The Nightmare of Dreams

On my computer is a file named ‘Interesting Writing Articles’ in which I have saved snippets, essays, and interviews that I have read and liked. I knew there was one in there with Joan Didion, an interview with The Paris Review, which, following her death in December, I went back to read. The article is from 1978 when she was only 44 years old, but from what she says, she sounds older, she frames things like a person who has lived long. Here’s a small excerpt where Didion speaks about dreaming, writing, and the relationship between the two. She begins with writing: “It’s hostile in that you’re trying to make somebody see something the way you see it, trying to impose your idea, your picture. It’s hostile to try to wrench around someone else’s mind that way. Quite often you want to tell somebody your dream, your nightmare. Well, nobody wants to hear about someone else’s dream, good or bad; nobody wants to walk around with it. The writer is always tricking the reader into listening to the dream.”

Just don’t tell them it’s a dream, is that the trick she is teaching us? Not all dreams are made from sleeping, I think she means that too. There is a skill in having someone listen to your thoughts and opinions and – God forbid – your dreams. But make the telling good, make it worth it. Not many can pull that off. Didion did.

A while back, I read some of Derek Jarman’s journals. In one section, he describes a dream of his in detail and, true to Didion’s theory that nobody wants to hear about someone else’s dream, I skimmed it. But it must have affected me, because that night I dreamed and remembered my dream, which I rarely do. Then I wrote it down.

My eldest brother took to my hair with a Swiss Army knife, cutting off lumps unevenly, close to the scalp, so close that he left nicks on my skin and my head was bleeding. Parts, he left untouched, lending me a look of mange: bald in places, long blonde clumps of hair in others. I found a hairdresser and asked her to fix it. She sneered, told me it was unfixable, looked at me like I was crazy, unhinged. Shave it all off – she said – buzz cut. And the one thing consuming me was the sense of relief that my dad was dead and wasn’t here to see it. Then Dad walked into the dream, resurrected. He looked appalled but said nothing, and I couldn’t believe that he had chosen this moment to come back to life. I was so annoyed with him that I woke myself up from a sleeping agitated state to a waking agitated state. A fifty-year-old woman still trying to please her dead father. There’s always work to do on oneself.

Speaking of working on oneself, mostly I know what to do to re-set myself when I am agitated, when I’ve become over-stimulated during the day, when something has happened that is playing over and over in my head. I know how to loosen the coil that has been wound too tight. But some nights I don’t lean on my knowledge and practice, instead I lie in the dark and let the madness feed on itself, I nibble on my own sanity. It is a cannibalistic form of worry that does not have any particular shape or form. If someone were to ask me to articulate the nature of the problem that is eating me, I could not say. It is a knowing that sits low down in us, hides somewhere deep for the most part, and we think we have muffled it, perhaps even drowned and killed it, but I think we all have it sleeping within us, a nameless unease. And on days of bad news, or stress, or worry, the agitation wakes up as I sleep, agitates, infects my serenity, even my dreams. It is the opposite of peace.

From time to time, I think about keeping a dream diary. From time to time, I keep one. It never brings forth anything particularly fruitful (hair loss: fear of ageing?), and unless I write down the dream immediately, it is gone: a blackboard wiped with a duster, remnants of chalk still there, but turned to nothing, expunged to a pale grey of melted snow. Occasionally, though, I remember.

One night last week, I woke at 5am from a game of rugby. Both teams are wearing the same strip and so when I get the ball, I don’t know where I should pass it to. On top of this debilitation, I cannot run. The mud is like pizza dough, it sticks to my feet and pulls me down, I keep falling. After one fall I just lie there, the dough feels soft on the side of my face, I let myself fall asleep on the pitch, and then I realise I am asleep for real. I wake myself up. My mind clicks back into the whirring. I feel the cogs go back to how they were before I fell asleep. It takes all my will to slow the machinery down, to call on nothingness, to cool the over-heating, to pray for a dreamless sleep.


One thought on “The Nightmare of Dreams

  1. Joan says no one wants to hear your dreams. You say if you’re gonna do it make it listenable. You certainly have done that, and not only with the dream sequence. You have a lovely way of putting things. Thanks for this. It was well done.


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