Skip to content

Writers and dreaming

25 June, 2009

Naomi Epel had the ideal way to meet and talk with writers. As a literary escort in California, she took visiting writers to various appointments and chatted with them along the way. Many were intrigued to find that she  hosted a radio program about dreams, called Dream Talk. Some of the writers subsequently appeared on her program to discuss dreaming, writing and the creative unconscious.

Epel used these  interests and experiences to write a book, Writers Dreaming (Bookman Press, Melbourne, 1993). She asked a number of writers to consider how their writing was shaped by dreaming and by the dream-like function of their unconscious. I have written about the unconscious in an earlier post.

I’ve paraphrased the writers’ ideas below. If you want specific quotations, please  consult Epel’s book. It’s an informative read, with much in the interviews besides dreams.

Probably the oddest comment on dreaming was John Barth’s account of Proust, who when young dreamt not of being a character but of being the rivalry between two families. Barth’s response: That’s like dreaming you’re the distance between San Francisco and Oakland. That’s high-tech dreaming.

Why do we dream?

  • We can liberate ourselves from the flesh—through drugs, art, sex, and sleep—and go into a different state where ideas, images and the spiritual presence of others are possibilities or presences. The images from your dreamscape help you make sense of life. They are not crazy but have purpose and shape, presenting a way to understand yourself, the world, and your relationship with the world. The dream pool has lots of flotsam and jetsam that you don’t need to include. Find what’s most potent, what to you has a narrative or psychological function. Clive Barker
  • Your dreams give you potentially interesting material that can help you crystallize other things you’re thinking about. James W. Hall
  • Many times, dreams are simply a way of relieving pressure, a ‘kind of mental or spiritual flatulence’. Dreams can also be how your mind illustrates the nature of a problem or provides an answer, using symbolic language.
    There are dreams and deep dreams—the ‘Mindanao trenches in the human psyche’—where strange things live. What the conscious mind brings up from these depths may be equivalent to an exploded fish, something ‘gorgeous in its own habitat’ but once up in the sun it ‘just dries out’. This deep dreaming is like finding a secret door to a room but not knowing how you got in. Stephen King
  • Dreams may express the deepest levels of intimacy between people, including the you at one point in your life and the you at a later point, where you’re a different person.
    Interestingly, women tell their dreams but men don’t. Leonard Michaels.
  • Dreams keep individuals and cultures sane. They are wholesome and if we don’t over-intellectualise them, they put us in touch with our sane selves. Bharati Mukherjee
  • Dreams are the art of the artless, of people who aren’t involved in artistic pursuits but who construct works of arts every night when asleep. When our dreams come from our deep brain, their purpose is to communicate to us that we better do something or that we better stop doing something. Reynolds Price
  • Dreams help reveal your true emotional state when you’re ambivalent about something. The dream may not ‘tell’ you but you’ll wake up feeling either clear or dejected about a project. It’s like a miscarriage. You can want the project to go full term but if it cannot satisfy something inwardly, it doesn’t matter how you prepare the nursery—you’re not going to have the baby. Maurice Sendak
  • Dreams are a channel, which brings out into the open the good and free part of us. If I listen to my dreams I can discover what I fear most, what is making me off balanced, what I need to work on. Dreams don’t solve problems but can help you look at things that may be too painful or frightening to look at in reality. Anne Rivers Siddons
  • The total absence of dreams is a sign of psychic unhealth; the presence of dreams shows psychic balance. William Styron
  • Part of what happens in dreams is random, but some bits relate to interpersonal problem solving; they present a riddle for you, showing what you need to ‘chew’ on. Art Spiegelman

Asking for dream help

  • If you tell your unconscious to provide information in your dreams, it will. My right brain provides story twists, plot connections, and ‘strange layerings’ for my characters. I write letters directly to it,  asking it for help:   ‘Dear Right Brain, Well sweetie, I’ve asked you for a little help with this and I notice you’re not forthcoming. I would really appreciate it if tonight you would solve this problem. Your pal, Sue.’ Sue Grafton
  • I wake having dreamt up ideas, plots and scenes, but know some won’t work. I write down the information from the dream only if it’s an answer to what I’ve been having a problem with. At night, I try not to think about work but let the unconscious work on solving any problems or puzzles. Elmore Leonard
  • Sometimes when I’m stuck with a problem, it works itself out in a dream. Anne Rivers Siddons
  • When I go to sleep after laying out the day’s problem—the strands of what I’m working on—I’ll wake up with a solution. Art Spiegelman
  • When I’ve needed something for a story, the subconscious has kept working and sent up a relevant dream, like getting a message in a pneumatic tube. Stephen King

