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Saturday 4 June 2022

Dream Journal as Literary Project

Recently, I was wandering the wastes of Internetland, peeking here and there into reddit forums, stopping by old bookmarked blogs—when I happened on a post at the Teeming Brain titled, A nightmare that was better than the story I made from it.

The post absolutely chilled me. In it, Matt Cardin returns to a dream that gave birth to a short story, and finds, as the title suggests, that despite having the advantage of length and literary technique, the short story did not reach the same uncanny depths as the dream itself, which is related here in just 742 words.

And this makes sense. As someone who has long been fascinated by dreams as aesthetic objects, it’s clear to me that something irreducible is going on, and that any translation of a dream into another medium, any attempt to make use of its parts outside the medium of the dream itself, must suffer loss.

As James Hillman puts it in his unsurpassed classic, The Dream and the Underworld, what matters “is not what is said about the dream after the dream, but the experience of the dream after the dream… For a dream image to work in life it must, like a mystery, be experienced as fully real. Interpretation arises when we have lost touch with the images, when their reality is derivative, so that this reality must be recovered through conceptual translation. Then we try to replace its intelligence with ours instead of speaking to its intelligence with ours.”

In other words, the most fruitful way to engage with dreams is not to regard them as messages from the subconscious, not as noise generated by our nocturnally-recalibrating neurochemistry whose signal can be utilized by a therapist… but as experiences with their own experiential merit.

Maybe I am among the few, but I don’t flinch away when someone says to me, “So last night I had this weird dream.” I seek it out, in fact—bringing up dreams in conversations, following Jennifer Dumpert’s daily dream posts on Twitter (@OneiroFer), and every so often checking the World Dream Atlas. I also love encountering dreams a work of fiction or a movie. That unpopular Sopranos episode devoted to Tony’s coma-dreams? One of my favorites. That chilling dream-like sequence at the diner in David Lynch’s Mullholland Drive? A masterpiece. And Rodney Asher’s documentary about sleep paralysis and its related nocturnal phenomena, The Nightmare? If you know me, I’ve probably already recommended it to you.

But more than this, of course, I have recorded my own dreams.

This project, which I started as a teenager, has evolved over the years as my own writing and my own understanding of dreams has evolved. Once, I had it in mind to make use of some of this content, free gifts from my subconscious, in my fiction; no more. As Cardin discovered, that just goes wrong. In fact, I’ve come to believe that, when it comes to capturing the aesthetic power of dreams, there is simply no more effective medium than the dream journal itself

Let's try a thought-experiment. Let's think of dreams as a literary genre, the way, for example, the American kitchen-sink-realism short story is a genre, or the Eastern European tradition of microfictions is a genre (a la Robert Walser, and Kafka’s parables), or more recently, the autobiographical blog post, or even the Facebook status update (of which people have made stitched-up novels, like David Sauvage). The particular aesthetic advantage of this genre is that it does not need to create a scaffolding, or “frame”, to excuse or explain the content. That is, it doesn’t need to set up the dream via plot mechanisms or even establishing a POV character. It just treats the dream as its own inherently meaningful object. 

In other words, in this “genre,” the container of the dream itself is vital to the particular aesthetic effect. Knowing it is dream, the reader can then willingly enter the particular mode of participation that dreams offer, which is their magic.

“In sleep, I am thoroughly immersed in the dream,” writes James Hillman. “Only on waking do I reverse this fact and believe the dream is in me. At night the dream has me, but in the morning I say, I had a dream. A true subjective level of interpretation would have to keep me subjected to the dream.” 

Of course, there’s one small hitch here. A dream journal entry isn’t the dream. It is words on a page. What makes dreams sui generis is that they are dreams.

Acknowledging this, the goal of the dream journal as a literary project must be, then, to stay as close as possible to the phenomenon. Dreams, after all, bind together multiple dimensions of experience—past, present and future, the known and the unknown, the self and the not-self—into a compact hyper-object which, upon waking, provides a potential for reflection and interpretation vastly asymmetrical to the actually very simple and image-based content of the dream. 

But the point of the dream journal isn’t to spin out into this surrounding hermeneutical territory. It’s to stay with the source. To record what was seen, felt, and understood in the dream in the way it happened, in the sequence in which it happened, without deviating, without interpretation. Without mixing day consciousness into the night.

