A continuing series from the NYRblog.
Last night’s dream: “The Forest of Misplaced Inventory,” said the dream voice. “That shouldn’t take much description!” The visual was a stack of shrink-wrapped red plastic garbage-can lids in a stand of green spruce trees.
I used to think that it was a bad thing to mention dreams in fiction. I’d read an essay by John Leonard, I believe it was, in The New York Times Book Review sometime in the late Seventies, in which he said that dreams in novels were a mistake. But I rejected that notion ages ago.
There are countless poems about dreams, of course, and even some, like Poe’s, about dreams within dreams. Rarer are those poems, or other literary inventions, in which the actual words arise in the dream, to be recorded by the writer upon waking.
I hate dreams. Dreams are the Sea Monkeys of consciousness: in the back pages of sleep they promise us teeming submarine palaces but leave us, on waking, with a hermetic residue of freeze-dried dust. The wisdom of dreams is a fortune on paper that you can’t cash out, an oasis of shimmering water that turns, when you wake up, to a mouthful of sand.
The content of my dreams has long ceased to interest me; but their proportions, the way they rearrange the things I thought I cared about, the life I imagined I was leading, won’t go away.
In the same way that we cannot deliberately, faithfully construct a dream while asleep, awake we are unable to put into words the complexity of the universe. Perhaps the only success to which the writer can aspire in dream-telling is to make the reader believe that the characters themselves believe the dream to be a dream.
For a period of two or three years during the late 1980s or early 1990s I repeatedly dreamt the same terrifying dream. Once a week sometimes, sometimes every other week, sometimes twice a week or more, it would be waiting for me as soon as I dropped off, identical each time in every detail.
It is impossible not to wish to interpret or somehow understand intense dreams, especially when they are repeated, or come in series and with infinite variations.
Why write your dreams down, anyway, knowing you will only sell them out (and no doubt sell yourself out in the process)? I thought I was recording the dreams I was having; I have realized that it was not long before I began having dreams only in order to write them.
My seventh-grade teacher warned our class, “Never end a story with, ‘It was all a dream!’” She sounded thoroughly sick and tired of stories like that. I remember thinking that one of my favorite books ends with Alice waking from the long summer-afternoon dream that begins with her chasing the White Rabbit. Even so, my teacher’s advice sounded correct. Writing “It was all a dream” seemed crude and…immature.
In a lifetime of unexceptional and forgettable dreams, a few stand out.