Monday, August 12, 2002

Dark Dreams

A huge AHA! today about writing.

For weeks, ever since I got serious about getting back to work again, I've been having painful, difficult dreams about writing. Usually the dreams are filled with babies — stillborn, aborted, miscarried; babies neglected and helpless. In my dreams babies have usually stood for writing — just as "work" always means "writing." I love my job, I even write there — but it isn't my real work.

One night I dreamed that I had borne five children, had two miscarriages, and was trying to escape from a violent husband. I felt horribly guilty about leaving and about the dead children. Though this doesn't look on the surface like a writing dream, it is one to me. I've published five books and completed two more that have never been published. Of course, this dream also echoes my mother's life: she had the four of us, another daughter years later who died within a few days of birth, a stillborn son, and a miscarriage. And God knows my father was violent. Exploring that link will have to wait.

Last night I had a dream in which a character was actually writing — writing well, even — but he chickened out, gave up the real work and started to scheme and lie, entangling a lot of other people in the mess. The book he was working on was about two corpses in the snow and how they got there. His editor circulated the synopsis and plot outline, and Hollywood expressed interest; there were items in the newspaper saying that there was an $8 million offer. But the writer was hanging up on bill collectors, avoiding getting his mail, hiding secrets from his wife, pretending that everything was going to be wonderful — living a lie that had to come crashing down sooner or later. By the end of the dream, he was on the run with a couple of people — one his secretary, a tiny dark-haired woman, another a fan who had been promised riches. They never made it out of the airport. And the two people he was with, the fan and the secretary, turned out to be babies in disguise: the secretary was only two years old, the fan even younger. (Two years ago I left Billy.)

And this afternoon, I took a nap and had a long complicated dream that mingled Tori Amos, packing to move, classic job-anxiety images, dead babies, trying to leave my husband, and being shot at while I tried to defend myself by hiding behind a card table. It was a nasty one. In the dream I was trying to edit a book by a woman who had aborted three babies while in her twenties and then could never get pregnant again, which echoes my own fears of having wrecked my talent by not writing novels when I was in my twenties.

These are all violent, punitive dreams, and they all tell me the same thing: that I am a killer, a liar, a whiner, a selfish irresponsible coward, someone who wastes time, someone who dared to value anything more than writing and who will therefore be punished by not ever being able to write again. And there's an additional layer of guilt and fear — in all these dreams, the writer is trying to escape from a vengeful spouse, and it's the babies who suffer.

So this is today's revelation: One reason I haven't been writing since I left Billy is that part of me thinks I don't deserve to. I must be punished for leaving him by never being able to write. And furthermore, I must be punished for not writing enough or making enough money when I had the chance, when I was able to be a full-time writer.

Leaving Billy meant turning my back on someone I loved, on the promises I made, on my conception of myself as a loyal, compassionate person who would never abandon someone who was suffering. Even in the worst days of the marriage, I never forgot that Billy was in terrible pain. Over and over again I asked myself, "How can I leave him? He has nothing else, nobody else, and he's so deeply hurt."

Leaving him also meant that I valued something else more than the writing: after all, he had given me all those years of freedom to write, something few people ever have, but by the time I left, staying home to write wasn't enough to keep me there any longer. I valued something else more than that time to write. Partly, of course, because for the final couple of years, I wasn't able to write.

I've always thought that there were multiple reasons for that final writer's block. The simplest was that I had betrayed myself for Billy in writing his mother's book the way he wanted it. A writer can lie to friends, lovers, lawyers, anybody — but not to the paper. That's the ultimate, unforgivable betrayal.

I finished the book about his mother in November of 1997. Then I stopped being able to write. I couldn't even sign my name on a check. I didn't write e-mails or letters or posts to the board. I stopped dead. I think I was also trying to do something awful enough that he would have to leave me — and not being able to write checks for weeks or months at a time, when I handled the finances, was a despicable betrayal.

Now I also see that I was blocked partly as a kind of self-defense. If I couldn't write, obviously there was no reason to stay home. The writing that had been my freedom, my joy, had become a prison. If I was blocked, I could get a job, become independent again. I was wretchedly afraid that after so many years out of the job market that I would never find work. I was sure I was unemployable. Obviously I was wrong.

The block began almost five years ago. The time between November 1997 when I finished the book and March 2000 when I left is some of the darkest time of my life. I came near to killing myself much more than once, and I'm still sorting out the damage. Without Michele, without Gwen and Adrian, without a few other friends, I would have died. And it's a measure of some level of strength in me that I could form those relationships — build the friendship with Gwen and Adrian, build a healthy, honest love with Michele — at a time when I was fighting just to go on.

Of course, a lot of the block is gone. I started being able to pay bills and deal with finances again as soon as I left. I furbished up an old short story and sold it a couple of years ago, published it under my own name. I've been writing for a living again since May 2000, when I got the job writing book copy. These days I work as a tech writer. Clearly something is here again. But writing fiction or essays, writing for publication . . . that's hard.

So where does this leave me? In practical terms, I need to sidestep the voice of that punitive superego screaming at me from my dreams. I also want to explore why exactly that voice is so angry, what it's trying to protect or achieve. And I need to keep writing. No matter what.

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