Subconscious Words of Wisdom

While writing Book Drop Dead it became obvious I wasn’t letting my subconscious have a much of say in the process. When I realized this and opened back up to my inner collaborator, the narrative became richer and more surprising and the writing flowed more easily. It’s a lesson I’ve taken to heart as I work on the next book in my mystery series.

Today’s Words of Wisdom takes a deep dive into the power of the subconscious in writing and how to set the scene for it to work its magic, with excerpts from posts by Laura Benedict, James Scott Bell and Debbie Burke.

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.

Laura Benedict—February 22, 2017


In an article in the Harvard Business Review“Your Brain Can Only Take So Much Focus”Dr. Srini Pillay writes about our over-emphasis on focus. We have our to-do lists, timetables, goals. And there’s nothing wrong with that. But it turns out we also should be practicing “unfocus.”

In keeping with recent research, both focus and unfocus are vital. The brain operates optimally when it toggles between focus and unfocus, allowing you to develop resilience, enhance creativity, and make better decisions too.

When you unfocus, you engage a brain circuit called the “default mode network.” Abbreviated as the DMN, we used to think of this circuit as the Do Mostly Nothing circuit because it only came on when you stopped focusing effortfully. Yet, when “at rest”, this circuit uses 20% of the body’s energy (compared to the comparatively small 5% that any effort will require).

The DMN needs this energy because it is doing anything but resting. Under the brain’s conscious radar, it activates old memories, goes back and forth between the past, present, and future, and recombines different ideas. Using this new and previously inaccessible data, you develop enhanced self-awareness and a sense of personal relevance. And you can imagine creative solutions or predict the future, thereby leading to better decision-making too. The DMN also helps you tune into other people’s thinking, thereby improving team understanding and cohesion.

Dr. Pillay recommends building “positive constructive daydreaming” (PCD) into your day. I do this very well at my local coffee house. I stare. Out the window. Sometimes at people. I’m really working, though. That’s PCD time!

Another tip from the good doctor: power naps. “When your brain is in a slump, your clarity and creativity are compromised. After a 10-minute nap, studies show that you become much clearer and more alert.”

But the technique that really jumped out at me was this:

Pretending to be someone else: When you’re stuck in a creative process, unfocus may also come to the rescue when you embody and live out an entirely different personality. In 2016, educational psychologists, Denis Dumas and Kevin Dunbar found that people who try to solve creative problems are more successful if they behave like an eccentric poet than a rigid librarian. Given a test in which they have to come up with as many uses as possible for any object (e.g. a brick) those who behave like eccentric poets have superior creative performance. This finding holds even if the same person takes on a different identity.

When in a creative deadlock, try this exercise of embodying a different identity. It will likely get you out of your own head, and allow you to think from another person’s perspective. I call this psychological halloweenism.

This is close to something I’ve done on occasion. I may have finished a draft and am doing the first read through. Something’s not working. I don’t know what.

I set it aside for awhile and do something unfocused: like pleasure reading, eating a Tommy Burger, or riding my bike. Then when I go back to it I think of a favorite author and pretend he’s looking over my shoulder at the draft. I have him say, “I think you need to ….” and just imagine what he would advise. It’s amazing how often this can break the logjam.

In light of all the science, then, I’ve determined to take a little more unfocus time on weekends.

I’ve also gotten more specific about how I spend my focus time. I’m a morning person. I like getting up while it’s still dark and pouring that first cup of java and getting some words down. I can write for two or three hours straight. But I’ve stopped doing that. I am forcing myself to take a break after 45 minutes of writing, to let the noggin rest a bit. Ten minutes maybe. Then back to work.

James Scott Bell—May 28, 2017


What is the subconscious? Novelist/writing instructor Dennis Foley reduces the definition to a simple, beautiful simile:

The subconscious is like a little seven-year-old girl who brings you gifts.

Unfortunately, our conscious mind is usually too busy to figure out the value of these odd thoughts and dismisses them as inconsequential, even nonsensical.

The risk is, if you ignore the little girl’s gifts, pretty soon she stops bringing them and you lose touch with a vital link to your writer’s imagination. But if you encourage her to bring more gifts, she’s happy to oblige.

Sometimes the little girl delivers the elusive perfect phrase you’ve been searching for or that exhilarating plot twist that turns your story on its head.

At those times, she’s often dubbed “the muse.”

The trick is how to consistently turn random thoughts into gifts from a muse. Here are eight tips:

#1 – Be patient and keep trying.

Training the subconscious to produce inspiration on demand is like housetraining a puppy.

At first, it pees at unpredictable times and places. You grab it and rush outside. When it does its business on the grass instead of expensive carpet, you offer lots of praise. Soon it learns there is a better time and place to let loose.

Keep reinforcing that lesson and your subconscious will scratch at the back door when it wants to get out.

#2 – Pay attention to daydreams, wild hare ideas, and jolts of intuition. Chances are your subconscious shot them out for a reason, even if that reason isn’t immediately obvious.

Say you’re struggling over how to write a surprise revelation in a scene. Two days ago, you remembered crazy Aunt Gretchen, whom you hadn’t thought about in years. Then you realize if a character like her walks into the scene, she’s the perfect vehicle to deliver the surprise.

#3 – Expect the subconscious to have lousy timing.

That brilliant flash of inspiration often hits at the most inconvenient moment. In the middle of a job interview. In the shower. Or while your toddler is having a meltdown at Winn-Dixie.

Finish the task at hand but ask your subconscious to send you a reminder later. As soon as possible, write down that brilliant flash before you forget it.

#4 – Keep requests small.

Some authors claim to have dreamed multi-book sagas covering five generations of characters. Lucky them. My subconscious doesn’t work that hard.

Start by asking it to solve little problems.

As you’re going to bed, think about a character you’re having trouble bringing to life. Miriam seems flat and hollow but, for some reason you can’t explain, she hates the mustache on her new lover, Jack. Ask your subconscious: “Why?”

When you wake up, you realize Jack’s mustache looks just like her uncle’s did…when he molested Miriam at age five.

Until that moment, you didn’t even know Miriam had survived abuse…but your subconscious knew. That’s why it dropped the hint about her dislike for the mustache. She becomes a deeper character with secrets and hidden motives you can use to complicate her relationship with Jack.

#5 – Recognize obscure clues.

This tip takes practice because suggestions from the subconscious are often oblique and challenging to interpret.

You want to write a scene where a detective questions a suspect to pin down his whereabouts at the time of a crime. You ponder that as you drift off to sleep. The next morning, “lemon chicken” comes to mind.

What the…?

But you start typing and pretty soon the scene flows out like this:

“Hey, Fred, you like Chinese food?”

“Sure, Detective.”

“Ever try Wang’s all-you-can-eat buffet?”

“That’s my favorite place. Their lemon chicken is to die for.”

“Yeah, it’s the best.”

[Fred relaxes] “But not when it gets soggy. I only like it when the coating is still crispy.”

“Right you are. I don’t like soggy either.”

“Detective, would you believe last night I waited forty-five minutes for the kitchen to bring out a fresh batch?”

“Wow, Fred, you’re a patient man. About what time was that?”

“Quarter to eight.”

“So you must have been there when that dude got killed out in the alley.”

[Fred fidgets and licks his lips] “Um, yeah, but I didn’t see anything. I had nothing to do with him getting stabbed.”

“Oh really? Funny thing is, nobody knows he got stabbed…except the killer.”

Lemon chicken directed you to an effective line of questioning to solve the crime.

Debbie Burke—February 5, 2019


  1. Have you tapped your dreams for you writing? If so, in what way?
  2. Do you give yourself a break and let your subconscious work it’s magic while you’re mentally elsewhere? Is there a particular activity, like talking a walk or a shower that helps in this?
  3. Do you listen to your inner “seven-year-old” and accept the gifts it has to offer your writing? Any tips on doing so?


There’s a sign above the library book drop: NO TRASH OR VIDEOTAPES. Meg never thought she’d have to add: NO DEAD BODIES.

