Novel therapy

By Lawrence Cosentino

Lansing writer gets creative with dreams

It’s not just Michael Stratton’s soothing jazz-DJ voice, the empathic furrows in his brow or the perpetually cocked ear of the professional therapist that lure people to confide in him.

Stratton deals in the dark currency of dreams, where everybody wants an appraisal.

It usually goes like this: “I’ve got a life that looks like it’s really put together and makes sense, but at night I’m totally insane,” Stratton paraphrased. “What do you think?”

According to Stratton, a Lansing therapist for 26 years, there is an elusive but powerful method to the madness of dreams.

“When you’re in dreams, the dreams have you,” he said. “It’s a space that is totally out of your own conscious control.”

In 2000, Stratton was in Santa Fe, N.M., for one of many talks he’s given on the link between dreams and creativity. A knot of people came up to him and asked where they could buy his book.

There wasn’t one.

Eight years of hard work later, “Everybody Dreams” is Stratton’s literary dream come true.

The book, Stratton’s first, follows four troubled people who work out their problems in a dream therapy group. It’s a great read, tightly structured, mercifully short on jargon, and — perhaps most fun of all — interwoven from end to end with real Lansing-area locations.

Better than that, “Everybody Dreams” is a deli counter of sliced and diced Stratton, informed by the author’s professional and personal experiences, his concern for troubled people and his personal passions — dreams, of course, but also jazz, movies and Lansing.

Stratton knew for a long time he wanted to write a dream book, but didn’t want to grind out another “Key to Your Dreams.”

“There were so many out there,” he said. “It’s been covered to death.”

When he thought of combining the book with another long-cherished project — a novel — the chocolate slammed into the peanut butter.

To begin, Stratton spent 20 minutes to a half hour every day writing out dialogue. “It flowed out of me,” he said. “I always had an ear. Whether it’s music or people’s conversation, I could always pick out themes.”

In “Everybody Dreams,” a character named Jake (a younger version of Stratton) is a vessel for Stratton’s jazz love. The real Stratton hosts a jazz show, “The Vinyl Side of Midnight,” every Sunday on WLNZ.

Ethics barred Stratton from using his own clients’ dreams or reporting real therapy sessions in the book. Instead, he used imagination, tempered by expertise and personal experience. Years ago, Stratton went through a series of horrifying zombie nightmares while working as an orderly at St. Lawrence Hospital in Lansing. He gives both experiences to jazz-loving Jake in the book.

Three years into work on the novel, Stratton began to weave the individual dialogues and vignettes together to see if they would stick.

The result is much more dynamic than any dream encyclopedia. Stratton does not subscribe to the old “A-means-B” school of dream study. Emma, the therapist and protagonist of “Everybody Dreams,” describes her approach as “dream appreciation,” not interpretation.

In the novel, the idea is developed via a fictional Michigan State University film professor and member of Emma’s dream group. The prof sparks some nice discussions about movies (another of Stratton’s passions), but he’s also a handy peg for a bigger idea. Stratton thinks art helps human culture work its way through wrenching changes, just as dreams do for individuals. “Art is the culture, dreaming,” Stratton declared. “‘Slumdog Millionaire’ is not a dream the culture could have had 10 years ago. It would have been a tiny, forgettable, on-the-fringe movie. The culture is meeting a developmental challenge, just as individuals do.”

In “Everybody Dreams,” the focus is on the individual, as Emma and her four clients wrestle with big problems, from sexual identity to alcoholism to threats of violence and mortality. The book’s highly charged therapy sessions, with their awkward silences, faltering stabs at insight and sudden breakthroughs, plunge the reader into the innermost forge of human growth and creativity. The sessions are described with such authority and immediacy the reader can’t wait to see how each character’s latest dream or life crisis plays out in the group.

Stratton didn’t exaggerate the intensity of the dream group experience. Members of his earliest group, from 1997, still get together and have dinner once a month.

“They made an amazing connection with each other at a level that people don’t normally talk about,” he said. “These people made lifelong friends based on a 10-week experience.”

Getting together to swap dreams pulls these troubled people out of themselves and then drops them back in, with greater insight. The reader is free to see an allegory for human survival there, or simply turn the page to see who makes it through the book in one piece.

Michael Stratton

of “Everybody Dreams” 6:30 – 9 p.m. Thursday, March 5 Everybody Reads
Books & Stuff 2019 E. Michigan Ave., Lansing (517) 346-9900