Monday, November 21, 2011

Dreaming in words

In an essay about friendship with William Maxwell in A William Maxwell Portrait, poet Michael Collier writes of Maxwell's intense involvement with words, especially late in life:
Toward the end of his life, reading and writing came together in a kind of painful synesthesia. In the spring of 2000, one of his letters admitted, "I can't find anything to read that isn't overstimulating. I am about half way through War and Peace and if I read that after dinner I go on living it in my dreams. Awful things that I know are going to happen, scenes I have made up in my sleep and sometimes just writing."
This is something I struggle with as well: any reading I do in the time leading up to going to bed is guaranteed to stay with me through the night. My dreams become suffused with the language of the author I'd been reading; I spend hours in some nebulous state between reading, writing, and living the words of the novel, wrestling (often stressfully) with its problems and thinking in its language. The most recent book to take me over like that was Murakami's 1Q84, which did not make for restful dreams--the oneiroi made sure that Murakami's flat language was even more freighted with dread than it is in daylight hours.

I had always assumed this was common among serious readers, but Collier's account makes Maxwell's case sound unusual. Am I wrong? Is this something you experience? And is it, like with me, bad enough that it makes you avoid in bed much of the time?


  1. Victoria3:08 PM

    For me, I do not necessarily have to be reading the book just before bed. I will write and see the next chapter sometime on to the end of the book, I am usually quite a ways off from what the author does with the story. BTW, I got a good laugh at your last sentence........"bad enough that it makes you avoid in bed much of the time? It was never bad enough that I "avoided" in bed :-)

  2. One night I fell asleep in my chair with a copy of the Iliad (Fagles translation?) in my hands; I dreamt not that I was at Troy but that I was still reading the book. Of course I was at least half-aware that I was dreaming, which made the experience all the stranger, as I knew the words I "read" came not from Homer but from my subconscious.

  3. I do love the occasional dream where I know I've been writing what my dream self has been reading. Presumably if we could extract the words from the dream, they'd make little sense, but they do in context--and when that means we're writing the Iliad, well, who doesn't feel a bit of the pride of Coleridge contemplating Xanadu?