I had an Ah-Hah moment while I was sitting in a theater watching Inception, the movie about people who are trapped in endless loops and multiple levels in a dream. Up until that point, the story had been entertaining, engrossing, thought-provoking, and just plain fun. But then one of the characters mentioned that when you enter deeper levels in a dream, time is experienced differently. In the waking world, minutes may be passing. But in this dream sub-level, years seem to be going by.
This has happened to me. Perhaps ten times in my life, I've gone to bed and experienced lifetimes before I woke up. I can't nail the number down exactly, because the sensation of having lived all those years fades within minutes upon waking. I'm left with snippets of memories from that dreamed life, lived in a dazzling universe full of wonders, terrors – and love. And I grieve for the loss, until even that sensation fades. If I'm lucky, I can salvage some of the images, events, characters, landscapes, mystical and emotional qualities, and weave them into one of my novels. So as I sat in that darkened theater, watching those characters dive deeper and deeper into a dream, I thought “Ah-hah!” This was why I became a writer. I've been trying to preserve what I can of those lost, dreamed lives.
Christopher Nolan, writer and director of Inception, may not have had the same experience with time dilation in a dream that I have, but he at least knows that such a thing is possible. I have no idea how many other people do. When I talk with others about their dreams, some common experiences come up. Some dreams seem to be meaningless jumbles of random images and sounds. Others seem like mystical conduits to the afterlife, where you can speak with loved ones who have passed away. Some dreams drive you like demons of anxiety, regret, guilt, and terror, until you feel grateful to wake up again, even though you're exhausted. Anyone who has ever been to school has had the one about forgetting to go to class and suddenly being confronted with a final exam you're not prepared to take. Not to mention the one about being naked in public.
Both of my recent novels, The Night Shifters, and Spirits Of Glory, were inspired by dreams. Not all of those dreams were the sort that seemed to last years – many of them were fairly short. And my novels aren't composed of 100% dream material – if they had a laundry label, it might read, 30% research, 20% brainstorming, 35% dream, 15% dumb luck. Every writer has a different experience with inspiration. But I wonder – how many writers have lived for years inside a dream, as I have? Is it a common experience, or rare? Or does it differ for every dreamer, just as inspiration does?
Leonardo DiCaprio's character is haunted by the dream of his lost love in Inception. Whether or not the movie has a happy ending depends on whether or not you believe it does. It all depends on how you chose to look at it. And ultimately, that's how I've come to terms with the loss of my dream lives. I lived them – the other choice is not to have known them at all. And who knows? Some day, when this current dream life is over, I may wake to find myself in another.
In the meantime, I'll write down what I remember, and hope for the best.