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Dream Journal of a Plague Month

First Dream: I’m checking into a Las Vegas hotel, only to learn from the man at the desk that the conference I’m in town to attend has been canceled due to the pandemic. He arranges to have a cab take me to the train station, so I can return home.

On the way, the cabbie—a plump, jovial middle-aged man in a snap-brim cap—informs me that ironically the train station is located in the same casino where the canceled convention was going to be held. Meanwhile, the streets appear quite empty, conforming to news reports that Vegas has become “a ghost town.”

I enter the casino’s daytime restaurant and bar, an expansive room empty except for staff and several large-screen TVs, and sit with my carryon rolly. For whatever reason, I’m under the impression that someone will come and tell me where to catch the train. A considerable amount of time passes before I realize this isn’t going to happen, and I have to rush through the casino to find the train.

I ultimately see the platform on the far side of a giant glass wall, but can’t figure out how to get to it. The ramps leading to the platform are all on the far side of the glass.

As this is taking place, more and more people begin to filter into the casino, despite the pandemic. I have to work my way through the growing crowds to find, at last, the stairway to the train platform. But I get there just as the train is pulling away.

I head back into the casino, wondering what to do next, dragging my carryon behind me. The place is now conspicuously busy, if not exactly jam-packed, and there are hundreds of people out on the streets, smiling, laughing, enjoying themselves. Yes, some of the gamblers are Asian, but by no means all. In fact, they seem to be a distinct minority of those at the slots and tables.

The poet Robert Bly, during his readings in the 1980s, often remarked that the poet is like the Biblical character of Joseph, who “left the house of his father and learned to interpret dreams.” More prosaically, but no less insightfully, the crime-horror-fantasy writer Alexandra Sokoloff once noted that, as a writer, “If you’re not keeping a dream journal, you’re working too hard.”

The fact that the coronavirus has prompted increased levels of dread has not gone unnoticed—with the paradoxical result that some individuals already suffering from anxiety and/or depression have actually found their symptoms improve, as the outer world has begun to conform more reliably to their darker internal worlds. (For more on this, see Laura Bradley’s April 6th piece in The Daily Beast [1].)

“If you’re not keeping a dream journal, you’re working too hard.” –Alexandra Sokoloff

The effect on our dreams has not gone unreported, either. Take this piece from the blog IFLScience, Having Weird Dreams Since The Pandemic Began? You’re Not Alone [2], which notes that in stressful times we tend to have interrupted sleep, which not only amplifies the stress but increases the likelihood of negative dream content.

(Note: Our dogs have been getting us up in the middle of the night as well—maybe they’re also feeling the stress, or sensing our stress. Then again, maybe they’re just miserable little devils who refuse to take full advantage of our sending them outside one last time before bed—they who get to sleep all damn day! But I digress.)

Ironically, it’s precisely interruptions that tend to make us remember our dreams, so it’s no surprise I’ve not only been having curious dreams, but I’ve been remembering them more than usual.

But my point here is not just to share the weirdness. There’s a writing issue to be pondered (he says ponderously).

Remembering our dreams reacquaints us with the economy of symbols, the way they pack so much meaning into a visual image without the need for belabored explanation. And dreams also seem not just more creative but at times almost ingenious in discovering a unique, visual, or symbolic rendering of a complex idea.

In the dream recounted above, for example, the choice of Vegas as a backdrop says so much without having to make it explicit. And the fact that it now is a “ghost town,” as an article I read before having this dream described it, conveys elegantly that the people who remain are gambling with their lives, if they’re not already phantoms of a sort. The train lying beyond a glass wall is one of those poignant dream images conveying both that something is easily within reach and at the same time inaccessible. And does the train leaving the station just as I figure out how to reach it mean I’m just “unlucky,” or am I perhaps already dead?

The fact that these questions remain unanswered underscores how imagery intrinsically conjures tension, because tension is created most effectively by simply asking a question and withholding the answer.

Tension is created most effectively by simply asking a question and withholding the answer.

For literary examples, consider Hester Prynne’s scarlet letter, Gatsby’s green light, Laura Wingfield’s glass menagerie, Blanche Dubois’ scarf-covered lampshades, Tony Soprano and the ducks in his swimming pool. Dreams can help guide us to a better understanding of this image-based approach to meaning, with the dual benefit of economy and creating suspense.

Second Dream: I’m working with my wife at a board game design firm in a drab open-plan office. Heavy red draperies hang from ceiling to floor along the walls, so there’s no way to see what’s outside, but I eventually learn the office is located in a strip mall.

Our boss is Tina Fey, or someone who looks very much like her (though less attractive). Wearing a dark blue suit and rubber gloves, she approaches me and says both my wife and I are fired. She then produces a spray bottle and begins aggressively spritzing me with disinfectant. When I try to get her to stop she just sprays even more aggressively, so I take her to the ground, wrestle the spray bottle from her, and spray her directly in the face. No one intervenes.

