Nobody really wants to hear about your dreams, unless they were in them.
I guess Coleridge is the exception, since people have been reading "Kubla Khan" for nearly two centuries now and mostly buying, or at least enjoying, his claim that he was merely transcribing its unfinished lines from what he could recall of his hop-headed dream of the night before. Part of the pleasure of his tale is the same one we take in marveling at our own dreams: how does our unconscious mind construct its narratives of sublimely bizarre invention all on its own? And convince us, for a time, that they are the truth?
How does a dream achieve that convincing fictional technique of placing you in a story that has already begun? The other night, while sleeping in a cabin, I imagined--it felt like I remembered--that I had won some sort of notice for a story I had written. Not a big prize, just the kind of schoolboy recognition that includes dozens of similar honorees. (The schoolboy part should have been the first tipoff, since I haven't been in school for a dozen years.) There was going to be a ceremony at which those honored would read their work, an event that might well go on for hours or days, Nature Theater of Oklahoma-style--long enough, at least, that the program was printed in a sizable perfect-bound book.
It wasn't that big of a deal to me within the dream--I was mildly proud of the honor, but almost took it as my due, for something I had written years before and had long moved past. And of course I had nearly forgotten about the ceremony and had the usual dreamland trouble in finding a bus to get to the building where it was held, and in finding the room (room 913, I remember) once I got there, in a building where they were shutting down the lights on all the floors but the one I was headed to. And of course I had hardly looked at the piece itself, which was included in full in the program. All I knew was its name: "Harlem Nocturne," about which I was a little embarrassed. I was sure it was a relic of some earlier naive presumption that I could speak in fiction, a la Van Vechten, for the idea, and the people, of "Harlem." But I gamely opened the program as I sat waiting for the bus and read the story to prepare a little before having to read it aloud.
To my surprise, it was better than I had expected (at least to my dream-judgment). And also to my surprise, I had no memory of having written it. But there it was on the page, and it seemed to bring up a feeling, vague but tied to the specific images and language of the story, that it had indeed come from the same mind I now inhabited. It was a short vignette, which did presume to speak for someone in Harlem: a musician who lived on the edges of society and was in some way held back from practicing his craft. The one specific image I can recall is of the main character, who bore a resemblance to the writer Charles W. Chesnutt--mustached and light-complected enough to pass--reaching through a streetcar window from the outside to take a newspaper from a seat and having his hand swatted and cursed by a woman who well may have been the mother from "Everything That Rises Must Converge." I also recall that the musician railed against Elvis Presley--anachronistically, since the rest of the story seemed to take place in the '20s, or earlier. Within the dream I thought of the story as a sort of pastiche of Nella Larsen and Ralph Ellison; outside the dream I might add James Weldon Johnson.
In many ways it was an unexceptional dream: an event I had forgotten that I must attend, a place in a city I can't find. But the element that I marveled at as I woke up--and I think even grasped in some sense while within the dream--was that while I have never written such a story, in the dream I really had. The words were actually there, visible on the page before me, or at least seemed to be if I only could have slowed down the dream to read them, and in the moments after I woke I tried to chase after the text even as it receded from me, like Coleridge but with less success and no man from Porlock to blame.
I'd like to believe that somewhere in my brain, like a deleted file that still survives hidden on your hard drive, the story exists, intact and coherent and actually better than I would have thought myself capable of. I'd like to believe it, but I don't, in part because even in the dream its coherence began to fall apart. Toward the end of the story (and of the dream), as I zoomed in on the text, I saw in a haze of text a proper noun, a character's name. A familiar one, but familiar because it's from the novel I'm writing, a novel that takes place nowhere near Harlem and that (at least as I've conceived it) has nothing to do with the story in the dream.
I think that eruption of one story in another caused a tear in my dream logic. Susceptible as my dreaming mind was, I knew even then that the name didn't belong there, and I started to lose my belief in the fictional web I'd created--and I think soon after, I woke, with the story for the most part lost. But I did bring a few small shards across the border into consciousness: those words, "Harlem Nocturne," and the man reaching into the streetcar. Maybe I can find a place for them in my novel.
P.S. An exception to my opening sentence: I enjoyed Levi Stahl's recent dream-memory miscellany (as I enjoy every one of his posts), especially the punch line in #6: "Yourcenar!"