A Guest Article by Gregg Levoy
In a poem called “The Cemetery by the Sea,” French writer Paul Valery describes how the wind suddenly ruffles the immobile surface of the water, and his own impassive mood, breathing into him a fresh vitality and reminding him to reengage with the challenges of life, in particular his poetry, which he had silenced for 20 years and to which he had only recently returned.
“Into the waves with us, and out alive! The wind is rising!…..We must try to live!”
I recently experienced a similar intervention, a ruffling of my own immobile creative waters, in this case in the form of an alarming dream. I had been in a slough for months, a boggy state of dispiritedness in which I felt as close to the state of depression as I ever get, not being particularly prone to it. I was sleeping too much, feeling lazy, bored, and disconnected from everything and everyone, lacking initiative and yet restless. I simply felt off, my forward momentum ground to a halt, and I couldnʼt get to the bottom of it. Until I had the following dream:
I was walking down an old disused road on some property I owned, its pavement cracked, grass growing up all over it, and I came to an old stone wall by the side of the road with a sign attached to it that I couldnʼt decipher because the lettering kept mysteriously shifting around. I thought I saw the word Gregg, which changed to the word egg, which changed to something else and something else.
As I was trying to figure out what the sign said, I looked down the road half a mile and suddenly saw an enormous black dragon fly into view, heading straight for me. It sent me skittering like a rabbit in desperate search of a hole in the ground. But there was nowhere to hide.
Suddenly the dragon was directly above me, looking down with his huge tyrannosaurus head and blazing amber eyes. But his teeth werenʼt flashing—the sure sign of a predatorʼs intent—and he wasnʼt breathing fire.
He (she?) was only looking down at me while I tried to fight him off with a safety pin. Finally, out of sheer fright, the certainty that I was about to be eaten, and a distinct sense of incredulity that no god was emerging from the machinery to rescue me at the last second, like in the movies, I woke up.
The gist of it was that I was on a road that hadnʼt been used for a long while, couldnʼt make out the writing on the wall, though it appeared to have my name on it, and there was a fateful encounter with a primal creature who would not be denied, and whose mere presence woke me up.
What immediately came to me in interpreting the dream was that the dragon was my writing. My real writing.
Not the book-reporting, interviewing, and third-person research writing Iʼd been doing a lot of lately—essentially taking dictation—but the freewriting practice I meant to be doing alongside it, and wasnʼt. Not the dainty sniffing of other peopleʼs flowers, but the fierce pollinating of my own, shoving my snout into their flowery innards, smearing my whole body with their perfumes, and flying fully-laden back to the hive.
What I needed to be doing, the dragon was telling me, was the kind of writing in which I free myself from other peopleʼs ideas and go down the Old Road, the path of raw unfiltered psyche, memory and voice, the one with the sign along it that has the name “Gregg” on it, followed by the word “egg,” which is something that hatches, that comes forth with new life. I needed to turn my questing nature not just outward but inward.
The dream reminded me that Iʼd been avoiding this road for some time, playing it safe—thus the absurdly inadequate safety-pin defense. It reminded me that I felt cut off from my own creativity in doing all that cautious and academic writing—and this in the midst of putting together a book on passion—when what the dragon wanted was for me to breathe fire and eat elephants for hors dʼoeuvres.
But it woke me up, literally and figuratively, and over the following months I regained my momentum, reacquainted myself with that abandoned road—my own voice—and the boredom and depression lifted.
And this wasnʼt just about breathing fresh creative vitality back into my work or my life, but about straight-up healthcare.
Much illness, I think, is simply the result of not paying attention to what we know, not listening to the prescriptions given out by our own innerlife, by our dreams at night, and the dreams in the body. The word symptom means a sign—of what? The word pathology means the logic of pain—whatʼs the logic?
Interestingly, the day after after the dream I read a passage from Rainer Rilke that said, “Perhaps all the dragons in our lives are princesses who are only waiting to see us act, just once, with beauty and courage.”
Gregg Levoy is the author of Vital Signs: The Nature and Nurture of Passion (Penguin) and Callings: Finding and Following an Authentic Life (Random House). Follow him on www.gregglevoy.com