I have a good friend who dreamed the entire plot of her first novel, which became the debut installment in an enormously successful thriller series. Why can’t I have dreams like that?
My dreams alternate between blanket-clutching, dry-mouth terror and the most deadly-dull, anxiety-ridden school scenes, in which I’m either trying to remember the locker combination I had in 1974, or attempting to teach Algebra to a room full of kids who suspect I don’t know what the heck I’m doing (and they would be right).
There are so many theories on what dreams are. Just a few:
Subconscious problem solving.
Random neuron firing
Emotional cleanup using dream symbols
Messages from the future or past
I don’t know about you, but my dreams tend to be a mix of the above, with the exception of messages from the future or past. As an adult, I’ve had some very comforting dreams about my grandparents, but I put those in the emotional cleanup category.
Dreams are as entertaining to me as a good book, and sometimes even more so because I’m participating. I go to sleep hoping the dreams are good. The only time I fear them is when I’m home alone overnight and have paralyzing night terrors about strangers in my bedroom. But most of my dreams contain vibrant colors, vivid situations and storylines, and people I don’t often see. I couldn’t enjoy them more if I made them up myself. Which, in a way, I suppose I do. It’s my subconscious at work—that part of the brain from which I suspect my best writing material comes.
But how to access that material in the waking world? As writers, we are essentially creating dreams for our readers. Stories that are like reality, but just that much better. Just that much less predictable, like any good dream.
Some ways to access the dreaming part of your brain:
Lucid dreaming: Lucid dreaming is dreaming when you know you’re dreaming. You won’t necessarily control your dreams, but you’re likely to remember them. Here’s a comprehensive list of ways to make it happen.
Dream journals: This is one of my favorites. As soon as I wake, I jot down the details of all the dreams I can remember. The exercise of writing it out makes me feel like I have a jump on my creative day.
Music: Do you listen to music as you write? It can quickly put you in the writing zone, but music with lyrics can be distracting. When I wrote Charlotte’s Story, I had this adagio on a loop for weeks. Repeated music is a great self-hypnosis tool.
Rituals: Same Bat Place. Same Bat Time. If you’re in the habit of doing deep work in the same place every time, your brain will begin to relax once it’s in sight.
Silence: I used to brag a lot about how I could write just as easily in a noisy cafe as I could in a silent room. While it’s still true, silence settles me much more quickly. You can almost hear the doors in my head opening.
Do you have trouble recalling your dreams? It’s common.The reason it’s sometimes difficult is because the brain may shut down its memory-recording functions while we’re in REM sleep.
Here’s what I find so fascinating about recalling dreams—or even having them. What if they really are simply random discharges of neurons firing up images in our brains while we sleep? That doesn’t make them any less interesting or less vital. It’s what we do with the connections between those images that makes a dream a dream. Even while we are sleeping, we are constructing narratives. How cool is that? Storytelling is so elemental to our being that we may be compelled to do it unintentionally, while we’re asleep.
That means that we are all storytellers. But to be writers, we have to externalize those narratives.
I love to wake up and share my dreams. If a dream is particularly vivid, I’ll definitely record it in my journal. It surprises me how long the narratives are. Recently I’ve tried to make sure I’m recording only what I remember about the dream. Of course, my inclination is to embellish it, to make it more of a story. Did I tell you about the one where I was babysitting a little white dog, and it ran out of the plush apartment where it lived? I searched all around the courtyard, but found it chained underwater in a big white swimming pool, paddling its heart out to keep its head above water. I felt like such a hero rescuing it. Somehow, though, I don’t think the tale would make compelling fiction.
Maybe next dream.
If you write consistently, you know exactly how it feels to slip into The Dream Zone. What helps you get there?
Have you ever dreamed an entire story or novel, and then written it?