Remembering and recording dreams

  • You can train yourself to remember dream images when you wake up, and then decode their meaning and do something as a result. Dreams have a kind of wisdom not present in our waking lives. But remember, your dreams are not as magical to others as they are to you. Allan Gurganus
  • When I was in college, I wrote down my dreams every morning, but eventually doing so took 2-3 hours so I gave it up.
    If you keep a dream journal, you notice that as you write about a dream it starts to disappear. You can start fabricating from that point, with the ‘dream dust’ still hanging around you, and what you write will be shadowed by the dream. For a long time, I thought I could only write in the morning, influenced by this ‘dream hangover’ but that is a romantic idea and now I write whenever I get the chance. James W. Hall
  • I cannot work immediately after waking up because what’s going on in my dream life has to clear out first. Art Spiegelman
  • I used to write down my dreams but I don’t now. The dreams are there and the unconscious works for me. Charles Johnson
  • Keep a notebook by the bed so you can write down material when you wake up at night. About a third of the time, the idea will be a good one. Jack Prelutsky
  • I once recorded my dreams but found they weren’t useful for analyzing myself. Art Spiegelman
  • I take notes about my dreams but trust my subconscious to remember the important things and bring these to me when I need them. Bharati Mukherjee
  • I don’t remember dreams but they resurrect themselves as part of my conscious equipment in terms of unconscious motifs, dream patterns. These come as a result of my long experience with the creative process. It’s like developing a specific set of muscles that now respond. Maurice Sendak
  • A writer’s creative impulses come out of the ‘dark old country’ where dreams originate. You write and create by recognizing and drawing from your dreams. Anne Rivers Siddons

The unconscious as a ‘dream’ state

  • There’s not a subconscious or unconscious but consciousness, like an ocean is all water whether you’re slightly below the surface or further down. Things live at the different levels and some we find harder to see because we don’t go that deep. What’s in our daily lives and thoughts trickles down to these lower levels and is reworked symbolically. Stephen King
  • Much comes to me before falling asleep, when I’m in an almost hypnogogic state. Some writers are conscious of everything they write but I don’t analyze. Instead, I surrender to a trance-like, intuitive state where things make sense, are authentic and intense. Anne Rice
  • Wonderful pieces of information come to me as I go to sleep. I don’t write these down but trust that I still remember it in the morning. Sue Grafton
  • What comes from your subconscious, in a dreamlike state, can be more honest. When you stop protecting your ego, richer symbols appear. Amy Tan
  • Writers need to dream awake, put themselves into a semi-dreaming state, and the memories will return. It helps to have a routine. The purpose of doing things the same way each day is that you’re telling your mind that it’s going to be dreaming soon. Stephen King
  • We write by hunch and by feel, a process that is half-unconscious, somewhat auto-hypnotic, and could be seen as following a dream pattern. The rituals of getting ready to write seem to bring on a trance state, a kind of dreaming. John Barth
  • The joy of being a storyteller is having two dream lives, one when you close your eyes and one when your eyes are open. When you write, you use images and fragments from actual dreams. You also find a way to have a governed and conscious dream life—which is what writing is—where you access your unconscious but also direct it and drag in material that pleases you. Allan Gurganus
  • You can learn to do a kind of self-hypnosis that you can put yourself into when you write, where you’re not there but are witnessing the writing and then ‘waking up’ at the end. James W. Hall
  • Borges said that all writing is a guided dream, where your writing’s  ‘lyricism, force, and mysterious energies’ happen independently, ‘a little beyond your control’. In ‘real’ writing, you guide your writing but instead of imposing your will on your material, you allow it its freedom and dream nature. Leonard Michaels

Including dreams in writing

  • Dreams have been overdone as a device for special effects in fiction. I tell writing students not to put a dream into their work unless they can be surprising with it.  John Barth
  • Dreams put familiar objects in bizarre situations. You can use dreams to create the idea of weirdness in the real world. I have used dreams in stories to show things in a symbolic way, to show things indirectly, and to provide a ‘precognitive effect’ in a story, like déjà vu. Stephen King
  • Dreams seem chaotic but you can create structure out of it. If we wanted to use what happened to us yesterday as a story, we would exclude the boring bits and focus on a few incidents that can be put together and make sense. I’ve put dreams into stories to explain structure or emotion, but have carefully selected and shaped them. John Nichols
  • Dreams don’t print on the memory like memory itself does. Often they don’t linger long enough to retrieve. A small but significant number of dreams are meaningful enough to include in my work because they relate to my sleeping imagination. William Styron
  • I usually don’t record my dreams because the good ones stay and the others fade. When I write down a dream, I may fictionalize it to tie it in with a character, give it a more metaphorical meaning. John Sayles
  • Dreams don’t directly influence the story—the plot, movement, or idea—but they raise the emotional level by adding color or counterpoint. Maurice Sendak
5 Comments leave one →
  1. 29 May, 2010 3:00 am

    If only more than 74 people could read about this..


    • 1 June, 2010 12:53 pm

      Yes, it’s a fascinating topic and well worth knowing more about.


  2. 3 July, 2009 10:26 pm

    His book Dream Work was given to me by an older friend, who sort of mentored me when I was a teenager. For my 18th birthday. A copy of the book and a journal and inside the first page of my journal my friend had written: HONOR YOUR DREAMS.

    The techniques for dream recall really worked, and have stuck with me with a minimum of effort, but I had to stop working with my dreams as closely because its seductive and you can get lost in them, and I didn’t have someone to really discuss them with.

    So it’s important work but it is not without some snares and traps.

    I definitely come up with story ideas from dreams. Not usually complete ones but narrative elements and images.


  3. 1 July, 2009 1:21 am

    Cool piece, I’m wondering if you’ve read Jeremy Taylor? Some of the ideas expressed here echo his.


    • 1 July, 2009 10:50 am

      Thanks for putting me onto the works of Jeremy Taylor. Fascinating stuff. I especially liked one ‘rule’ of his: No dreams come just to tell you what you already know. All dreams break new ground and invite you to new understandings and insights.
      I dream a lot and usually remember dreams when I wake. Some of them I’ve made into stories, but for others, I’ve passed them off as silly and done no more about them. Now I’ll consider them more seriously.


What do you think?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: