Justine’s gaze is forward, eyes narrowed. Her blond hair hangs limp, wet or unwashed. Her face is puffy. She might have been crying all night, but her eyes are not red, her cheeks aren’t wet. It’s dawn or dusk,…
I’ve often dreamt of houses and, though each house might change form night to night—a low modern ranch with glass walls, or a dark, crumbling mansion—each is a mystery. In sleep, I move from one room to another and my discoveries inform my waking.
Maybe this dream record is why I see writing as the exploration of interior spaces as real as physical rooms, each with its own temperature and tone, its own weather. Beginning a new piece isn’t a plan but a liminal space. I establish myself there and slowly come to know it.
I’m alone in these dreams, though I can feel the close presence of others so there isn’t a sense of isolation. I always consider turning back to tell them when I uncover a secret passage or a trap door, but I never do.
In Stephen Daldry’s film version of The Hours, Leonard Woolf (Stephen Dillane) gently chides Virginia for not eating enough, as she climbs the stairs with her morning coffee. She pauses, turns to him and says, “Leonard, I believe I may have the first sentence.” Her fingers are curled around her china cup; there’s a deep spark in her eyes, a mischievous curl to her lip.
She delivers the sentence with the tenderness of a confession, uncertain in its revelation. The thrill of discovery is there, but she also uses the remark to deflect his concern. “Alright, then,” he replies. “Work.” She ascends to her room. This is the single most true scene about writing I’ve ever seen on film.
In every other scene, Nicole Kidman, as Virginia Wolff, is folded within herself or stunned in pain but when she tentatively confesses to Leonard, she is standing in joy—joy in mystery, in expectation. In words, sentences, and the brilliant lunacy of language. This joy is less a feeling than a location; a location in which all feelings can be felt. Fear, horror, rage, do not preclude joy; joy contains them, shapes them.
Wheel of Sleep is about the weeks and months just before I found a place to write from, as I approached the first threshold. I think of this time as a journey toward a new home.
Writing is impossible, as impossible as finally coming to understand the dimensions of my dream houses and the function of each room. Yet, to stand at the threshold of a new piece is to stand in anticipation of the touch of a new lover. To cross over into its dimensions is to slip away from time.
I thought I would enter this new room and arrive; that I would settle comfortably into place, once and for all, but I should have known better. This house—it seems—goes on and on.
STEVE MITCHELL is an award-winning writer and journalist, published in december magazine, Southeast Review, and Contrary, among others. His novel, Cloud Diary, is published by C&R Press. His book of short stories is The Naming of Ghosts from Press 53. He is a winner of the Curt Johnson Prose Prize and the Lorian Hemingway International Short Story Prize. He has a deep belief in the primacy of doubt and an abiding conviction that great wisdom informs very bad movies. He’s co-owner of Scuppernong Books in Greensboro, NC. Find him at: clouddiary.org.
“Wheel of Sleep” is part of a series, titled “Mirrorbox,” which combines memoir with film criticism by examining films important to the author at different points in his life. “Exorcism by Proxy” (Billy Jack) appeared in Drunk Monkeys, “Never Far Enough” (Bonnie and Clyde) appeared in Red Fez. He is currently working on an essay which incorporates Exorcist II: The Heretic.