(Kind of partially maybe) after In the Dream House by Carmen Maria Machado.
Taken straight from an email I sent someone last week.
Dream Journal as Diary Entry
I’ve been keeping a dream journal. (I already told you this. I just have the sudden desire to make this email a self-contained piece of writing, even though that’s really impossible.) I found the perfect notebook for it. My parents bought it for me in a small shop in Florence, where they decorate and cut and bind paper the old manual way. I’m ignoring the fact that I accidentally skipped a page in the beginning and started writing on the wrong side of the page and I’m writing with a black pen so the ink bleeds out the other side so I can only keep writing on the wrong side of every page unless I skip another page which would be quite unbearable because I like keeping my notebooks with intention and beauty but yes anyways I insist we ignore all this.
The accounts are fairly detailed—I write down everything I can remember—and in first person present tense, the way a dream is experienced. For the number of times I’ve seriously considered keeping a journal, I’ve never actually done it. This is the closest it gets, except it’s all written in code. The night I dreamt about hunting river fish was when I decided to be part of a play. The night I dreamt about an Ivy League campus was when I reached out to an old friend who goes to that school and never got a reply.
The night I dreamt about you, well, I’m not sure what that meant. Contrary to a number of things I might proceed to say throughout this email, I thoroughly believe that sometimes (in fact, most times) dreams do not mean anything. Arbitrary stream-of-consciousness series of visuals. Their proximity to reality comes from my interpretation. We can be gods, too.
Dream Journal as Conversation Topic
It’s so easy. Real tempting. I have already talked to so many people about my dreams. Used their absurdity to reach out to friends I’m not sure how to talk to anymore. Used their quirks and twists to entertain while masking my insecurity over not feeling like a fun person to talk to. It’s just far enough outside of conventional small talk to pique genuine interest, and just abstract enough for me to not actually discuss my life. I like writing emails partially because it puts distance between myself, the recipient, and the subject of my writing. There is something to hide behind. The built-in barrier of response time. The artificial formality. The lack of live interaction. My ability to soliloquize without interruption or anxiety of dominating a conversation with narcissistic musings. The catch-22 is that I am always wanting to be vulnerable without being vulnerable, and that in aspiring to do both through dream-sharing, I find myself caught in a quite unappetizing middle space.
Dream Journal as Liminality
When I think about myself trying so hard to remember my dreams and write them down, I see this: a woman in loose clothing of beige linen, pants rolled up to her knees, standing at the edge of a lake with black mud. She is reaching in and curling her fists into the darkness. There’s a certain futility with which the dirt falls out between her fingers, but the joy on her face when she manages to dredge up a useless-looking piece of plastic or two makes you want to encourage her nevertheless.
Between the supraliminal and the subliminal lies the Dream Journal. Between to-be and be lies the Dream Journal. The ferryman of River Styx.
Dream Journal as Procrastination
I’ve been working on a novel. Or at least that’s what I tell people. I wrote around twenty-five thousand words before getting impossibly stuck. My parents think I’m spending my time passionately poring over my next big project. Really I’m mostly wasting time on Youtube while occasionally reading over what I have written already, feeling my heart retreat deeper into my rib cage as I realize how ashamed of my writing I already am and how I might work on this for months on end and never work up the courage to show anyone. And face the fact that my writing is really not that good. Each day, the task of resuming the project seems more and more insurmountable.
I write other things. This is for two reasons. I need to distract myself from the lack of progress on my novel, but besides that, I also have the simple need to write something—anything. Emails. Blog posts. Sentimental letters to friends. And of course the Dream Journal. How liberating, not to have to invent plot and character, but to experience them as my subconscious churns them out on autopilot. How nice to feel like I’m writing something interesting.
Dream Journal as Collapse of Time
There’s no sense in discerning past, present, and future in a dream. Everything meets and causes and is succeeded by everything else. An underwater sequence featuring my brother cuts right into a Hogwarts-esque castle. One minute it is a nightmare, and the next, I am roasting s’mores with Aisha in a futuristic mansion. When I wake up, it is all jumbled, and whatever sequential order may have existed in the first place is shuffled once again. I don’t agonize over this; whatever comes to mind first is what gets put on the page. In a world unchained from the kind of causal network we are used to operating under, I am free of responsibility. There is no continuity with which events unfold from my actions. This is a long-winded way to understand why it’s not a surprise that so many people I talk to have had a shared past obsession over lucid dreaming.