The following dreams are my attempt to do just this. Please read them the way you might read a small collection of micro-fictions; but read them as dreams.


Sept 27th, 2014

(I want to start this series with a dream I had when I was my early twenties. At the time, I was beginning to navigate what would become a lifelong—at least so farchronic bowel illness. Symptoms included unpredictable flares of inflammation. I nearly had to drop out of university. Dread, frustration, and loneliness characterized my days.)

Deep space. We travel with the last remnant of humanity in a vast interstellar cruiser. The situation is similar to Battlestar Galactica: in the wake of some nameless disaster, a universal apocalypse, we search for a home. We have gone everywhere, traversed the whole cosmos, and now we are launching into the great Boundless of deepest space, beyond the last stars. Where there is… nothing.

But there is something. Far below our ship, out here in the void, we notice a vast blue wolf’s head. Its presence is immense, the size of a nebula.

What is it doing here? What is it?

I have a horrible feeling. A shift seems to occur; this thing, we realize, is not friendly. Already it may be too late. The thing turns, raising its snout at our ship.

Before it can make a move, we drop a bomb. It is a powerful nuclear missile, released like a depth charge into the wolf’s face. It explodes, and in its wake there is a window of chance. We can, if we’re fast enough, slip away…

Taxed to its utmost, full speed ahead, the ship gets free. 

We carry on our journey.

Now the dream, or my memory of the dream, slows. We are on an alien word, with vast fields and blue skies. We have found the paradise we’ve been seeking. 

It is truly glorious. I’m standing by a river, just feeling the most profound gratitude. But it’s not a new gratitude; I seem to have been there a while, many years have passed since our long dark voyage through the black void. There’s this sense of beauty and infinite potential. All around me I see deep red fruit, endless varieties of novel plants, and these strange airborne jellyfish whose transparent bodies everywhere reflect the clear dusk light. How is it possible we succeeded, and so richly? So luckily? Ah! 

As I stand there, feeling this joy, a figure emerges on the horizon and begins to hobble toward me. It comes slowly at first, then swiftly, and in a moment it stands before me, hunched and intent. There’s a mysterious power in this not-quite-human person that makes me uneasy. It points a finger at me and stares.

And suddenly we are back. Our interstellar ship is hovering over the blue wolf’s head, like a worm on a hook.

For a moment, I think: so our paradise hadn’t been real. The wolf had only generated a beautiful illusion to mock us. But it’s worse. The paradise had been real, but the wolf has reeled us back through time, ripping us from what was our very real home, one we had really found, to once again dangle us over its vast maw.

It’s horrible. 

It can do this. It can actually do this.

The fruits of our long-suffering, the striving, the quest, and all love, all joy, all progress along the way, yes, even after reaching heaven itself—it can just be undone.

What the hell is this thing? What is it doing, just brooding here, outside the universe?


August 29th, 2018

(Sometimes I remember only an image. But that image seems to contain the story itself.)

A woman is holding a sphere, cupping it with both hands. It is about the size of a child’s head, white-grey, made of a soft, light-giving, permeable substance. I know this sphere is the universe.

Slowly, she begins to peel it apart with her fingers, unfolding it outward.

At its center, when the work is done, there is a key. No, a set of keys; but it’s the one key I notice, because it is the key to the universe, won by this work of careful exposure.

The other keys, I don’t know what they are for. There must be other things which I hadn’t thought to try to unlock. 


January 27th, 2020

(Sometimes I take extra melatonin before falling asleep, in order to increase the likelihood of strange dreams. This, it turned out, might not have been the best thing after a day of reading Thomas Ligotti’s horror fiction...)

I am with my family in a kind of Airbnb on the coast. My friend Kaden is here too. They want to watch a movie but I say I won’t join them. In fact, I’m very lonely and hoping to be contradicted. They don’t; they go off to watch the movie without me.

After a time, they come back outside. I am leaning on a railing, weeping. I shout, very earnestly, believing it myself, “I want to die!”

