Tag Archives: dreams

What was that dream about?

In ‘Take the bones and build a story’ I suggested a way of stripping back a dream to its basic theme or emotion and using that as a starting-point for creating new fiction.

The reason why dreams can energise and inspire your writing is because many of them reflect an emotional situation or dilemma which is current in your waking life, whether you are consciously aware of it or not.

For the same reason, stripping dreams down to the bones can provide clues as to what they are about, if their meaning is not immediately obvious.

Reducing a dream to the ‘someone is doing/feeling something’ format – ‘someone is making a stand… someone doesn’t like what they’re seeing… someone is being reckless…’ –  will often reveal a connection with something that’s going on in your waking life.

Recently, I dreamt I was walking on a path with a huge expanse of water on one side and a rushing river on the other. I was feeling happy and excited. I stopped to look down at the river and saw that it was full of fish – some tiny, others very big.

I stepped into the water and paddled out a little way. The current was strong, and the water was up to the top of my wellies. Some people on the far side were tut-tutting, saying it wasn’t safe, but I didn’t feel in any danger.

I reduced this dream to, ‘Someone is somewhere amazing… someone is feeling happy… someone should be feeling scared…’

At the time, in my day-life, I had just delivered my dream book, and I knew it might be the start of a big shift in my writing life. It felt exciting. But maybe a small voice somewhere was saying, shouldn’t you be feeling a bit more worried?!

Reducing dreams to their themes is what the kind of interpretation book which doesn’t fix on symbols, but rather on situations does – ‘Ten common dreams and what they mean’ sort of thing.

‘The Universal Dream Key’ by Patricia Garfield- subtitle, ‘The 12 most common dream themes around the world’
Most dreams about falling, for example, would reduce to ‘someone is feeling insecure/afraid’ and therefore they will usually reflect a waking-life situation in which the dreamer is feeling insecure.

Most dreams about being chased will reduce to ‘someone is running away from something… someone is feeling scared…’ Most dreams about shopping will come down to  ‘someone is making a choice/considering their options…’

You can check whether these stock interpretations are right for your particular dream by thinking about how you felt in the dream situation. Not all dreams about falling indicate insecurity, even if most do. You may have had a feeling of release and liberation as you plunged over the cliff!

Not all dreams about being chased will be negative – you may be the world’s fastest runner, and loving that your pursuer hasn’t any chance of catching you. Or of course, you might rather hope that the person chasing you will catch you.

The wonderful thing about dream interpretation is that one size does not fit all. Experts and commentators can suggest useful ways in, but only the dreamer can hear how the dream fits in the full symphony of the heart.

Why symbols dictionaries don’t work

There’s a popular idea that you can decode dreams in the same way as you might translate from a foreign language, by using a symbols dictionary. If you’ve ever tried it, you may have found it less than enlightening.

The point about symbols is that, unlike signs, they have no fixed or universal meaning. For example, a dog would mean something very different symbolically to someone who has been bitten as a child and always avoided them, and a dog-lover brought up in a dog-loving family.

For me, roses always carry connotations of my grandmother’s garden – the smell, the velvety petals, the dark dusky colours – and they have added resonance from all the happy and sad occasions when I played in her garden as a child. Roses are, for me, what madeleines were for Proust.

 

For someone whose first real awareness of roses was as lovers’ gifts, they might be a symbol of romantic love, or they might conjur negative memories for someone whose abusing partner always bought roses to express remorse, for example.

Meaning isn’t only different for different dreamers; it evolves over time within the individual consciousness. The same person who thinks of roses as symbols of love and romance at twenty might also associate them with violence and betrayal at forty.

When I was a child, I ate some berries which made me very sick, and got into a lot of trouble for it. Berries meant Bad. My first encounters with wild blackberries and blueberries were deeply mistrustful, but ultimately positive, so now berries have much wider symbolic potential.

 

In the same way, a culture’s symbols are always developing. The swastica  carried positive significance before the Nazis adopted it as their emblem. The Union Jack has been tainted by association with extreme right-wing groups in the UK.

 

When I was a child, cigarette-smoking was considered a healthy activity, associated with youth, beauty and the great outdoors. Now, all those connotations have completely disappeared.

The objects in dreams don’t have a set meaning; they have personal resonance. If you want to understand more about them, don’t look in a book of definitions. Look in your own life and experiences; notice your own emotional responses to them.

Having said that, there is a kind of dream book which can sometimes throw some light on what dreams mean. I’ll be blogging about it next week.

What every small child knows about dreams

I’m permitting myself a wayhay today because my agent has read my manuscript… and she says ‘Writing in the House of Dreams’ is a remarkable book!

*happy dance*

So while my dream book is winging its way onto editors’ desks, I’ve decided to celebrate by sharing a short extract here, about what every five-year-old knows about dreams.