Dream Journal as Memory
The other day, I texted you about a dream in which we were together. I am not sure whether to treat it more like recollection or invention. I stare hopelessly into the labyrinth of forgotten dreams, wondering how many times we must have met in this murky realm already, only for me to forget about the whole encounter upon waking up.
I’m not sure if dreams are actually creating new visions and narratives. At a certain point, they can only rearrange my actual experiences, whether they be things I lived through myself, or simply read about or witnessed. Maybe memories pushed into the subconscious.
The difference between keeping a Dream Journal and just letting the dream pass through my mind is a certain obsession with documentation and longevity. My preference for letters over texts. Blog posts over finsta posts. A green notebook in which to write down every single thing we talked about each night. As I avidly scribbled down every detail while Billy rambled on and on during seminar, I was not writing for my Near Self, I was writing for my Far Self, the Self that would exist after the inevitable breakup. Even at the peak of my emotions, I was preparing for their death. I was preparing so I could never deny the fact that these things did, in fact, happen once. These feelings had occurred, and there was no downplaying or idealizing them. The only way to hold onto the true version of things was to immortalize it with writing as it unfolded.
We each wrote individual accounts of our last day together and I realized that (as Peter Goldie had taught us many months prior) even the most vivid memories were susceptible to being manipulated by my own mind in its current retrospective state. We rewrite as we recollect.
If memory is a burden, who is left to carry more of it? Even as I first made the stack of memories and placed it in a box, I was already wondering who would be the one to keep it forever. I was thinking about the fact that this methodology I had invented—only one copy, flying back and forth between continents—was significant not only as an attempt to create a single special object but also as the source of a fundamental and enduring imbalance. The volume of shared experience expands and expands, and when it bursts, one is left with more ghosts in the house. I’m not sure whether it’s the one left with the Stack or the one trying to remember it. At the post office, they always made me write down a list of objects included in the package and their approximate monetary value. Potato chips, around 5 dollars. Hoodie, around 30 dollars. Stack of memories, the ultimate reminder that one of us will at some point send it to the other for the last time, what price tag would you put on that?
The green notebook and the Dream Journal are becoming good friends. They both satisfy my need to hold onto things. I still can’t accept my own adulthood.
Dream Journal as Invocation
I have never been religious and sometimes I wonder if I am trying to fill some sort of a gap. Clawing for things to mean more than they do. I would scoff at Freud then return to take a peek. Meaning-making may be nothing more than a self-indulgent activity but I can’t help outlining subliminal messages in my daily events. When Blakey first assigned the Nabokov story, I did not anticipate how much it would come to mean to me.
In other news, I have been trying to read up on Buddhism. I think it might really resonate with me. I’m not sure what I’m hoping to get out of this.
A character in my first novel has recurring dreams of a confessional booth.
Dream Journal as The Morning After
My handwriting is absolutely terrible right after I wake up. It may be the yet-slumbering motor skills, it may be the hand still reaching for the snooze button, and it may be my mind, moaning at the return to a banal reality, mourning in the radiant afterglow of what had been an epic adventure. (Nightmares, too, are adventures.)
We had made the concept of the morning after somewhat obsolete by turning it on its head. We stayed up through the night into morning.
The habit may have stuck with me; it’s already past 3 right now. Even after all this time—2 years since those sleepless nightmornings—the act of writing you is enough to keep me up.
Dream Journal as The Many-Worlds Interpretation of Quantum Phenomena
Proponents of the many-worlds interpretation believe that wave functions do not collapse into a single path of reality, but that all possible outcomes of quantum measurements are actually realized in parallel universes. These universes are entirely identical up to the moment of the “split”, after which one world proceeds with a dead cat, and the other a live one. (Two years ago, I presented to a room full of people why the cat example is provocative but unrealistic. I was so nervous. You were in the audience with an attentive grin, and afterwards, you made me feel infinitely better about the whole thing.) In this framework, dreams that explore counterfactual simulations—visions of what might have been—are actually depictions of real events, just occuring in an alternate universe that has branched off from the dreamer’s parent world.