They surround me, and right away it’s clear they do not take me seriously. What happens next is strange. We begin to rough-house, joke around, but slowly it becomes clear that this rough-housing is demented, their laughter is heedless. There are moments in which I seem to suddenly comprehend that I am losing control of something important, that I am desperately alone and in pain, and that I am progressively forgetting this truth in the course of their game.

Now they have pinned me down. Mom, my dear mother, has an axe and she is swinging it here and there, ha ha ha, and the swings are coming ever nearer my face.

“You have to listen to me!” I yell, urgent. I know I could be hit any moment. “You have to listen to me!” But my yell, and within it my desperation, is simply understood according to the rules of the game, i.e. as just more rough-housing and not in earnest.

No matter what I say or do, it’s taken up into the demented game. Cries for help are subverted into play. I make an even greater effort to yell then, the kind of effort one makes in a state of dream paralysis when the terrible silhouette looms over you, an enormous push—and it wakes me.

In bed, I hear the sound of my own strained voice, a weak croak, Aaah, before this is punctuated by the awareness of being awake.

Now, this isn’t a false waking. But something hasn’t ended. I remain perfectly still for a long time before thinking I ought to try to move. I find I’m able to. But there is a heaviness in my body. I go over the dream to figure out how it led me down those strange loops of disintegrating free will. Then I close my eyes again.

Before me, perfectly formed, is an image of an entity. It’s blue, complex face is in profile, looking away. I have the impression of extreme intelligence and utter malice.

Before it can notice me, I opened my eyes.

I am in my bedroom, in Brooklyn, awake.


Cautiously, I close my eyes.

Now the entity has turned to face me directly. It takes me a moment to understand what I am seeing; it is so strange and near, closer now than before, and the power of its mind is intense.

This is the dark intelligence, very real, which has orchestrated my demented dream. I’m not yet in its power, I sense, but at the same time I am at risk of this, and therefore must not indulge the vision. I open my eyes at once.

I stand and turn on the light in the room, to reset things. Then I get back into bed and focus on something else, and eventually fall back asleep.


July 26th, 2020

(At the time of this dream, I was reading Carl Jung’s memoirs, and I was deeply impressed by his memory of a dream he had when he was three or four: “In the dream I was in this meadow. Suddenly I discovered a dark, rectangular, stone-lined hole in the ground. I had never seen it before. I ran forward curiously and peered down into it. Then I saw a stone stairway leading down....”)

I’m in a suburb with many old houses. It’s an old wealthy neighborhood, and a crepuscular evening light is falling over the houses.

Someone is guiding me, I don’t remember who, and I’m not even sure there was someone else. Perhaps I am guiding myself.

I hear, or rather I have the impression of hearing, the phrase, “I will show you a secret.”

We go down a street and at certain a point, no more special than any other point, we stop. There’s something that looks like a drainage grate or a manhole but isn’t quite either of these things. It’s by the sidewalk in front of an old house. I am shown how if you put a finger in a small hole and lift with all your might, you will pull out a metal rod, and when that metal rod is released you will be able to lift open a disc. When that disc is open, you can pull aside the grate itself and expose a small cavern or alcove.

We go down. It is very shallow and dirty and I can see the bottom easily. But now I am told to step back and look lower.

In the side of the alcove is a long thin concrete culvert—a tunnel. The more I lower my head, the further I can see down this tunnel. It’s maybe 20 or 30 ft and extends at an angle that doesn’t make sense; it is parallel to the street, but jutting across multiple property lines. The width is just slightly too small to be able to crawl through.

There is a light coming from the other end. It’s a kind of meadow, and in that meadow it seems to be mid-day.

I freeze.

A face is looking at me from the other end. This person is pressing right up to the opening, so that I can see only from the eyebrows to just below the lower lip. For a moment I think it is myself. But something is different. It is a woman.

It was only when I woke that I realized this was me, but as a woman.

October 5th, 2020

(What follows is one of the most powerful dreams I’ve ever had. It left me glowing for days.

The dream takes place at my university campus, which was on the outskirts of Edmonton, Canada. It was not a nice campus, and was surrounded by industry and a train yard. All the same, it being my university, the campus has a magical aura for me. The friend in the dream is an old acquaintance who I will call Colin, who wasn’t even a close friend at the time.)

