We all dream when we sleep. Some people say they don’t, but it’s probably more a case of them not remembering them. We usually remember our dreams just for a short time after waking, but sometimes they are so intense we find them difficult to cast off in the morning, and they linger on us like a heavy cloak of unsettled feelings and we wonder where on earth from inside us they came from, we wonder what they mean.
It might be the weird storyline, with supernatural events, both amazing or terrible, or it may be the sheer strength of emotions within the dream. Or it may be that, yet again, you’ve had that dream, the one you keep getting, the one you’re sick to death of with the same dilemma over and over again. And what I’m interested in, is the fact that we have more similar dream themes to other people than we may think. That’s why there is so much information out there trying to interpret them. And we do know they are reflecting our common human issues, worries, desires, dilemmas. So what can we do with this fact in our writing? And what can we do for ourselves?
Thoughts about the significance of dreams
Most of us know that Carl Jung believed that dreams are messages to our conscious minds from our subconscious – trying to tell us of our deepest wishes, or our fears, and paying attention to them can help us move forward in our real life. It’s just a pity that they have to be so frequently difficult to interpret, through being so bizarrely symbolic or metaphorical at times. But the take home point from Jung is that dreams were meant to be understood and that we at least owe it to ourselves to try.
Other psychologists maintain dreams are meaningless nonsense made up of pasted together snippets from your waking day, like a kind of collage, and often you can look at a dream and work out what you were looking at or thinking about that you must have carried into your dream. Some believe dreams simply ‘wipe the tape’, disposing of memories that would otherwise clutter up our minds, which sounds too simple to me. But Gestalt therapists believe dreams are a means to organise information, all that clutter we accumulate in our lives, both past and present, so we should pay attention to all the features of a dream to identify our ‘unfinished business’.*
I’m with Jung and the Gestalt– but in my own experience it’s mainly the recurring dreams that are really trying tell us something. Whether it’s something we are just not solving, or something we are intimidated by, or something we want more than anything. And those are the ones we can try to understand for ourselves, and because the themes can be commonly shared by others, they are the ones we can use in our writing.
1. Wading through setting tar or toffee, legs in slow motion, arms reaching out, every step painfully slow, you are not going at the pace you desire, you are being held back by invisible forces.
This was one of mine for years. Later interpreted as just not getting where you want to be, or being on the wrong path in life altogether. Though it wasn’t easy, I eventually changed the road I was on and have never had this dream since. Just wish I’d taken notice earlier!
2. Going back to where you think you parked your car and finding it missing. Searching and searching, thinking and thinking over where you’ve been, needing your car to get home. The panic is out of proportion to the problem.
Or in a similar vein, you are lost in a huge city, trying to find your way, street after street – but not getting anywhere, you’re trying to find the station to catch your train, time is running out…
Here’s what Lauri Loewenberg says this kind of dream is about. ‘ Your car can represent a direction you are headed in. To lose it may mean you are losing your motivation or are feeling directionless and just don’t know how to proceed. In addition, being lost in a dream means something in waking life is causing you to feel directionless and/or uncertain as to what to do.
3. You’re back at secondary school (or high school) all set to take your exams but you haven’t revised for them and there are only a few days to go. What do you do? Try to cram up fast and furiously in a flurry of sheer panic, or dare to let it go and not show up for the exams? But what will happen to you then?
This might be to do with a present conflict within, on needing to prove your worth to the establishment or authority concerned, or the very real desire to stop having your strings pulled and go your own way. As the child in the dream naturally struggles with going against authority, the adult may want to do just that.
And then there’s that in-between state, just as you’re waking or when you’re reading a book and nodding off at the same time, thoughts and images in your mind nothing to do with the book you’re reading but woven into it somehow. Stephen King, in his foreword to his collection of short stories, Night Shift, describes this as: ‘That weird sensation of not being quite asleep or awake, when time stretches and skews…when the dream seems real and the reality dreamlike’
So this seems to be where the conscious and the subconscious are fused for a little while, and it’s when you can feel this mental tugging sensation as the subconscious urges you to go back down into the dream, to pursue it, to find where it is going, even if it was pretty unpleasant. As if there is a point to finding out some truth or other.
So what can we do with these dreams in our writing?
- Where it may be appropriate, we can give these kind of commonly shared dreams to our characters as they sleep to more vividly demonstrate their inner conflict ( the prerequisite for good stories) for the readers to empathise with. (Of course we can make up a fantastical dream that the reader doesn’t recognise but which fits the character’s situation, but it would perhaps take careful handling not to come across as contrived)
- We can harness the vivid emotions that crop up in dreams for everyone, like anger, fear, frustrations. Those dreams when you’re trying to yell and shout when no sounds is coming out of your mouth, then just a faint croaking, and that emotion builds like a rushing river going into a dam, the pressure just waiting to burst through. You can remember this intensity and use it to describe your character’s feelings in the real world – all that pent up conflict waiting to spill, while they try to stay calm on the outside and convince others they are in control. The inner world of them versus the outer world of them.
- We can tap into surreal elements of the supernatural, the fantastic, the horror, that stand out to us and put them into our characters’ internal psychological world for symbolic and dramatic effect, or we can use them within fantastical plots for those kind of relevant genres.
And what can we do for ourselves?
We can simply bear our dreams in mind, especially the recurring ones. Think about where this kind of conflict might be coming from in your waking life. Is there anything you can do to change what’s not working for you, or change the way you feel or a persistently unhelpful attitude of mind? There’s no need to be too introspective about it and that recurring dream might simply vanish into the abyss of the subconscious from whence it came, but it might have paid you a visit for a reason, and there’s nothing wrong in saying ‘Hello, what have you popped up for?’
Jung says ‘A dream is a small hidden door in the deepest and most intimate sanctum of the soul… ‘Until you make the unconscious conscious, it will direct your life and you will call it fate.’ ‘Who looks outside, dreams; who looks inside, awakes’.
And I like this one from Virginia Woolf : ‘Yet it is in our idleness, in our dreams, that the submerged truth sometimes comes to the top’
So sweet dreams to you, and any thoughts most welcome :>)
Further reading on dreams and creativity: ‘The Dream Canvas: Are dreams a muse to the creative?’ by Tori DeAngelis http://www.apa.org/monitor/nov03/canvas.aspx
Further reading on dreams and your well being: Your Brain Solves Problems While You Sleep, by Catherine Guthrie http://www.mindpowernews.com/SolveProblems.htm
(The Complete Book of Dreams, Julia and Derek Parker, Dorling Kindersley)
(images courtesy of pixabay)