This thought experiment is so close to being absolute rubbish that all it realistically does is enable my all-too-romantic, entirely fanciful imagination.
That there is a world in which we never get together.
You never go off on an adamant rant about determinism.
You never teach me that card trick, so I never practice turning aces into kings with three flicks of my finger.
Lainey never takes the photo of us on the couch, the one where I am clearly leaning into your presence and unable to get enough.
I never text Crescentia a week into the program that there’s this guy and I’ll probably admire him for a month and never talk about it.
Rainy days never remind me of you.
This world is just as likely as the world in which we never have to break up.
Your shoulder remains dry on the Caltrain back from San Francisco.
Our last dinner isn’t marked by incoherent conversation and desperate sips of water.
We stop by the cobalt-blue trees, have an entirely joyful, pleasant conversation, and keep walking.
We keep walking.
Dream Journal as Escapism
Let me tell you a secret. The secret is this: in sixth grade, when cringey episodic fiction saw its peak on Korean internet forums, I wrote and uploaded a slightly embellished account of my interactions with my first crush. This was a big-time crush; I harbored it for two and a half years and didn’t have another one until sophomore year. Anyway, I gained a few regular readers (undoubtedly just some other romance-stricken tweens). This is the end of the first secret.
Now I will proceed to a second secret. I abandoned writing that melodramatic series for something entirely fictional. I invented a story about a girl who is so miserable, but is visited by the Queen of Night and blessed with the ability to control her dreams. She revels in the happiness she can attain in sleep, but this makes her detached from her daytime reality. As she loses motivation to keep trying in real life, her situation worsens, which eventually drives her insane. She lives a flipped life until she dies, believing her dreams to be reality, and her reality to be a dream—each morning, she wakes up on a bench at a train station, homeless and hungry, and does nothing but remind herself that she is just in a recurring nightmare and will wake up soon. This is the end of my second secret. Both are early writing ventures I am not particularly proud of, but the second makes me think about my interest in dreams even as a child, and how I conceptualized them not as an activity but a realm, an arena, a universe guided by fundamentally different rules. One you can escape into.
The secret-telling is over. Let me tell you non-secrets. People are dying and I am typing an email on a plush couch in our living room. Too many people I know have been assaulted to maintain the illusion of a benign world. Constantly thinking about this triggered a couple memories of my own. I never wanted to think about them again. I had successfully forgotten about them. This is something I do not appreciate about the Dream Journal. There is no mercy in the way it drowns you in your own internal experience. You instinctively open your lips to breathe, and your survival instinct only brings you punishment, an unrelenting rush of salt water.
Dream Journal as Video Call
I enjoy the fact that the word “dream” captures two entirely different things. The nighttime cognitive phenomenon as well as the conscious wishes we have during the day. Not just any wish—you don’t dream of getting mango tea. You dream of making it as a soccer player or becoming rich or reuniting with a lover. It’s the same in Korean, so it doesn’t just feel like linguistic happenstance.
The digital world shares a lot with the dreamscape. We are almost borderless, not quite. Almost limitless, not quite. Things unfold simultaneously and bleed into each other and interact in ways incalculable for the human mind. Let me be less pretentious: in both dreams and on a pixelated screen, we can simulate togetherness.
Your image on the screen may well be a dream. I am not new to the practice of imagining a complete picture from a given fragment. It was my primary mental occupation during the course of our relationship. We sustained ourselves with daydreams and nourished each other by sharing their contents. The thing about daydreaming is that you are never able to fully shake the knowledge that you are just creating an artificial construction. But I am a theatermaker and I am always practicing ways to suspend disbelief. It is possible, at least to the point of provoking a genuine emotional response.
I couldn’t help but stare out the window even as your image spoke from the screen. The view of the rain made me totally space out. There was a real thing that was a shadow of you, and a shadowy thing that was the real you.
In your letters, you went from considering reality as a projection of the mind to believing in manifesting your dreams into the next level of reality.
Which is at a higher level of reality—the dreamscape or the digital world?
Still sometimes dreaming of you,