In reading about the various states of consciousness I came across Jeff Warren's book, The Head Trip, online and immediately ordered it. It proved to be a delicious immersion course in the myriad (and surprisingly well-organized) trips our minds make from morning to midnight and into the wee hours. Jeff spoke with me about his book and shed some light on how his delightfully kooky head works!
Jill Dearman: What drew you to the field of sleep?
Jeff Warren: In the late nineties I read an article in the New York Times Magazine that basically said “we have no idea why we sleep and dream.” This seemed so astonishing to me—that we spend a third of our lives enmeshed in these utterly mysterious processes—that I decided then and there to learn everything I could about the subject. It led to an enduring obsession with all of consciousness—its many strange and beguiling states through day and night, its textures and secret influences, the way our minds interweave with others, with nature, with the whole shimmering cosmic shebang. Today, ten years later, I think all of life is a mystery. So I guess I learned something.
JD: What was the genesis of The Head Trip and what was your writing process like?
JW: When I was 20 I fell out of a tree and broke my neck in Montreal. My take is the trauma rewired my brain, moved my processing from the steady and linear end of the continuum to the associative and elliptical end. At least, that was the experience. It was an enormously disorienting and difficult period for me. I was an English major, so I dealt with it by collecting literary descriptions of interior experience—a kind of amateur phenomenology, before I knew what phenomenology actually meant. Years later, when this tributary merged with the sleep and dreaming tributary, I realized I had the beginnings of a poppy arch-consciousness classification scheme. So my old engineer mind met my new space-age psychonaut mind and The Head Trip came out of that—a deliberate attempt to bridge the straight world of neurobiology with the trippy world of inner experience.
As far as my writing process, I’m writing a new book on animal consciousness, and I can tell you my process is the same now as it was then: bizarre and inefficient. For a few years I interview dozens of thinkers, read piles of books and stacks of journal articles from every relevant discipline I come across, all the while filling workbook after workbook with excited idea riffing and quasi-stoner speculation. I use a lot of exclamation marks and draw a lot of cool scientific figs and confuse strangers at dinner parties with my theories. At a certain point, when I am thoroughly broke and my agent and editors are asking me if I ever plan to actually write the book, I start to write the book. But actually, what I’m really doing is writing the outline—a massive sprawling monstrosity that, although completely overwhelming, nevertheless prevents me from plunging into existential desolation and the horror of the blank page. Into this outline I jam all my riffs and my research, looking for connective tissue. Then I forget all about it, or rather I pretend to forget all about it. I spend weeks and sometimes months meditating or partying or visiting my brother and my beloved 3.5 year old niece Ellia, to whom I dedicate this interview. And then one morning, many months later, when the long spell of attentional disorder has passed, I open up the document and say ‘well looky here.’ And then I start writing, mercilessly pruning the outline, writing and pruning and reworking the fat, disgusting outline which screams at me from my desktop while I stab the monster with my fingers and pour black tea on the filthy pages. Eventually, the cumulative interdisciplinary research and my own flow lead me to broad synchretic conclusions. I get euphoric and call my Mom and tell her that her son is the best. My Dad is skeptical, but then he’s a wine agent and an engineer, what does he know about consciousness? Nothing. To celebrate I order ten more books and realize my theory is woefully incomplete. I had neglected all these sweet insights from social neuroscience, not to mention the deep ecologists. And what about Bergson, and Edelman, and the Russian biologists? Unhappily, I add them to my outline. I tell myself that, despite Ken Wilber, knowledge actually goes on forever; all I can do is write to where I am now. But of course I totally ignore this sage advice, because now I’m obsessed, I must push beneath conventional understanding to the deepest insights, the dark and sometimes stanky subbasement of truth, which, paraphrasing Whitehead, has no separate disciplinary departments (only universities have those).
And so it goes, as Kurt Vonnegut would say. It takes a long time but in a perverse way the whole process is immensely satisfying. I no longer pine for efficiency. I avert my eyes from the credit card bills and try to roll peacefully with my own demented flow.
JD: You seem to sway more towards science and the cerebral than mysticism and the intuitive when it comes to the subject of the unconscious. Does that seem like a fair assessment? Expound!
JW: I think that’s a fair comment for Head Trip, though since then I’ve become more influenced by contemplative traditions and my own meditation practice.
I love science—the magic of objects and fields. The brain is the ultimate object and field. The Self-maker, a pulsing hive of electro-chemical loops. It’s hard not to fall in love with it, not to mention the dogged researchers who tease out its forms and functions. The subject is so rich. So you start with the physical material. But when you get into consciousness of course the physical material is only half the story. Less than half actually, since experience encompasses all of life and history—we are all experience experts—while the scientific study of the brain is a specialized and relatively recent phenomenon. We cannot come close to definitively mapping the huge territory of mind—and the unconscious—with what we know about the brain, at least not yet. We may never; there are some excellent arguments out there for the irreducible mind. In the end, to really grok the mind you have to abandon theory and dive into practice, into deep experience, which is not the same as the default shallow skimming that passes for cognition on the 21st century street, although it’s certainly what I spent most of my time hanging out in, watching girls and delivery trucks, waiting for love, waiting for the riot.
A few neuroscientists have caught on to this, so you see a lot of new and interesting research these days where investigators are working with long-term meditators, with lucid dreamers, with controlled psychedelic experience. In a sense, the outer contour of the mind is finally being taken seriously, and in these domains, as in all domains, intuition is as important as reason. And why wouldn’t it be? It’s all consciousness.
JD: What kind of fiction do you read (or write)?
JW: My adult reading life has been a series of intense literary crushes starting at around age 16 with Gene Wolfe, and then, more or less in this order:
I’d write fiction if I wasn’t such a chicken. So I look for inventive ways of slipping fiction into the nonfiction, of blurring the boundaries. When your subject is the mind you can do this—hell, you can do whatever you like as long as you’re honest about it. My new book has an important fictional thread.
JD: Whom do you trust to read your work and give you comments, and what is the revision process like for you?
JW: For Head Trip I didn’t trust anyone because at that time I didn’t have an intellectual peer group interested in my subject. That has changed since I finished HT, which is actually about 5 years ago now. I now have scientist, philosopher, writer, artist and mystic pals whose opinions I respect and whom I plan to inflict with early versions of my next book.
Fortunately, for HT I had good editors at both Random House Canada and Random House US. My Canadian editor Anne Collins is one of the best editors on the planet. They gave me good feedback but to be honest I didn’t need to make many revisions. Somehow my screwed-up writing process is paired with an anal perfectionism and great compassion for the reader. So I don’t hand in a book until I’ve worked out most of the problems myself and made every idea as entertaining and accessible as possible. It would be easier and more efficient if I got feedback earlier, but then I’ve never done anything easily or efficiently so why start now?
JD:Thank you, Jeff. And so, readers, if you are looking for some tips on using the moments before you rise to figure out some of your writing problems, check out my website: http://www.bangthekeys.com. And for tips on the craft and practice of writing, check out the book, Bang the Keys
And until next week, I leave you with this question: Have your dreams ever led to any great story ideas?