It’s May 1985 and Meg Booker already has her hands full, what with running the busy Fir Grove branch library, helping her flaky actor brother with his latest onstage project, and caring for an orphaned kitten that shows up outside the branch.

Then a rare bank note goes missing at a library event, igniting a feud between two local collectors, and Meg thinks her life couldn’t get any more complicated… until a dead body turns up in the book drop room.

Racing against time, Meg must use all of her librarian skills to discover the real killer’s identity, before the police arrest her for the crime.

Book Drop Dead is the second title in the 1980s Meg Booker Librarian Mysteries series.  It’s available at the major ebook retailers via this universal book link.

Sleep: Embracing Your Inner Koala

“Happiness consists of getting enough sleep. Just that, nothing more.” –Robert A. Heinlein, Starship Troopers

* * *

Koala bears are the experts when it comes to sleep. An adult koala averages about twenty hours of sleep each day! To those of us who are trying to pack as much writing, marketing, networking, and everything else into a 24-hour time period, that seems a little excessive..

So why do those cute, furry critters need so much sleep? Koalas exist primarily on a diet of toxic eucalyptus leaves, and it takes a lot of energy for their digestive systems to break down the leaves which turn out to be low in nutrients to begin with. Bottom line: koala bears get the amount of sleep they need to support their lifestyle.

So how does that apply to humans?

* * *

“A good laugh and a long sleep are the best cures in the doctor’s book.” –Irish Proverb

We all know that a good night’s sleep is essential for good health. Good sleeping habits help us maintain a healthy weight, lower stress levels, repair body tissue, and give us an overall sense of well-being. According to, sleep is also conducive to mental acuity.

Sleep is believed to help with memory and cognitive thinking. Brain plasticity theory, a major theory on why humans sleep, posits that sleep is necessary so the brain can grow, reorganize, restructure, and make new neural connections. These connections in the brain help individuals learn new information and form memories during sleep. In other words, a good night’s sleep can lead to better problem-solving and decision-making skills.

Better sleep means better thinking, but how about creativity?

* * *

“Man is a genius when he is dreaming.” –Akira Kurosawa, Japanese Film Director

It turns out creativity and sleep are related.

Scientists generally divide sleep into two categories: Non-rapid eye movement (Non-REM) sleep and Rapid Eye Movement (REM) sleep. posted an article that compared the two categories and examined their effects on creativity.

  • Non-REM sleep is where information we engaged with during the day is processed and formed into memories

  • REM sleep is where those new memories are compared and integrated into all of the previous knowledge and memories we have. This is also usually when we dream. This may form new novel associations between distant pieces of information, a vital component for new ideas

The article concludes:

This would imply that REM sleep is important for not only our ability to associate new ideas and solve existing problems, but also form new original and divergently creative ideas.

Okay. We need a good night’s sleep to perform at our best, but how do we get it?

* * *

“A well-spent day brings happy sleep.” –Leonardo da Vinci

How much sleep do we need to maximize creativity? The National institutes of Health recommends adults get seven to nine hours of sleep a night. And how can you ensure a good night’s sleep? The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend

  • Be consistent. Go to bed at the same time each night and get up at the same time each morning, including on the weekends

  • Make sure your bedroom is quiet, dark, relaxing, and at a comfortable temperature

  • Remove electronic devices, such as TVs, computers, and smart phones, from the bedroom

  • Avoid large meals, caffeine, and alcohol before bedtime

  • Get some exercise. Being physically active during the day can help you fall asleep more easily at night.

* * *

So TKZers: Have you noticed a connection between sleep and creativity? How much sleep do you get each night? Do you remember your dreams and use them in your stories? Have you recovered from losing an hour of sleep to Daylight Savings Time?

* * *

Private pilot Cassie Deakin lands in the middle of a nightmare when she finds her beloved Uncle Charlie has been assaulted by thieves. Then things get worse.

Buy on AmazonBarnes & NobleKoboGoogle Play, or Apple Books.


Dream Hacking

By Debbie Burke


The paranoid hairs on the back of my neck stood up when I read several articles by scientists from MIT, Harvard, and University of Montreal about emerging techniques for manipulating dreams.

Search engines are already scary-smart at reading our minds and predicting our behavior. Type a few letters into the search bar and instantly the rest of the word or phrase appears. Google is like a long-time spouse who finishes sentences for you.

Soon, similar mind reading may be extended into your dreams as you sleep.

Disturbing? Yup.

According to an article by Rob Pegoraro in, as a 2021 Superbowl promotion, Coors Beer offered people free beer in exchange for their participation in a study of “targeted dream incubation,” billed as “The World’s Largest Dream Study.” Subjects were shown Coors’s videos of snowy mountain views and crystal streams several times then fell asleep to the soundtrack of those ads.

Upon waking, the subjects reported dreams of waterfalls and being in snow. The most telling—and chilling—reaction of all came from one woman: “I think it was… something to do with… Coors.”

Subliminal advertising in commercials first became a hot topic way back in 1957. Marketer James Vicary claimed sales of popcorn and Coca Cola increased because of messages inserted into ads. The messages supposedly flashed so quickly the eye could not see them. He later admitted his study was a gimmick not supported by evidence.

According to, consumer concerns prompted the FCC to issue a statement:

The FCC stated that all broadcasting licensees should not use subliminal advertising techniques because the techniques are deceptive, which runs counter to the purpose of the FCC. The statement is still on the FCC’s website as its stance on subliminal marketing.

Nevertheless, the concept caught on. This article from Business Insider cites examples.

Aboriginal cave painting-Jabiru dreaming
Photo credit: CCA SA-4.0

Dream manipulation is nothing new. Ancient peoples as far back as 5000 years and perhaps longer recognized the enormous power of dreams.

Cultures around the world, from Babylonia, Egypt, Greece, Rome, and even remote isolated islands, developed practices to guide dreams toward a specific goal. Some goals included:

  1. Connection with a deity;
  2. Seeking solutions to problems;
  3. Overcoming traumatic events;
  4. Predicting the future.

To attain these goals, different rituals included:

  1. Rubbing ashes or paint-like substances on a person’s face;
  2. Eating raw flesh of a particular animal before sleeping;
  3. Inflicting pain, e.g. Native American Vision Quests;
  4. Going to sacred locations to sleep.

Today, many conditions, including anxiety, PTSD, poor school or work performance, eating disorders, etc., are commonly treated by using suggestions during sleep.

Here at TKZ, we frequently talk about how authors can solve story problems by using prompts before they go to sleep. Writers often dream their way through roadblocks.

Watch tracker
Photo credit: CC A-2.0

Technology already tracks our physical activity, heart rate, exercise, location, proximity to stores, and far more. Some years ago, while shopping for a new smartphone, I was shocked to find an app that monitored vaginal secretions. Whoa, guys, that is way too intrusive.

When such monitoring goes beyond the physical body and digs into the deepest recesses of the mind, the slope gets downright slippery.

What if a person’s dreams can be manipulated so businesses can profit from them?

With marketers now seeking high-tech ways to manipulate consumers in their sleep, concerned scientists are sounding ethical alarm bells.

In open letter signed by more than 40 scientists in June, 2021, Robert StickgoldAntonio Zadra, and AJH Haar wrote:

TDI [targeted dream incubation]-advertising is not some fun gimmick, but a slippery slope with real consequences. Planting dreams in people’s minds for the purpose of selling products, not to mention addictive substances, raises important ethical questions. The moral line dividing companies selling relaxing rain soundtracks to help people sleep from those embedding targeted dreams to influence consumer behavior is admittedly unclear at the moment. says:

…it’s only a matter of time before tech companies that make watches, wearables, apps and other technology that monitor our sleep start to sell that data for profit, or use those tools to hack our dreams while we slumber.

Our dreams might turn into nightmares we can’t wake up from.

This technology opens a vast plot playground for authors of sci-fi, crime, and thriller writers to explore nefarious uses for dream hacking.

TKZers, please name books or films where dream manipulation is used.

How would you incorporate dream hacking into a plot?

Do you give yourself pre-sleep suggestions?



Debbie Burke’s books won’t hack your dreams but many reviewers say they keep them awake at night. Please check out Tawny Lindholm Thrillers with Passion, for sale at this link

What’s the Deal on Dreams in Fiction?

by James Scott Bell

Check out this first page from a brave author:

The house alarm is screaming out, not the early-warning beep but the piercing you’re-totally-screwed-if-you-don’t-move-now squeal. I don’t know how long it’s been going off, but it’s too late for me now. The searing oven-blast heat within the four corners of my bedroom. The putrid black smoke that singes my nostril hairs and pollutes my lungs. The orange flames rippling across the ceiling above me, dancing around my bed, almost in rhythm, a taunting staccato, popping and crackling, like it’s not a fire but a collection of flames working together; collectively, they want me to know, as they bob up and down and spit and cackle, as they slowly advance, This time it’s too late, Emmy—

The window. Still a chance to jump off the bed to the left and run for the window …

The author is Mr. James Patterson (along with his co-writer David Ellis). The novel is Invisible. Mr. Patterson is “brave” for choosing this opening gambit, for later on in the scene we learn the above is only a dream!

And that simply isn’t done.

At least you would think so if you’ve spent any significant amount of time around writers talking writing. Surely at least once a week, in some critique group somewhere, someone is uttering, as if citing stone tablets, that you must never begin a novel with a dream. Les Edgerton, in his book Hooked: Write Fiction That Grabs Readers at Page One (Writer’s Digest Books), is unequivocal:

Never, ever, ever begin a narrative with action and then reveal the character’s merely dreaming it all. Not unless you’d like your manuscript hurled across the room, accompanied by a series of curses. Followed by the insertion of a form rejection letter into your SASE and delivered by the minions of our illustrious postal service.

Les brings up a practical matter. If you’re submitting to an editor (remember the old days of the SASE?) and you pull the dream-opening thing, it’s almost certain he or she will consider your manuscript amateur hour.

But what do readers think?

The aforementioned Mr. Patterson, it may be safely said, is unequaled in his ability to gauge the pulse of the reading public. He has at least one other novel, Maximum Ride, that opens with a dream. (And last time I checked, Mr. Patterson’s manuscripts are not being returned.)

So what’s the actual deal on opening with a dream?

I don’t like it. There! That settles it.

Okay, just my opinion, folks. But it always feels like a cheat to me to get me caught up in the action, only to have the character wake up.

In all fairness, however, I’m hyper aware of craft. Most readers are not.

Maybe they don’t care in the slightest.

Let me make a subtle yet critical distinction here. One of the most famous openings in literature is Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier. It begins:

Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again. It seemed to me I stood by the iron gate leading to the drive, and for a while I could not enter, for the way was barred to me. There was a padlock and a chain upon the gate. I called in my dream to the lodge-keeper, and had no answer, and peering closer through the rusted spokes of the gate I saw that the lodge was uninhabited.

Here we have the first-person narrator telling us about a dream. That’s not the same as the “dream fake-out”—beginning with intense action that turns out not to be real.

Practically speaking, then, if you’re a writer seeking a traditional book contract, I would counsel you not begin with a dream, for the reason Edgerton suggests. Most editors won’t go for it.

If you’re self-publishing, you have the choice.

I’d still advise against it.

Here is my further thought on dreams in fiction: Unless dreams are an integral part of the plot (e.g., a character has recurring, prophetic dreams), I would suggest limiting yourself to using a dream only once, if at all.

For what purpose? To show the emotional state of the character at some intense point in the book. Or to reveal backstory that is affecting the character’s psyche. I would also make sure the reader knows up front it’s a dream, as in the beginning of Chapter 15 of The City by Dean Koontz:

Eventually I returned to the sofa, too exhausted to stand an entire night watch. I dropped into a deep well of sleep and floated there until, after a while, the dream began in a pitch-black place with the sound of rushing water all around, as if I must be aboard a boat on a river in the rain …

Another option is to eschew a dream sequence altogether, and simply have the character describe the dream and how it is relevant. Thomas Harris does that in the aptly titled The Silence of the Lambs. Clarice Starling is a young FBI trainee tasked with extracting clues from the notorious killer and creative chef, Hannibal Lecter. Lecter trades her clues for intimate details about her life. At one point Clarice tells Lecter about the haunting memory of being at her uncle’s ranch, when she was ten, and hearing the screaming lambs being led to slaughter. And how she still dreams about it.