Life is resonant. Small events set up vibrations in the soul which still reverberate long after the event itself is forgotten. So it was with the ants on a hot summer day in 1955 which, two years later, were to bring me my first understanding of dreams.

I was making mud pies on the back step, scraping the dry earth into my bucket, adding water from the dribbling outdoor tap and stirring the mixture like my mother did when she made fairy cakes for tea. I spooned it out in sloppy dollops onto the hot concrete and by the time I had found enough small stones for cherries my mud pies were already drying out, going hard and pale at the edges.

 My mother was at the kitchen sink doing the washing. The hankies were boiling on the stove and she had the back door open to let the steam out. My father was mowing the grass. I could hear the whirr-whirr of the blades behind me as he pushed the mower up and down. My big sister Susan was riding her bike, bumping and rattling along the path that ran down the side of the garden to the wooden gate at the bottom.

Our garden was a large patch of scrubby grass, featureless except for a washing-line and a compost heap in the far corner comprised entirely of grass cuttings. On one side, a chain-link fence separated the garden from next door’s identical one, and then another chain-link fence, and another, all the way to the main road. On the other side, a tall hedge hid the flower-beds and orchards that surrounded the big bungalow at the end of the close.

            We heard Monica calling but we couldn’t see her over the hedge. Susan ran down to the gate. I ran after her. I always followed although Susan never asked me to and sometimes I ended up wishing I hadn’t. I hoped Monica wouldn’t have her doctor’s set with her because if she did, they would make me be the patient. They would take me to secret places and hold me down. Susan would wield the syringe, of course – she was the expert when it came to injections.

            We went out the gate and clambered over the stile into the woods, where Monica was waiting impatiently.

            ‘I’ve found something!’ she said to Susan. ‘Come and see.’

I followed them along the dirt path under the trees. Monica was pulling a plank of wood along the ground behind her, tied to a piece of string. I didn’t know what it was for, and I didn’t like not knowing. Suddenly, Monica stopped.

            There was a dead animal lying under the long grass at the side of the path. It had a dribble of dried blood stuck to its face where its eye should be.

            ‘What is it?’ Susan said.

            ‘I don’t know,’ said Monica. ‘But we’re going to pick it up and put it on my sledge.’

They both looked at me.

            I was frightened of Monica. She wasn’t as big as Susan, but she had bright ginger hair, and her pale face was covered in freckles. She claimed she could eat the skin of oranges, and I had seen her mother do it, her bright red lipstick lips drawn back from her teeth. When I tried to do it myself, I couldn’t. Even the fleshy pith was too bitter.

            I looked at the animal. I didn’t ask why we had to put it on the plank, or where we were going to take it. There were fat flies buzzing around it and ants crawling in and out of its fur. I wanted to run back along the path, but I couldn’t see the house from there and I wasn’t sure of the way.

            My sister flicked at the flies with a bit of bracken.

            ‘Go on then,’ she said.

            Monica put her hand on her hip, her orange hair gleaming dangerously. Susan’s hair was black, in thick curls around her face. They were both much bigger than me. I could feel the ants crawling in the rat’s wiry fur as I picked it up.

No-one knew about the rat, but here’s a photo our mother took at the seaside of me holding another dead animal that Susan and Monica found

The ants crawled out of the rat and surfaced again soon after when I was watching a film on television with my father. The Indians buried the cowboys up to their necks and smeared honey on their faces.

            ‘Why have they given them honey?’ I asked my dad. ‘Is it to tease them because they can’t reach to lick it up?’

Before he could answer, the ants came and everything became horribly clear.

            So the ants crawled out of the rat bringing fear and revulsion on their backs, and they came to the honey, and they hurt the cowboys, and then with fear and revulsion and cruelty they marched on. They caught up with me two years later, when my family had moved to a suburban street far, far away from the woods.

I was lying in a shallow ditch. I had no idea how I had got there. The earth underneath me felt warm and grainy, and the sun on my bare arms and legs made my skin tingle. I raised my head and looked down at my body. There was an ant on my leg. I stiffened. Suddenly, the ants were everywhere. I wanted to brush them off but I found I couldn’t move. I started to scream.

            My mother came rushing into the bedroom.

            ‘Get them off me!’ I shouted. ‘Make them go away!’

            ‘What? Get what off you? What’s the matter?’

I couldn’t tell whether my mother was angry or scared, like me.

            ‘The ants! Get them off me!’

            My mother said, ‘There aren’t any ants here. You must have been having a dream.’

            What did she mean, there weren’t any ants? I could see them. I could feel them crawling all over me. I started to scream again.

            My mother ran out and came back with my dad. He stood in the doorway in his pyjamas, bleary with sleep.

