I’m a big dreamer. Most writers are, I think. I was raised as an only child, a none-too-popular one at that, and thus books and my imagination provided a good deal of my entertainment. I spent many a summer afternoon in an old abandoned apple-orchard near my house. A stream trickled through it and I lay on the grassy bank reading, dreaming, communing with the spirits of the place. I even built a small altar on a tree stump — candle, hawk feathers, a stone with a fossil in it, a cup of stream-water, wild flowers.
I still feel the hot, acid rage that boiled up in me the day the bulldozers moved in to take down the trees, to be replaced by horrid townhouses. It was one of my first lessons in the transience of life, the fragility of beloved things. But it eventually, after considerable tears, it taught me something else as well: I learned there was, inside me, a limitless world where I could preserve what I loved. Although the orchard no longer exists in the ‘real’ world, inside the vast space of my inner world (which, like Jung, I consider just as real as any other world), it flourishes, and I spend time there frequently.
That inner world is a writer’s research library, playground, inspiration point and refuge. Just as it is important for a writer to be fully engaged with the ‘real’ world, observing, experiencing, witnessing, it is equally important a writer develop and nurture a relationship with the subconscious. That’s where deep writing, which is to say evocative writing, comes from.
Just now I’m taking notes for my next book (a process that will go on for months before I write the first sentence) and I’m using houses, churches and neighborhoods that have appeared in my dreams over the years. In fact, there are perhaps four houses I dream about repeatedly, and while I’m dreaming about them, I am quite aware I’m dreaming, and I’m always excited to see what new work has been done, what new room I will discover (or re-discover in some cases).
Writers have a long history of being inspired by their dreams and I recommend to my students that they keep a dream journal beside their bed. We forget most of our dreams so quickly — honor your gift by taking notes.
Naomi Epel’s book, WRITERS DREAMING is a great read. It’s wonderful to learn how other writers have made use of their dreams. For example:
William Stryon was inspired by a dream to write SOPHIE’S CHOICE. One morning he woke up with the image of a beautiful young woman with concentration camp numbers tattooed on her arm carrying a book. That very morning, he wrote down the first words of “Sophie’s Choice” exactly as they appear in the novel.
In a dream Bharti Mukherjee made herself wings by cutting the wings from birds and sewing them together. The dream became part of her story “Angela” in the collection DARKNESS.
Mystery novelist Sue Grafton uses the physical reactions in frightening dreams to help her write convincing scenes about instances when her heroine is in danger. She says she sometimes goes to sleep the the intention of solving a writing problem in her dreams, and says she’s usually given a solution.
Steven King says he uses his dreams in the same way one might use a mirror when one can’t see a thing head on.
Samuel Taylor Coleridge read the following line in a history book: “Here the Khan Kubla commanded a palace to be built and a stately garden thereunto. And thus ten miles of fertile ground were enclosed within a wall.” He fell asleep afterward and began dreaming vivid images“without any sensation or consciousness of effort.” Upon awaking, he dashed off hundreds of lines of the epic poem, Kubla Khan. (Of course, one wonders if a little opium wasn’t also involved in this, a device I don’t recommend.)
Margaret Mead frequently received help from her dreams as she wrote and kept a dream journal for years.
When Amy Tan can’t come up with a good ending for one of her stories, she takes the manuscript to bed where she says it becomes part of a dream.
Maya Angelou believes her recurring dream of climbing inside of a tall building under construction is a sign her work is going well.
Robert Louis Stevenson often dreamed complete stories, which he would later write. He dreamed the plot for his book Jekyll and Hyde. He wrote in his book, ACROSS THE PLAINS: “For two days I went about racking my brains for a plot of any sort; and on the second night I dreamed the scene at the window, and a scene afterward split in two, in which Hyde, pursued for some crime, took the powder and underwent the change in the presence of his pursuers.”
Like myths, our dreams are repositories of archetypes, and thus the images they provide can lead us to universal, meaningful stories. I’m also reading a good deal of myth, fairy tale and have just bought myself a treat… Carl Jung’s, RED BOOK. More on that later.
Another great author who was inspired by her dream state was Taylor Caldwell. She was one of my most favorite authors growing up.