I was walking along a train yard a few friends from university when I encountered another old friend, Colin, who I hadn’t seen in years. He’s married now in real life, with kids. In the dream, he seemed to be living atop an industrial building just off the train yard. He would scale up to the roof by gripping only the ends of the screws which studded the metal siding. Witnessing this, my friends couldn’t believe it was possible. But I wanted to do it myself, so I followed Colin up to the rooftop. I found that the screw heads were indeed sufficient hand grips.

The rooftop was bare save for skylights and industrial vents. Here, Colin lived a magical existence. He was utterly content. Whatever he wished for would manifest, but he did not wish for much, he simply existed in an eternal glowing ecstatic mood. He had discovered a new way of being, and he undertook the task of showing me what it was like.

The first thing he did was conjure an illuminated blue marble. My friends were roaming around on below us, hopping over railway ties and calling out; they seemed to be looking for me. Colin tossed them this marble. He did so, however, in a strange way: he seemed to extend a hand all the way down to the train tracks while at the same time remaining on the rooftop, so that when my friends caught the marble and tossed it back to us, it was, bizarrely, his own hand that performed this toss. That is to say, my friends didn’t seem to be aware of Colin’s hand; they thought they were tossing the marble back themselves. They weren’t even aware that the marble was glowing. We played a kind of game with my friends, tossing the marble back and forth, which was really a game between Colin and I. Then Colin said, “Why don’t we hide it in the world so that someone can find it.” And he threw the marble so far away it disappeared over the horizon.

I felt ecstatic. We were sharing something intimate and magical that no one else in the world knew about.

Next, we began to make out. I’ve never kissed a guy before, in a dream or otherwise, and I felt neutral about it, or just above neutral; it was kind of nice. We snuggled and kissed. I remember his tongue circling the inside of my lips. This is new, I thought. It was all part of this magical existence: anything could happen, I could even be bisexual.

At last I noticed it was getting late and the night was dark. I asked Colin what we would do about sleep. He seemed surprised. He never slept, he told me, and I didn’t have to either. As he said this I realized I did not feel tired at all. I didn’t need to sleep if I didn’t want to; in fact, I didn’t need to sleep ever again. Realizing this, only then did it occur to me to wonder how all this was possible, this magical existence. I felt incredible awe for what Colin had discovered. But this awe alienated me slightly from the magic and introduced a kind of doubt. Sure, this was all possible. But was it possible for me?

I asked about food. Colin said we could go down to the street. I had very little money on me, and I wanted to see how Colin survived, since he didn’t seem to have any money himself, so I agreed. We found ourselves in a late-night deli picking out a wheel of goat cheese. At the counter, the cashier—a tall man with a huge mustache—looked at us skeptically and said this was very expensive cheese. I told the man to slice it into a fraction of what we’d given him. The cheese, now just a small wedge, was still over twenty dollars. “Well?” he said.

Up to this point, the mood had been playful and light, since I was waiting for something magical to happen, something that would take care of us the way everything had been taken care of before. Now, with the cashier waiting on my decision—would I buy the cheese or not?—I felt a sudden pressure. Something was up to me now. I was being asked for an act of faith. I felt the way Peter must have felt when, walking on the water towards Jesus, the moment of fear came and his feet grew wet for the first time. I could not sustain this, I realized. I was sinking. What had gone wrong? By my side, Colin wasn’t explaining anything.

I turned away without buying the cheese. Leaving the deli and walking out into the night, I knew that I’d broken it. If only I had agreed to buy the cheese despite the expense, something would have happened. That had been the moment. And now it was too late. 

I’d lost it.

April 20th, 2021

(At the time of this dream, I was attending an MFA program at NYU, in creative writing. All my classes were moved online, and Zoom was the tyrant of my days. David Lipsky, who appears in this dream, was one of my professors.)

I am sitting in a windowless classroom. The chairs are arranged in a circle, and some friends from home in British Columbia are there, along with maybe half a dozen NYU students. David Lispky is present on a large screen that leers down from a ceiling corner at the front of the room. I don’t know if we are all just chatting or if we are going through some specific curriculum. It feels like we are all sort of just waiting.

