sure when I actually woke, thrashing and sweaty, that I was really awake.
Eventually, I gained some (perceived) control over my life and the recurring dream stopped visiting so often. But about three years after I started my working career, I had my oddest dream of all. In it, I somehow knew I was in London, even though I was in a dark, windowless conference room. It was, I also somehow knew, ten years in the future. I was sitting at a table editing a client document. In the course of this rewriting of the client’s narrative, I marked the document to change a phrase of inconsequential words to another phrase of inconsequential words.
That was it. That was the end of the dream. I woke up.
Despite trying desperately to remember either phrase of words—the one I changed or the one I wrote—I could not, but I was quite certain they were both inconsequential. Perhaps that should have been the end of it, but as someone who kept track of things in my dreams, the dream bothered me. I had worked extremely long hours that year on a number of projects, often marking up documents in the middle of the night, so that part wasn’t really so odd. But what did bother me was that I somehow knew I was in London (there was absolutely no international component to my work at the time) and that it was ten years in the future. I’d never dreamt that I was in the future before, as far as I could remember. And it was depressing to think that ten years later in my career, I would still be sitting in the dark marking up documents for inconsequential changes. It was a weird enough dream that I told people about it: my wife, some colleagues at work, some friends. But aside from generating a few comments about working too hard and needing to get more sleep, the dream had no impact on me—or so I thought.
Years later, I was sent to London to work on a client transaction. It was an immense project and the client wanted me to be the lead. I worked extremely long hours every day, mostly in a windowless conference room in the midst of center-city London. That is where I found myself alone one night in a dark room lit by a single reading light, marking up a document. I changed a phrase of inconsequential words to another phrase of inconsequential words.
Suddenly, the memory of my dream a decade earlier slammed into my consciousness like the shock wave of an explosion, rattling my thoughts, making me doubt my understanding of reality.
This wasn’t just an overwhelming incident of deja vu. I didn’t just suddenly think I’d once experienced something similar before. I knew for a certainty I’d experienced what had just occurred before, but in a dream long ago. After all, I had told others about the dream a decade earlier. The realization I’d had a prescient dream befuddled me. Worse, the realization my career path had fallen into a rut of making inconsequential word changes in the middle of the night suddenly depressed me. Distracted by the emotions of the moment, I once again failed to note either the phrase of words I changed or the phrase I wrote in their stead.
All I did know was that I’d had a true prescient dream. I wasn’t sure what that meant, but it had to mean something. So, when a series of opportunities happened to arise in the next year to change my life, I was more receptive than I might otherwise have been.
I changed jobs and started to write fiction on the side. I wrote stories and novels in the science fiction, fantasy, thriller, and horror genres. I won a few awards for a humorous memoir about my dad and I felt good I hadn’t waited until his funeral to write it. I helped my mom publish a chapbook about her and her twin sister’s lives as orphans, but surrounded by love.
I’ll never write the great American novel. I’ll never be on the New York Times bestseller list. I’ll never make enough money writing to make a living at it. I write genre fiction and have a very limited number of fans—I don’t expect recognition, much less respect, for that from the wide world out there.
I may create worlds, but I don’t expect to change the real world. No cynicism there, just fact.
But, at least now when I change a word or a phrase or a paragraph in order to improve something I’ve written, I know every word is important. Every word is consequential to the reality I am creating.
My words change my worlds. And that’s enough for me.