Dream a Little Dream: Writing About Dreams

Who is that strange woman sleeping on the job? And what is she doing in this blog? No, Emily hasn’t been blog-jacked; that’s me, Louise Hawes,  and Emily has invited me to guest write today’s entry! You see, years ago, at Vermont College, where I teach in the MFA program in Writing for Children and Young Adults, I facilitated a workshop on dreams and writing. Emily, who was part of that workshop, wrote something that eventually sparked part of her novel, Isabel and the Miracle Baby. Which got us both to thinking – why not share the wealth of inspiration and lyricism that dreams can open to all of us ?

Jung and other dream work pioneers suggested that what our conscious mind knows is only half the story.  Dreams visit us to tell us the other half. That half, of course, isn’t actually “spoken,” but reaches us through vehicles with which we writers are intensely familiar:  myth and metaphor. Do we always know what these images are conveying or how they relate to our waking life? Not right away. Like our writing, our dreams often require the objective responses of others before we can “see” them clearly. Which is why, in my weekly dream group, we find we get as much out of looking at others’ dreams as we do to having our own analyzed. Whenever we respond to someone else’s dream, we begin our analysis with, “If this were my dream…” to remind ourselves that it isn’t, but that it speaks to us, too. Isn’t that the same way a good writing workshop critique begins? “If this were my story…”

As wordsmiths, writers may be particularly open to the vibrant but mysterious language of dreams. In addition, I know that, for me at least, dreams have been a fertile source of characters. Recently, on the informal faculty blog of the Vermont College of Fine Arts MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults program, I described a new and persistent dream visitor of mine: John the Baptist! For no reason that this Episcopalian turned Agnostic-Buddhist can ascertain, a small, powerfully built man with a voice much gentler than his shape, began visiting my dreams nearly a year ago. He’s become such a frequent visitor that he’s prompted a new project, a novel centered on the young woman whose dance led to his execution, the  Galilean princess, Salomé.

Little did I dream (hideous pun, unabashedly intended) that this admission of mine would lead to a flood of responses from blog readers who’d had similar dream visits:

Tim Wynne-Jones, a brilliant writer and my long-time colleague at Vermont, wrote that he once awoke with the entire plot of a middle-grade novel in his head.  “A prisoner in jail for a political crime who eventually mails himself out of jail, one piece at a time.” What later became one of my granddaughter’s favorite books, Ned Mouse Breaks Away, was, he claims, “all there,” even though he’d woken “without having any idea where it had come from.”

Kathi Appelt , friend, colleague, and National Book Award Honor winner, wrote that she prefers to do her dreaming in the daytime. When she hits a roadblock, she’ll often “just zone out, close my eyes for a few moments (or longer), and let my thoughts drift. Then, when I come out of that meditative state, there’s the clear path. “ I wonder if that’s what makes her writing so dreamy?!

A graduate of VCFA, author Terry Pierce, wrote to tell me she, too, frequently dreams of characters. In one memorable instance, a woman from her work-in-progress invaded her sleep to scold her for not finishing a scene begun that day—a scene in which the character had fallen off a cliff!

Yet another colleague, author Tom Birdseye, told me he knows that he dreams, but that he struggles to remember the messages his unconscious sends him each night. My advice to him is the same as it is to any of you who “lose” dreams before you wake: I can almost guarantee that, if you keep a dream journal by your bed and tell yourself (out loud and fearless) each night before you sleep that you want to remember your dreams, you’ll be dreaming up a storm within a week.

So once you’re up and dreaming, how can you apply your dream life to your waking work in progress? Everyone has their own ways of doing this, but one interesting exercise is to ask your characters for their recurring dreams or nightmares. Whether or not their responses finds their way directly into your work, or whether they simply help you hear your protagonist’s voice and language, free writes on dreams are a terrific way to get a glimpse of even the most recalcitrant character’s inner life!

If you’re interested in reading more about dreams and their connection to creativity, I highly recommend looking at Naomi Epel’s book, Writers Dreaming: Twenty-six Writers Talk about Their Dreams and the Creative Process. Also helpful is, The Natural Artistry of Dreams by Jill Mellick and Marion Woodman.

So what about you? Ever had a dream turn into a story? Do certain themes or characters run through your dream life? Do you have a favorite novel or story that includes a dream? Ever tried asking your characters what they think of your dreams?  Thanks for sharing, and….sweet dreams!

Thanks so much for sharing, Louise! In addition to teaching on the faculty of Vermont College of Fine Arts, Louise is the author many books, including The Vanishing Point, Waiting for Christopher, and Black Pearls, a Faerie Strand. Find out more about her at www.louisehawes.com