Some shadowy people enter the room now. They chose me and take me away. I don’t remember what they do to me, but I know it is very, very bad. I feel raped. Utterly violated. They take me into a side room I hadn’t known about in order to do it. The side room is huge; it’s a dark, swampy, cellar-like world. I’m not sure if my inability to remember is part of the dream itself, and a reflection on how deep the violation went, or if I just can’t remember. When the bad thing is over, they sort of toss me aside, and I’m able to escape back to the classroom.

Here, I see something so much worse than I could have expected. Everyone already knows what has happened to me. In fact they knew while it was happening, but no one tried to stop it. They’d just gone on with the class.

Now that I have returned, however, they realize what they’ve done. They have all done something very wrong.

I go around the circle, punching everyone in the face. I am so mad. Some accept it meekly, as their due. Others fight back. It doesn’t matter, I know I am in the right, nothing could be clearer. I make sure that everyone gets punched, hard, in the face. The only person I spare is David Lipsky, since he is on the television screen, and I have the sense that he maybe tried to stop it, maybe tried to raise the class’s attention at some point.

In the end, after I’ve punched everyone, I still want more. It burns, a bottomless rage. I realize that I have to cut them all out of my life. How could I continue to be friends with any of them after they have knowingly let those dark things rape me? My friends understand this then, too, and they are very sorry, but it doesn’t matter. I don’t really have a choice. Something has been ruined, and we are all, all of us, horribly sad about it.


April 22nd, 2022

(As context for this dream, it’s important to know that over the last year, I’ve been exploring various psychedelic substances, mostly ceremonial or highly intentional contexts, including 5-MeO-DMT, N,N-DMT, psilocybin mushrooms, and Ayahuasca. These substances can induce radical shifts in subjectivity and, outwardly, one’s personality.)

At a cabin in the woods with the family. It’s night. I stand looking out the window at the dark forest, where a massive tree grows at the edge, five times as thick as the others but only just as tall. A Baobob-Pine: that’s what I call it, and that’s what it is. “Hey Dad, do you see the Baobob-Pine?” A large, curly-haired dog is out there, watching the trees attentively. After a time we end up just watching the dog. Its behaviour is ever-so-slightly strange, since there is no one around and even trained guard dogs know they can relax in these conditions. We wonder at this. What is it like to be the dog, what does it think is happening?

Suddenly there erupts a loud wail. From deep in the woods a fire truck comes hurtling down the road just beyond the trees. Its entire right side is engulfed in flames.  

The fire truck is on fire!

This seems very serious. Whether out of curiosity, or a need to help, or simply to track a disaster that could very well become our own (we are, after all, in the middle of the woods, a tinderbox), I hop in the car with Dad and follow it to the ocean, where we understand it is headed. (Will it plunge in directly, I wonder?) We don’t get very far. The fire truck is stuck in traffic. We pull up behind it, realizing we are now part of the problem: here we are clogging up the road with everyone else. We pull away further, off the curb, and park in a field to wait things out.

Outside the car, I make a discovery. We have parked right next to the gravesite of someone significant. In fact—I know this intuitively—this someone is my grandma. But not Grandma Readel, not Grandma Doerksen, a third grandma. This woman seems to be somehow related to Katrina’s family, though she isn’t Katrina’s grandma, more a kind of grandma generated by the mingling of families. I feel a profound connection to her. I understand that she represents a lineage from deep in the past that used visionary drugs. This woman had deeply explored her own consciousness.

Oh, the incredible solace I feel at this discovery! This is part of my heritage!  

Dad is elsewhere, checking on the fire truck. I get him and explain what I’ve found. We stand by the car, in a nondescript field. There is no indication of a grave, and Dad doesn’t know what I’m talking about.

“Watch,” I say.

I step onto the site of the grave and immediately become someone else. This new person is filled with a kind of unhinged, demonic energy. This seems to be proof: it is nothing serious, nothing scary, this is just what happens when you get very near a special grave. I linger in it for a moment, then step back again. I can do so because this “new entity” seems to be a kind of controlled persona: I am both wholly this new thing and also myself watching from the outside, able to intervene when needed.


May 15th, 2022

(No context required. Except for that this dream occurred the same week I watched Rodney Asher’s documentary on simulation theory, A Glitch in the Matrix.)