My wife and I begin packing up our desks and I head out to load up our car in the parking lot. The sidewalk and asphalt are plastered with wet, trampled handbills, and though I can’t read what they say I have the distinct sense they concern the pandemic.

As I’m packing up the car, an African-American gentleman, dressed in bib overalls but with a cheerfully entrepreneurial demeanor, comes up and begins praising the other businesses in the strip mall. He appears to sense that my leaving in some way casts a bad impression on the locale. He in particular wants to talk up the ladder store where he is employed, and shows me one of the heavy-duty ladders they sell. It’s impressive, and I consider buying one, but can’t quite remember if we need one.

If I had to pinpoint a headline that prompted this dream, I’d have to say it concerned the disproportionate impact of the virus on small businesses and African Americans, something my dream mind conjoined into one image. The curtained walls of the office have a certain funereal aspect, whereas ladders suggest rising above, i.e., getting away. Playing board games is one way people are passing the time during quarantine, but there’s also the sense of “playing games,” which is what the gloved boss (and too many politicians) appears to be doing. As for that boss being Tina Fey—I dunno, you tell me.

The next two dreams are actually just fragments—I was unable to remember the complete dream upon waking, but they both display the same elements of economy, condensation, and tension.

Third Dream:  I’m being chased by a skilled, determined, masked assassin who clearly wants me dead. Just as I’m cornered, two other gunmen, a plainclothes police officer and a hunter, appear. None of them seems clear on which of the other two is the real threat. They create a “Mexican Standoff,” with each pointing his gun at one of the others, threatening to fire if either of the other two do. After a tense moment, the police officer laughs and says, “Here’s an idea—at the count of three, we all fire.” They begin counting off—one, two… When three arrives, no one shoots, but the delay has allowed me to escape.

Later, after several intervening jumbled scenes, the assassin reveals himself in a casual, almost humorous way. He is a high school classmate of mine, the one who was always first in every subject, and very competitive about it. (I usually came in close behind, but seldom if ever at the top.)

I call that one my “Tarantino Writes the Screenplay for my High School Reunion” dream. Like all of the others, including the next one, the same theme generates the scene: the increasing difficulty of escaping the peril.

Fourth Dream: My wife and I are in a Third World country. There are people in the streets, and a sense of simmering upheaval, but nothing like mass protests or riots. Not yet.

We enter a sedately stylish if less than extravagant bar, which is located in a hotel basement. Instead of liquor bottles on the shelves, however, there are just large crystal jars filled with brightly colored liquids, which I assume to be juice concoctions of some sort, but which also convey a queasy biological specimen vibe. Regardless, the bartender is both willing and able to make my wife and I martinis, though where he gets the ingredients is something of a mystery.

Nearby, a man in a white linen suit rises from a table where he has been speaking with a couple;  as he passes, I notice in his demeanor a stern, dark formality that suggests he works for the security services.

After he’s left, I make a quiet remark to my wife, something about smoking pot in my teens. The man at the nearby table suddenly stiffens, turns his head as though to listen in further. I can see that he is dripping sweat, and trembling. He murmurs something to his woman companion, and they abruptly leave. Once they’re gone, I tell my wife we should also leave, and quickly.

Outside, the scene is noticeably more chaotic. Time is short. We need to flee the country, if we still can.

Needless to say, another of my anxieties concerns not just the pandemic but the threat to democracy it poses. After I told my wife (who is half Norwegian) about this dream, she replied with her usual, dreamlike economy, “I’m going to miss this house when we move to Norway.” (The view at daybreak from the living room of our home outside Bergen is the featured image I chose for this post. Life could be worse, obviously, if we do indeed expatriate.)

How is the pandemic affecting your dreams? Care to share any? Intend to incorporate any of them into your fiction?

About David Corbett [3]

David Corbett [4] is the author of six novels: The Devil’s Redhead, Done for a Dime, Blood of Paradise, Do They Know I’m Running?, The Mercy of the Night, and The Long-Lost Love Letters of Doc Holliday. His short fiction and poetry have appeared in a broad array of magazines and anthologies, with pieces twice selected for Best American Mystery Stories, and his non-fiction has appeared in numerous venues, including the New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle, Narrative, Zyzzyva, MovieMaker, The Writer, and Writer’s Digest (where he is a contributing editor). He has taught through the UCLA Extension’s Writers’ Program, Book Passage, LitReactor, 826 Valencia, The Grotto in San Francisco, and at numerous writing conferences across the US, Canada, and Mexico. In January 2013 Penguin published his textbook on the craft of characterization, The Art of Character [5], and Writer’s Digest will publish his follow-up, The Compass of Character, in October 2019.

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