            ‘Get them off me!’ I yelled.

The ants were everywhere. They were nibbling at my skin. They were eating right through to my bones.

            ‘What’s going on?’ my father asked – my mother, not me.

            ‘Just tell her there aren’t any ants.’

He nodded, and pulled back the blankets. He said, ‘Look, Jennifer. No ants. There aren’t any ants.’

            I couldn’t see them now, but I knew what I had seen, and I knew what I had felt. I knew what every five-year-old knows – that dreams are real. The only difference between the ants on the rat and the ants in the ditch was that nobody else could see the ants in the ditch. In dreams, you were on your own.

            After my mother and father had gone back to bed, I lay there rigid, not daring to move in case the ants came back. Then I did what every child eventually does – I turned my face away from the dream towards the light streaming in from the landing.

I looked away and my dreams disappeared, as dreams will.

Take the bones and build a story!

If you have ever tried to write a poem or short story directly from a dream, you will probably have come to the conclusion that it doesn’t really work. Dreams are pure subjective substance, which has to be transmuted into something a reader can share.

But although you can rarely use a dream exactly as it is in writing, dreams can be a great source of inspiration. They can energise your writing because they are fired by the very themes and emotions that are currently bubbling beneath the surface in your waking life.

One of the approaches I use in workshops for writing from dream material is to extract the bones of the dream and build it up into a story.

 

 Dream themes – building from the bones

Choose a recent dream if you would like to try this exercise because it will have more immediate resonance for you than one you had a while ago. It doesn’t need to be long or detailed. All you’re looking for is a moment of action.

Describe the dream in a single sentence beginning, ‘Someone is…’ Use non-specific nouns, ‘something’, ‘someone’, ‘somewhere’ – keep it as general as possible, with the focus on the verb. ‘Someone is cross with her husband,’ would be too specific. ‘Someone is cross with someone’ is the pure action, plain and simple, capable of supporting a whole new cast of characters.

Examples from workshops include, ‘Someone is searching for someone’, ‘Someone has forgotten something’, ‘Someone is asking questions’, ‘Someone is not what they seem…’

Write a few alternative verb-focused sentences for your dream, and then decide which one you’re going with. Don’t over-think it. You’re just playing about with some ideas.

Now forget the dream, take the sentence and build a new context around it. If your sentence is, ‘Someone is being chased,’ who is it? Who is being chased? Start by making a character sketch.

When you are creating a character, it helps to know their name, even if you aren’t going to mention it. When you’re thinking about their appearance, imagine you’re watching a video of them, or looking through their photo-album.

Then ask them a few questions to get to know them a bit. What do they like? What do they hate? What is their earliest memory? What was their childhood ambition? Ask as many questions as you need. Ask the things that you want to know.

You won’t use everything you know about your characters in any story, but knowing a lot about them gives you context; it makes the writing flow more easily, and feel more three-dimensional. Any story is like an iceberg; the bit the author shows you is just the tip of what they know.

Make character sketches for anyone else involved in the story – who is chasing them? Who gets in the way? Who helps them?

When you’ve got some good character sketches, think about the settings. Ask, ‘Where?’ Look around at the scenery. Use all your senses to be right there. Where are they running to? Where are they running from? Ask, ‘When?’ The season, weather, time of day and the historical era, are all part of the setting.

Then ask, ‘Why?’ Why are they being chased? Ask, ‘What is the issue? What is at stake? What happens if they don’t get away?’

Who, what, where, when, why, how… these are the prompts for imaginative play, and they will always take you straight into a story.

Fully imagine the scene, and when you are ready, write it. Don’t try to write well, just write. It’s a first draft. At this stage, being ‘good’ is not important. What you need is to be present.

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Using dreams to spark creative writing not only guarantees you will find stories which feel enjoyable and meaningful to you, it is also a good way of deepening your understanding of the dream.

Furthermore, because dreams are related to waking life, writing stories from dream material can be a kind of rehearsal, a way of finding creative solutions to waking-life situations, and so feeling empowered.

The dark place where talent leads

When I wrote about talent before, I was thinking about the personal qualities a writer needs to develop if they want to be published and make a career of writing.

Recently, I read a quotation by Erica Jong which reminded me of a quality writers need whether they want to be published or not. She says, ‘Everyone has talent; what is rare is the courage to follow the talent to the dark place where it leads.’

A dark path to hidden places

You need courage to even embark upon the path of writing, let alone move towards publication, because when you write you are opening up to the hidden places of the self, and you can never be sure what you might find there.

People in workshops will often express surprise at where their writing has taken them – that’s part of the magical and sometimes mystical experience of any creative endeavour.

