A while ago, Cassandra Page invited me to do a guest post for her blog. I used the title of her work-in-progress, Lucid Dreaming, as a springboard for my topic–the dream journal. Below is what I had to say about using the dream journal for inspiration in writing. (The image to the side, by the way, is “Famous While You Sleep” by Ravenelle / TORLEY on Flickr. Dreamy!)
Aboriginal art showing Dreamtime.
I’ve always been obsessed with dreams—not surprising for someone whose upcoming co-authored novel is named Dream Boy, right?
But it’s not just me who’s obsessed. Fascination with dreams is as old as dreams themselves. Ancient Egyptians looked to dreams for portents of the future, while Australian Aborigines saw dreams as the secret to understanding the past. There’s Aristotle’s On Dreams, Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams, the Biblical representation of dreams as God’s cosmic telephone, the zillion weird dreams that figure in folklore and fairy tales, the zillion more books that interpret the symbolism of dreams…
And of course let’s not forget Leonardo DiCaprio going all dark and broody as the lovelorn dream thief in Inception.
As a writer, though, I’m perhaps most interested in how we can allow our dreams to inspire and shape creative works.
That’s where the dream journal comes in.
One of the characters in Dream Boy keeps just such a journal. Drawing a line down the middle of the page, she writes everything she remembers about a dream on one side; on the other, she jots notes about real life events that may have triggered her subconscious.
In the notebook, reality goes in one place and dreams go in another; a clear line is drawn between the two. Of course, very little in life is quite as tidy as that—certainly not our creative processes.
So, why keep a dream journal in the first place?
For one thing, it’s fun. Much like this gif dance party.
For another, all the weird stuff that floats around in your subconscious (also like this gif dance party) can be a good place to go when your work-in-progress gets blocked up.
Make a game of it: choose some random element from a recent dream and work it into a scene you’re writing. It will keep you going—and in writing, if you just keep going (somewhere… anywhere!), you often end up headed in the direction you genuinely needed to go.
(Plus, here’s a secret: the random element you select is probably not that random, even if it seems downright absurd. What happens when you dream and what happens when you write is not so different, really. They both connect to the subconscious. And the images that feed the subconscious have a way of making their own sense, regardless of your intentions.)
Perhaps most importantly, however, using a journal to map out the chaotic terrain of your dreams can feed your over-all imaginative life in very rewarding ways.
Dream Map by Various Brennemans, Flickr
As you go along—recording your dreams—you are essentially trying to make sense of something that is by its very nature senseless. That process inevitably opens you up to contradiction. (Real world says X and ONLY X is true; Dreamworld says Y and Z and X’s second cousin Arnie is true. On Tuesdays. On other days, it says that baseballs turn into feathers when you sneeze on them. And your favorite dog never really died, but was just trapped all this time in a bomb shelter with elves.)
Contradiction, as you can see from the above, is pretty noisy. But it is also (at least in my experience) inspiring.
Think of it this way: the tension between two opposing ideas is often the wire on which good writing balances. So, exploring the boundary between reality and dream allows us to perch for a moment on that wire. When we return to our work of fiction, we see more. We see better. We see connections we might have missed otherwise.
But what about those who don’t even remember their dreams? How can any of this help them?
Unexpectedly, I have found that the very act of keeping a dream journal stimulates the recollection of dreams. So the more you plan to remember, the more you remember. Weird, but true.
Here’s how it works in two super-easy (super-cheesy?) steps:
- Put a notebook and pen beside your bed. Before drifting to sleep, remind yourself that you intend to remember and record your dreams. You might even say something as socially uncomfortable as “Hey, you are going to dream, and you will remember your dreams! They will be interesting dreams! Enjoy!”
- In the morning, before you get up or start thinking about your day, write down whatever scraps of dream you remember.
And at first they may be just scraps. But as you go on, exercising both your memory and tolerance for awkward conversations with yourself, you may find that you can build up to a pretty impressive recall. And remembering your dreams is a good thing—not only for the creative advantage—but also because your dreams can be an important shaping influence in your life.
Journal by Sammie Harding, Flickr
I recently tweeted my two-year-old’s dream: “The cat was in my dream, and he was happy to be with me.” (Of course in real life, the cat barely tolerates my son, so this was pure wish fulfillment.) I was amazed at how many people tweeted back to share their own dreams—from the workaholic who dreams only of work to the woman who dreams of resuscitating zombies with a friendly Tyrannosaurus Rex.
Dreams are something we take with us into our day. Whether we entirely remember them or not, they are there, an essential part of us—telling us who we are. (Maybe in some ways even making us who we are.)
So listening to dreams—paying attention to wildness of the mind at moments when it answers to no master—is a worthwhile endeavor. And a dream journal is a great place to start.
About DREAM BOY (coauthored by Mary Crockett and Madelyn Rosenberg)
Annabelle Manning feels like she’s doing time at her high school in Chilton, Virginia. She has her friends at her lunchtime table of nobodies. What she doesn’t have are possibilities. Or a date for Homecoming. Things get more interesting at night, when she spends time with the boy of her dreams. But the blue-eyed boy with the fairytale smile is just that—a dream. Until the Friday afternoon he walks into her chemistry class.
One of friends suspects he’s an alien. Another is pretty sure it’s all one big case of deja vu. While Annabelle doesn’t know what to think, she’s willing to believe that the charming Martin Zirkle may just be her dream come true. But as Annabelle discovers the truth behind dreams—where they come from and what they mean—she is forced to face a dark reality she had not expected. More than just Martin has arrived in Chilton. As Annabelle learns, if dreams can come true, so can nightmares.
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A native of the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia, Mary grew up as the youngest of six children in a family of misfits. She has worked as everything from a history museum director to a toilet seat hand model. In her other life, she’s an award-winning poet, professional eavesdropper, and the person who wipes runny noses. If you tweet at her @MaryLovesBooks, chances are she will tweet back.
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Related: Check out my post of 14 Firsts at The BookYArd (including my first dream).