Anais Nin had a dream of a houseboat which led her to write the short story “Houseboat” which appeared in her collection Under a Glass Bell and Other Stories, and also to rent a houseboat on the Seine in the 1930’s.
“Why should we want to penetrate this realm of the dream? Because it contains the key to a knowledge of ourselves.” (Nin, Chap. 1, location 255-264; emphasis original)
Not long ago, I blogged about a dream I had which I felt reflected a level of anxiety about my writing voice. My sister, a savvy dream interpreter, once told me dreams often reflect difficult feelings or psychological conflict related to the present. I have found this to be true. Because they make us aware of these hidden emotions we may not realize in our conscious lives, when we decide to act on them in productive ways, dreams become a catalyst for change.
Anais Nin once complained that critics mistook her writing as dream-like in the way of the Surrealist writers popular in the first half of the twentieth century. Nin admitted she had been influenced by Surrealist writers she had known in Paris, but claimed that, unlike these writers, dreams weren’t a way of playing with language and imagery in her writing. They were almost a way to foretell the future. She insisted, “My emphasis [has always been] on the relation between dream and reality, their interdependence” (Nin, Chap 1, location 211). Nin firmly believed our dreams could help us not only see the pain of the past and present but also to encourage us to act for the future.
In her book The Novel of the Future, Nin relates the following story about a dream that inspired her not only to write a story but to concrete action as well:
“I had a dream that I did sleep in the boat and that it traveled during the night, that is, floated down the river for twenty years while husband and friends called out to me to stop. The next day I wrote the story of the dream. The story set me thinking about how much I would like such a life. Back in Paris I started to look for a houseboat, and found one.” (Nin, Chap. 1, location 421)
I mentioned in an earlier blog post about imagination and fantasy that Nin transformed her belief of the imagination creating a future into a story she wrote as a child about a blind father and his daughter. Here, the idea is similar. Dreams, like imagination, “if allowed to, may act as guides to action, providing, of course, that the conscious mind approves and the emotions respond favorably” (Nin, Chap. 1, location 421).
We have psychology and spirituality to thank for realizing the importance of dreams on the human psyche in our modern world. In the past, “[t]he dream was considered as escape, refuge, as a delusion, a way of inaction” (Nin, Chap 1, location 360). All to often, writers make dreams an ornament in their fiction like a glass angel on the top of a Christmas tree. Recently, I saw a film called David and Lisa (1962) where a dream played this kind of a role. The story is set in a mental institution and revolves around the connection between two schizophrenic teenagers. David has a reoccurring dream of standing in front of a large clock with a guillotine blade for a hand and steadily moving it towards the head of someone he knows who sits at the three o’clock position, as if ready to chop it off. Even in this psychodrama, David and his therapist make the shallowest of interpretations and the symbols in the dream are never really related to the psychological issues David is experiencing which brought him to the institution.
Last April, I had a dream that reflected not only difficult emotions I was feeling at the time but also steps I had begun to take to alter my future. I recorded the dream in my dream notebook like this:
I dreamed someone left a comment on my blog that read like a review. It had 2 stars and the title of the comment was “Vengeful”. The writer claimed I had daddy issues and my blog was really about getting even with my father. I went to one of my online writing groups and posted the comment, lamenting that the reviewer probably said this because I discuss my past and my narcissistic father in detail in a few of my posts. I didn’t feel angry, just contemplative.
I searched what events or emotions I had been going through at the time that may have triggered the dream. I was scheduled the following week to meet my parents in Vegas and travel the West Coast with them for a few weeks. Traveling with my parents is a situation always fraught with emotional distress and anxiety for me. Also, I talked to my parents on the phone only a few days before and I’d had a particularly long conversation with my father. This doesn’t happen often, as my dad is a man of few words.
I realized the dream was showing me I was starting to open up in public about my difficult childhood and especially about my father, whom I believe is a narcissistic personality and about the damage this has caused (among other things) to my mother and my sister and I. I come from a family where silence is valued above all else and keeping secrets from one another is how we communicate. I was taught not to talk about anything that was painful or traumatic or difficult. I am moving forward by talking about these things on my blog and I think the dream was telling me that, while this has been very healing for me, it has also been very anxiety-ridden. The fact that I related the comment to the writing group in the dream without anger and with contemplation shows a certain distance I’ve acquired when it comes to talking about my past, a distance necessary for the healing process, as you can’t change or heal without gaining a perspective on your pain. My fiction has helped me to gain that distance since many of the emotional realities I’ve experienced go into my stories and characters’ lives.
The dream made me realize it’s OK for me to express my challenging emotions in public, that revealing these emotions doesn’t isn’t shameful and guilt-laden like I had always been taught to believe This has helped me open up more not only on my blog but in my fiction as well. Dreams are about action because they are about seeing the difficult emotions we experience in a different context so we can take steps to change our lives.
Nin, Anais. The Novel of the Future. Sky Blue Press. The Anais Nin Trust, 2014 (original publication date 1968). Kindle digital file.