It is two years from now. I am in California for my youngest daughter’s college graduation. In a large auditorium, crowds of people sit or stand cheek by jowl. Everyone talks a mile a minute, happy to be out after two years in quarantine. They dressed up for the occasion but have totally lost their fashion sense. Horrid pastels are everywhere; even the men’s suits are powder blue or mauve. Everyone looks pasty and overinflated. The ceremony begins, but instead of real graduates, a movie of commencement projects onscreen. After two years in front of their televisions, no one can tell the difference.
I had this dream in mid-April 2020, five weeks into my corona virus exile. It’s easy to decipher concerns about the effects of long isolation, and fears about being cut off, maybe for years, from people we love. It’s also easy to spot the absurdities. Why would everyone dress in pastels? And why show a movie of graduation at the actual event?
Most of my friends report pandemic dreams, and there are multiple studies of dreamlife in this extraordinary time. The number of vivid dreams has increased, and we are more likely to remember our dreams. The world has been ripped from its axis and tossed into a Michael Crichton novel. Dreams help our minds to process a danger we cannot flee, fight, or even see.
There is value in remembering our dreams. They show us aspects of ourselves that are otherwise hidden. In some cases, our dreaming mind solves problems or gives us creative ideas. From the design of the Periodic Table to the definition of the scientific method, scientists have gone to sleep with a problem and awakened to its solution. The first vision of Frankenstein’s monster came to Mary Shelley in a dream. The parts of the brain that solve problems are active during REM sleep, but the parts of the brain that say, “No, that’s illogical,” are less active. Dreams are an environment to try out creative solutions without interference from the Inner Critic.
In order to remember our dreams, if you wish to of course, it helps to stay still for a few minutes after we wake. This may be easier now, when most of us are not jumping up to go to work, or our regular daily life. Allow yourself to stay in the mood of the dream and its details may emerge. One way to increase access to our dream life is to write about it, if possible first thing every morning. As we write and practice remembering, the memories flow more easily and completely.
One study found that writing about corona virus dreams can help us process our real-life concerns. When we write about dreams, we conduct a kind of dialogue between our waking and sleeping mind. An established body of related research shows we can direct our dreams, at least to an extent. If we go to sleep thinking about the things that bring us joy while sequestered, we may be more likely to dream about other things we enjoy that we can still do. If we go to sleep thinking about what we want to do after the pandemics over, we may be more likely to dream about the longer term, giving us a sense of optimism and hope for the future.
I have not seen any studies about erotic dreams during the pandemic. I don’t know whether these dreams are less common than in ordinary times, but it would not be surprising. When we are stressed we are less likely to feel sexy, but keep in mind the converse is also true: When we feel sexy, we are less likely to feel stressed. So, here is a thought experiment: Try thinking about sex before going to sleep during the pandemic. It could be a fantasy or a memory, or a thought about the partner in quarantine right next to you. Even if he or she is there every night, in our dreams our partners remain mysterious. In the morning, lie still for a few minutes and see if memories of a sexy dream come back to you. If so, write them down. And feel free to elaborate while you are still half asleep. Write without judgement, in the manner of a dream. This could be the beginning of a whole new subgenre: Erotica in the time of pandemic.
I don’t know about you, but I find it challenging to write these days. Writing erotica during a worldwide emergency can feel frivolous or even disrespectful. My Inner Critic and I had a truce for years, but now she is running on overdrive. Yet there is a different perspective. If you have ever watched a Busby Berkeley movie from the Great Depression, full of upbeat numbers with names like “We’re In the Money,” you know how important those extravaganzas were. For a few pennies, people in need were distracted and given hope for a better future. Pandemic dreams can be serious, but they are also surreal and absurd—just ask the guys from my dream in the powder blue suits. Dreams give us that chance for a vivid distraction. In the same way, our writing can give us perspective and hope.
Pandemics end. The day will come when people look back and want to understand what it was like to live through this unique era. We will want to remember not only how we coped but also what we felt and imagined. Memories fade, specifics blur, but our writing remains in all its detail and complexity.
Wishing you good health, good luck, and joy in your writing.