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Fuel from the unconscious ~ why dreaming is vital to me as a writer
One of the other less obvious effects of insomnia for me is the absence of dreams. I simply don’t seem to dream “properly” when I am suffering with sleep problems. Some people never remember their dreams but I’ve trained myself to recapture the key images and experiences of a dream and mull them over during the day. If I can, I write them down. I have notebooks with scribbled dreams dating back years and some dreams from childhood still haunt me. I work over old dreams, aiming at uncovering information from deep inside my psyche. I’ve been trying to do a lot more of this yet lately it has been rare for me to dream and remember more than a few tattered fragments the next day.
The sheer tiredness has meant I’ve not been able to do much creative writing at all, and no less than three novels are sitting on my hard-drive in varying stages of completion. There are other reasons why my creative drive seems to have gone AWOL but I’m not going to focus on those now because once I get sucked into that particular nightmare, it scuppers all reasonable thought.
Without the input of my dreams, I feel as if I am writing blindly, without any inner vision to carry me forward. It’s a nasty feeling, like driving with your eyes half shut and I find that those who advocate just forcing yourself to write when feeling blocked perhaps are asking(of me at least) something impossible and undesirable.
It’s the inner vision that carries any artist forward in their work, that shining thread of something that drives the work forward. I have little drive without the impetus that dreams bring me.
I’d like to share two passages from Away With The Fairies. Both illustrate scenes I experienced in dreams and was unable to forget in the light of day. They also show the power of the unconscious working its way to the surface and to consciousness in the mind and life of an artist. Isobel has suffered two serious bereavements and has failed to express her own grief; the paintings she produces are to some extent extensions of her inner workings to try and embrace death and dying.
“Can I see what you did today?” he asked, eagerly and silently Isobel unwrapped the board and held it up for him to inspect.
He was silent long enough for her to become uneasy.
“Don’t you like it?” she asked.
“I’m not sure I understand it enough to like or dislike,” he said, thoughtfully. “It’s amazing but you must admit it is a bit, well, disturbing.”
She shrugged, and said nothing.
“Well, it is,” he said defensively. “I mean, have you had a proper look at it?”
“What do you mean, have I had a look at it? I painted the bloody thing, I’ve been looking at it all day,” she said crossly.
“Have a good long look at it now,” Mickey said. “Now you’ve had a bit of time to detach from it. Look at the shape of the mound and the way you’ve got the interior showing as well as the exterior. What does it look like now?”
Isobel stared at the painting for some minutes, blankly, until with a reeling sense of shock that she had not seen it before, she finally saw what Mickey was trying to show her. Even though it hadn’t been at all what she’d painted, she could see now that the entrance to the tunnel and the shadowy depiction of the cavern inside had the look of great hollow eye sockets, and the bare pale frost covered surface of the mound had the look of ancient bone, weathered and scarred by time. With growing horror, Isobel saw that what she had painted had the look of a skull, an ancient flensed head, crowned with monstrous trees that writhed and wriggled their roots down into the skull like burrowing maggots or worms.
From Page 143
Loneliness and isolation were both swept away once she set up her easel and began to work. She was drawn into her own visions and only when she was in actual pain from cramped muscles and complaining bladder did she stop to rest and look at what she’d done.
Standing on the mound, surrounded by the smooth boles of the beech trees, was a stag, fine and strong and unafraid, the shape of its antlers echoing the barely seen branches above. The ground at its feet looked more like skin than earth, and in places it seemed to have ripped or cracked open, the crevices showing what lay beneath the surface. Closest to the surface the cracks showed heaps of carcasses of deer, piled up and rotting, some newly dead, others in advanced decomposition. As the eye was drawn down to deeper layers, the cracks showed bones and skulls, the antlers still attached and as the very deepest layers were revealed, the bones were crushed, by time perhaps or by simple weight of the corpses above, till at the very bottom, only bone powder remained that blew out of the crevices in clouds like the smoky vapour from an autumn puffball. Above it all, the stag stood proud and alive, and unaware or uncaring of the horrors below it.
“Bloody hell,” breathed Isobel when she saw what she had produced. She had been so absorbed by the work that she had been unable to see the whole, the complete picture till now. Obviously she had seen it but she had not taken it in, had not registered the finished images.