Lecter tells her that’s why she’s obsessed with catching Buffalo Bill. She thinks it will stop the lambs from screaming. It leads to the moving last line of the book:

But the face on the pillow, rosy in the firelight, is certainly that of Clarice Starling, and she sleeps deeply, sweetly, in the silence of the lambs.

To summarize my take:

  1. Don’t open with a dream fake-out.
  2. Use dreams sparingly (like, once) unless it’s an integral plot element.
  3. Let the reader know up front it’s a dream.
  4. Consider characters talking about a dream rather than giving it to us as a scene. Just make sure the dialogue has conflict or tension. (For example, the character doesn’t want to talk about the dream, but the other character drags it out of her, as in The Silence of the Lambs.)

Now it’s your turn, O Writer and (especially) O Reader. What do you think about dreams in fiction?


Dreams, Reality and Writing

James Scott Bell

There he is. Jimmy Bell, age 10, crack third baseman for the Red Sox of the Sunrise Little League in Woodland Hills, California. He’s ready for anything. And his head is full of dreams.
He dreams of playing third base in the Major Leagues. Of playing it like Brooks Robinson, maybe the greatest defensive infielder of all time. He dreams of hitting like Mickey Mantle, but doing it all in Dodger blue. 
The dreams keep him happy in the summer, when the smell of grass from the field and hot dogs from the Snack Shack create the aroma of the possible.
But then somewhere along the way, reality sets in. In its cold, nasty fashion it wakes him up and sets a full length mirror in front of him and says, “Look. Do you see your dream in here anywhere? No? That’s right. Because it ain’t gonna happen, kid.”
No one really likes reality all that much, do they?
Which is why you should give it a kick in the classifieds every now and then.
Which is what Jimmy Bell did after realizing his Major League career was a longer shot than William M. Gaines winning the Pulitzer Prize. (And if you don’t know who Bill Gaines is, read up on him, for he had a greater influence upon America than Henry Luce!)
My dreams switched to basketball. If baseball was my first love, basketball was my true love, the girl I wanted to marry. And working as hard as I could I became one of the best pure shooters in my town, which happened to be a big one called Los Angeles. I dreamed then of wearing Lakers gold.
In college, though, reality came calling again. This time, in the mirror, it showed me the body made of the DNA of my Irish and Scottish ancestors. A body that was not made for quickness or jumping but for klonking slow Englishmen on the head with rocks. Had I been deeded the body of a Jerry West or a Walt Frazier, I daresay I would be in the Basketball Hall of Fame today.
I refused, however, to let reality keep spoiling my parties. I started dreaming of an acting career, of becoming another Brando or Newman. Reality kept its distance this time. It knew I had a few good kicks in me. And it was going good there for awhile—Off-Broadway, commercials. Then I married a beautiful actress and decided that was a dream realized, and I wanted to support a family.
Thus, I went to law school, dreaming of becoming a famous trial lawyer. This was firmly within my grasp. But with two young kids and a long commute to a big law firm, reality whispered something to me: if you really want to be the best, you’re going to have give something up. Like time with your children while they’re young.
I downsized, opened my own office (with my dad, an L.A. lawyer), and was a seven minute drive from my house.
Hovering over all of this was another dream—of becoming a writer. Off and on, through boyhood and school years, I thought it would be wonderful to be able to write books and have people buy them.
But some mob hired reality as a hit man, because it kept shooting me down. It told me I didn’t have what it takes to be a writer. That I couldn’t ever learn how to do it. Its favorite phrase, spoken with a cigarette dangling from its lips, was, Writers are born, not made, kid. And you’re not a writer.
Rather than take more punishment, I put the writing dream away. But it came back, years later, in a movie theater. My wife and I were at a double feature. One film was Wall Street. The other was one I’d hardly heard of, Moonstruck. But that was the movie that knocked me out. It was one of those rare experiences that sweeps you up and holds you tight and makes you happy you’re alive.
And I knew I had to try the writing dream again. Had to. I wanted to write something that would move an audience like Moonstruck had moved me. Reality be hanged! I was going to shove reality out of a moving car on a steep grade.
I set out to do the thing reality said could not be done. I read books on writing. I devoured them. I subscribed to Writer’s Digest and highlighted the articles on fiction craft. A few years later I was a published novelist. Then I was making a living at it. Still am. Not bad for somebody who was “not born” to write.
So what would I say to Jimmy Bell, age 10, if I could go back in time? I’d tell him to keep on dreaming, but be ready to change dreams once in awhile. Work hard, drive toward what you yearn for, but also adjust to the curveballs life throws you. Maybe I’d even give him a few lines from Kipling’s If, just to show him he’s going to grow up and know some poetry:

If you can dream, and not make dreams your master;
If you can think, and not make thoughts your aim,
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same…

If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,
Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,
And, which is more, you’ll be a Man, my son!

So, if you had the chance, what would you tell your ten-year-old self? 

Writing the final chapter on a recurring dream

Like many people, I have a few recurring dreams. Some of them–like the one where I discover I can fly–are good. Others are bad. One of the more unpleasant dreams has been driving me crazy for decades. In it I’m back in high school, and I suddenly realize that I’ve missed most of my classes for the entire semester. Panic ensues.

Now, it’s been a heck of a long time since I graduated safely from high school, college, and graduate school. You’d think my subconscious would have caught on by now. And indeed the dream has evolved over time. Now I wander the halls as an older adult, having for some reason decided to repeat high school (the horror!), and suddenly I realize that I’ve missed most of my classes. Panic ensues.

During this dream, I have never once entered a classroom. I am doomed to wander the halls with no exit. A couple of weeks ago, however, when I was in the middle of a writing challenge in my waking life, I had the dream again. This time, I finally found my English class. I slipped behind a desk, braving the mocking stares of students who knew I’d missed everything and didn’t have a chance. The assignment was to write a compelling 8-page paper.

I struggled to recall a story, quickly. It came in fits and starts. In the dream I gave the finished paper to the teacher. She looked up at me, smiled, and said, “You know, I think you’ve graduated from this level.” I felt…released. Validated, somehow.When I woke up, I realized that the story I’d written in the dream was the first chapter of my WIP.

I hope that that last little mutation of the dream means it won’t be back to annoy me. Maybe my subconscious has finally learned that life, indeed, moves on.
If it does come back, I hope at least I’ll be in college this time. That would be so much more interesting than high school.

Have you ever found yourself writing in your dreams? Did anything you  wrote while dreaming carry over into your waking hours?

Dreams and writing

I recently began dreaming again. For a while I was taking some medication that prevented me from dreaming at night. It wasn’t until the dreams came back that I realized how much I’d missed them. Not that any of my nocturnal conjurings are particularly noteworthy (especially not the one where I’m wandering the halls of Wellesley College on my way to a final exam, having missed the entire semester of class. I hate that one.)

No matter how stressful or mundane, dreams are important to the creative process. They may even be essential. In a 2003 study, a researcher found that people who are imaginative and prone to fantasizing are more likely to remember their dreams than non-creative people. Reportedly, Paul McCartney has said that the melody of “Yesterday” came to him during a dream. 

According to another study, the REM stage of sleep (rapid eye movement) is the most conducive to making creative connections. It’s also during REM stage that we dream the most, so perhaps I was right to worry that my medication-induced dream void was also suppressing my writing creativity. Normally when I wake up I do a flash review, trying to recall any fragments of dreams before they fade away. Without my dreams, I felt “flat” upon awakening. 

But now they’re back. Last night’s dream was nothing spectacular–I was forced to confess to an old boss that I’d lost track of an important project. Then I had to put it back together in time for a “mission critical” meeting. Ugh. I think it’s the workplace version of my Wellesley-exam nightmare. But no matter: Welcome back, dreams!

Do you find that dreaming is important to your creative process? Have you ever generated a writing idea from a dream?