I was living in a world which seemed to be on a lower level, ontologically-speaking, the way a virtual reality is on a lower level, or a video game, though it presented as real. I was there voluntarily, and I think I could have even withdrawn from it, though the process must not have been easy because I never once thought of doing so when things got dangerous.

Which they did.

It happened in a field.

I had been making myself some food—a cod fillet and a few carrots fried in butter on a skillet—when I realized I was missing a key ingredient. I went out, leaving the food on a low temperature. I had to extract myself from the compound in which I was cooking, and cross a grassy plain. There were people all around. The sky above me was dark, though I could see just fine. Much more came before all this, but this is what I remember, because this is the important part.

Some distance away, to the side, a man stood very still, looking at me. There was a power about him, an unnerving intensity. I met his gaze, and in an instant I realized that, like me, he was not from this world. He was in some sense “really elsewhere.” And, realizing this, I realized that he had just seen the same about me—and he wasn’t pleased. 

This was his turf. 

Imagine you’re wandering around an MMORPG, slaying monsters, undertaking quests, and suddenly in the middle of nowhere you run into a player whose levels are so, so much higher than yours, and who, out of meanness, out of that blind alpha-male need to dominate, decides to go after you.

It was like that.

I ran. I can’t remember all the zigs and zags I took, just that I ended up clambering along a rickety log path which was suspended between a massive and heavily trafficked highway far below, and the ridiculously high chain link fence that circumscribed the compound I had originally come from, where my cod fillet was cooking. It was a peculiar “in-between” place: the log path was concealed in a long strip of evergreen trees on the slope, and it had about it that very particular “public-but-secret” feel you get when you’re concealed on the side of a very busy road.

With this man behind me, I climbed as fast as I could over logs and rope ladders. I was carrying a bunch of random things, like an extra set of clothes, and a bag, and at some point I realized I could solve the problem of having to climb and balance with only one arm if I consolidated all the stuff in the bag, then slung that bag around my neck.

Soon after, just as I began to climb the chain link fence, I woke.


May 24th, 2022

(What can I say about this to prepare a reader? Perhaps only that I am a male who has been single for over three years.)

I was in a high school building somewhere in Portland, Oregon, though I’ve never been. I was there as my adult self; I felt old and out of place, but I was careful not to let that awkwardness come through. If I had, I was sure the teenagers would sniff it out like wolves. The architecture was full of inefficiencies, which I thought fascinating and romantic and which caused me to explore the building. There were staircases that ended in long passages that opened out into rooms, and a general vibe of “old manor home.”

I ended up in an indoor auditorium. There seemed to be some kind of knick-knack store on the auditorium room floor, which I perused, but everywhere I went this pair of teenage girls went also, and fearing that they would accuse me of stalking them, I ended my search. It seemed we were both hoping to come across a magical object.

I went to a bleacher stand, where students had gathered. I made friends with a few kids who seemed amused by me and indulged my questions. Then a large man came into the room, a kind of Hagrid-like half-giant.

The auditorium went hush. He came around the room and let the students smell his hand. 

Why are you doing that? I asked my friends in the bleachers, who had leaned in eagerly to take a whiff. 

Because, they said, he’s with her.

Into the room walked a tall, long haired woman in white. She was beautiful. Not supernaturally beautiful, just a beautiful woman; but at the same time there was something about her that was just too much, too elevated above everyone else. Then the whole situation became clear in this one image, the way it does in dreams.

I was in a world in which women were almost all “de-sexed.” Looking around the room, the girls barely registered as girls: they were plain, square shouldered, round faced, not ugly but not feminine either, just dwarf-like. The whole mass of humanity had lost that feminine presence, that spark.

Except just a very, very few.

And how these few stood out. They appeared, like this woman who had now entered the room, almost god-like. All the charms and attractions of that sex were theirs alone. Between the homely and square-bodied masses and these rare birds there was no one; they were so different from the common female, in fact, that it felt like a three-species situation. People worshipped them. They ruled the world. And this Hagrid-like man was one of the lucky ones, he’d been paired with one of these few women and was sharing his good fortune by allowing people to smell the hand which had held hers.

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