Now Isobel is in some ways a powerful alter ego of mine, and a character I identify with strongly; tying my night time visions into her experiences was very natural process of letting my unconscious mind direct my conscious one. Words flowed like spring water, easy and a plot unfolded without having to stretch and strain at contriving one.
Without this resource I am pretty much a hack writer, good with words maybe but useless at reaching anything deeper. And without that deeper expression, there is little point in me writing until that returns or is proclaimed missing presumed dead.
I’m not giving up hope yet. I’ve been taking a supplement called 5htp and it seems to have been helping me sleep a little better and even dream too. If I can get decent sleep, then maybe my dreaming will return.
Dealing with grief: a personal perspective
I wanted to write this before I lose courage to do so. This is not a post that is even going to attempt to be scholarly or give helpful links; there are plenty to do that.
I was blind sided this morning by grief. Doing some tidying up, I wanted to put a box of beer away in the cupboard and realised that the cans of dog food were still there, taking up room. No one has got round to moving them. I suspect no one had the time to do it but today I did. There was a couple of weeks supply of cans, a bag of mixed dog food unopened and the teeth cleaning chewies Holly used to love so much at bed time. I’ve piled them all up in a bag to take over to the vet’s later where there is a box for donations for local shelters. I can’t bring myself to do it now until I get my emotions back into order. I found myself crying, you see.
I didn’t expect to feel quite such acute emotion now, nearly five weeks later. I’ve slowly begun to get used to her not being here, and I felt I was recovering. But this makes me realise the feelings are still quite raw. Not enough time has passed. The normal every day things I have begun to accept, like not having a walking companion trotting along with me, or letting her out first thing in the morning. But seeing her food, that she’ll never eat now, well, it set me off again.
Grief is a strange thing. It’s both complex and simple. And it has no official time scale. You can’t say, it’s been a year, I ought to be OK now. Every journey through it is different. The basic stages as I have seen are: shock/denial, anger/guilt, emotional storm, acceptance, regaining of perspective, the beginning of healing and finally a deepening of our capacity for love. In my experience, the passage through these stages is not linear nor is it easy. It depends to some degree on the nature of the loss, the closeness of the bond and personality. When a death is expected, the shock is usually less, but not always. Human beings “cannot bear much reality” and even when you know death is coming, you continue to hope beyond hope that it won’t come. Anger and guilt also depend on the relationship. When a relationship is flawed or fractured, then it’s logical that the time spend in the anger/guilt stage may be proportionately longer; for this reason, it’s better to try and heal relationships in life, if possible.
I’m not a weepy person. I don’t cry very easily when I am in a stable state, but when I am low, I shed tears easily, but hold it back. Tears are as healing a thing as any I can think of. Weeping produces certain chemicals in the brain that are closely related to opiates; if you’ve ever cried enough, you may have experienced a sense of calm and even peace after a long crying fit. I hate crying. I hate anyone seeing me cry. And yet, I know it’s probably the best thing to do to help heal emotional pain.
I should tell myself: let yourself feel and let yourself weep. I should tell myself: give yourself time. But then I never listen to me, so here I am telling you.
Give yourself time. Be gentle to yourself in grief. Let the journey unfold as it needs to. Let tears flow if they need to. Talk to someone who cares. Don’t be alone if you don’t want to be.
And finally, it will pass. Every day it becomes a little less painful. The first anniversaries can be hard, but even then, with time, they become bearable. The deepening of our capacity for love is usually a sign that the journey through grief has been a successful one and yet so often people who have endured a lot of grief in life are often bitter.
I aim not to be one of them.
Obituary for Holly- April 1996- August 6th 2010
Holly came to us after a failed attempt to adopt an adult dog from the RSPCA. The adoption went wrong, for various reasons, and the dog was re-homed elsewhere- nobody’s fault but it proved an incompatible match of owner and dog that was insurmountable.
She came from a family that allowed their dogs and their children to roam more or less wild and when she came to us as a tiny puppy, she was riddled with fleas, her belly was distended with worms, she was underweight and filthy. But she had such lovely kind eyes, eager to please and loving that the rest simply didn’t matter; there was nothing a bath, a good meal or ten and a few well chosen medicines from the vets’ wouldn’t fix. I’d gone to see a littler of puppies but by the time we got there, only two remained; the fate of the other 8 is uncertain but was probably a bucket. The remaining pup was to be the plaything of their three year old child. They were not cruel people, just ignorant and thoughtless and I suspect Holly’s sister Tess had a decent enough life when looked at dispassionately.
The vet put her age at perhaps five weeks old, and commented that she shouldn’t have left her mother; but the mother had already been got rid of by the time we got there, supposedly re-homed, so we supplemented her solid food with puppy formula and she grew rapidly and filled out into a healthy happy dog.
That was in 1996, when we lived at the very edge of the North Yorkshire moors, and her daily walks were up in the forest that clung to the side of the hill and up onto the open moorland at the top. Her first winter, only half grown still, the winds and the blizzard conditions were such that my husband had to put her inside his coat and carry her off the top; she had been blown over by the biting gales that swept across the snow covered moor.
We moved in the May of 1997 to rural Norfolk and Holly’s landscape became rivers and woods and fields, softer but just as exciting for her and morning and evening(and often in the middle of the day too) we wandered for miles, sometimes with my friends and their dogs. Holidays and days our, Holly came too, loving car travel as much as she enjoyed everything. She wasn’t so keen on sea travel, her one sea journey across the strait between Pembrokeshire in Wales and the lovely Caldey island lasting maybe half an hour, most of which she stuck her head under my arm and shivered and refused to look around her. Once we disembarked, she loved the day on the remote island. Bus and train she loved as much for the attentions she got from passengers.
Six years of Norfolk peace and quiet and midnight walks passed and we moved again to the Midlands, to just outside Loughborough and about 10 miles from Nottingham. A new landscape of canalised river and grazing pastures met her, not to mention a full acre of garden, complete with a population of cheeky squirrels she was determined to catch, lying doggo for hours allowing them to get close before making a dash at them. Did I mention she was brought up by cats and was convinced for years that she ought to be able to climb trees the way the cats did? No matter. She did bring down a few squirrels in her lifetime, not to mention rabbits and on two occasions, deer. As a young dog, she was a very fast runner, and her mixed ancestry suggested a dose of whippet in the DNA, though as she matured she resembled most closely a border collie, though a smaller one, and with the shorter flat coat of a labrador. She was such a pretty dog, people often assumed she was a breed of some kind and asked for the name of the breed and often the number of the breeder. Being wicked, at the start, I used to tell people she was a rare Norwegian Elf-hound but could never sustain the story for fits of giggles.
In 2003, our life changes dramatically again and we moved to Suffolk and this funny little seaside town and her life was enhanced by daily walks along the beach and swimming and foraging for shellfish and stealing fishermen’s bait and sandwiches. Our walk took us through ancient woodland first and then along a stretch of beach where I seldom saw another person, and back into another ancient wood and then home. At weekends we went further afield, exploring the forest of Dunwich further along the coast.
Last September, we discovered she had cancer of the tongue and the vet gave a very poor prognosis. It was aggressive and likely to kill her very quickly, we were told. She was unconcerned and carried on as normal but we were devastated. I found some herbal capsules called C-caps and I do believe that they, along with the Metacam the vet gave her to help her arthritis(“There’s some evidence it may slow cancer, but I can’t promise that.”) gave her almost a year of quality life. Until a fortnight ago, she was going for long walks and woofing down her food happily. Even days before her death, she was happy to go for slow walks in her favourite places.
Then she went off her food. For a few days she was tempted by things like cooked chicken and other favourites and then, only milk. She wasn’t in pain but I could see she was getting weary.
We knew the time was coming and kept hoping she would just pass away in her sleep but that wasn’t to be. On Thursday we made a decision that we would ask the vet on Friday to put her to sleep. One last car ride.
She went very peacefully, totally ready to go, and we took her home, wrapped up in her blanket and buried her in the garden under the lawn.
There’s a massive gap now in our lives. She wasn’t a big dog, but she had a huge and loving presence in our lives and I cannot imagine what life will be like without her. I keep looking for her nose peeping round the corner when I come home. I wait for her to nudge me, to say, time for a walk?
Dogs give love without thought of return. I think we can learn a great deal from them.
Thank you for reading.