But occasionally that delighted surprise can give way to something much darker. Dismay, for example – ‘But I don’t want to write sad stories.’ Rejection – ‘That’s not really me!’ Even disgust – ‘I hate the character I’ve conjured into being.’

This is another reason the image Ted Hughes offers for writing as being like fishing is so apt; you might catch a tasty gorgeous trout, but you might equally snare a big angry pike or a grotty old shoe. There could even be alligators circling your bait, ready to pull you down.

What lies beneath the surface?

Again, dreaming with awareness is wonderful preparation for creative writing, because in dreams we will inevitably encounter our own darkness, as well as our light. In intending to recall our dreams, we willingly surrender; we undertake to engage with that inner world, whatever we might find there.

In dreaming, as in writing, we may find more than we might wish to find, but that is the lesson of any inner work; we are much more than what we want to be.

If you are a writer, has your writing ever taken you to dark places that you didn’t know were there?

Guest post: The dream that sparked the book

The Saint of Florenville, by Alfred J Garrotto

On the morning of July 26, 2010, something quite unexpected happened to me. I had published five novels, the most recent in 2005. Since then I had turned my attention to nonfiction projects. I thought I’d told all the stories I had in me, except for one half-finished and dead-in-the-water novel.

That’s why I was surprised to wake up from a dream that July morning with a rough, but complete, narrative arc in my head, plus three strong characters who would carry the story from beginning to end. I even had a working title, A Train to Bruges (later discarded).

For the next six weeks, I continued to awaken most mornings with additional snippets of story and characterization, all of which I scribbled in a notebook I keep by my bedside, just in case (rarely) I think of something brilliant during the night.

As always, writing the first draft was exhilarating. My “dreamed-up” characters came to life. My villain was insanely evil. Best of all, I knew from Day 1 how the story would end.

Studying the completed first draft, I realized as most novelists do in that situation, that all I had in hand was a skeleton. My story needed flesh, which came only with grinding effort through subsequent drafts.

I embarked on the research I needed to make the settings ( Brussels , Bruges , and Florenville , Belgium ) and my characters (an American priest, a Belgian nun, a young female reporter, and a psychopathic villain) jump off the page.

By mid-July, 2011, I had arrived at Draft 9 and could finally add the # # # symbols, indicating that I had come to “The End.”Somewhere along the way, my working title had yielded to the published title, The Saint of Florenville: A Love Story.

For more information visit http://saintofflorenville.wordpress.com

Flying dreams – are you a leaper or a flapper?

When you tell someone you’re working on a book about dreams an interesting thing happens – instead of the polite, interested look they get when you talk about your other assorted writing projects their face lights up and they straight away tell you about a dream they’ve had.

I’ve experienced this heaps of times since I’ve been writing my dream book, but my absolute favourite was one night at the pub after choir practice.

Someone asked me what I was working on, I told them, and they straight away remarked that they often dreamt about flying dogs. Someone else, overhearing, said that he didn’t much like dreaming about flying because it was always such hard work, all that flapping.

‘Flapping?’ a fourth person joined in. ‘Why don’t you go to a high place and glide? That’s what I do!’

‘I usually just float up,’ said someone else.

I had very little to report on the topic of flying dreams because I’ve only ever had one or two in my life, and I didn’t get much higher than the tops of the streetlamps and trees. Also, I have absolutely no idea how I achieved lift-off.

I love hearing about other people’s dreams! So what’s your recommended method when it comes to flying – are you a leaper or a flapper?

How to incubate a dream

Last week, in the comments, Abi said she wished she could visit her dream house more often, and I suggested she might try incubating a dream.

Creative dreaming is all about ‘flying on the wings of intent,’ to borrow a phrase from Carlos Casteneda. Setting an intention is how we start to establish regular dream-recall, as I explain here http://jenalexanderbooks.wordpress.com/tips/

Once we have begun to experience regular recall, we can use intention in the same way, to incubate a dream on a particular topic. I sometimes do this with a group.

The first time I did it, I asked my workshop participants to intend to dream about a tree. Of the six people in that group, five reported tree dreams the following week.

Two people dreamt about saplings, and another about ‘baby trees.’ I dreamt about a tree-lined avenue. The fifth person, frustrated by a marked no-show of trees for the first few nights, wrote a poem about a tree to help set her intention, and then dreamt she was on a ranch in America, where she saw a single tree in the distance which looked like a child’s drawing of a tree.

This person thought, either in her dream or upon waking – she couldn’t tell which – ‘There was a tree!’ The same thing happened in my dream, where I thought, ‘Ooh… lots of trees!’

This is the waking ‘I’ being aware during the dream, and an interesting bonus of dream-incubation is that you’re likely to become lucid at the point where the dream meets the conscious expectation.

I incubate dreams to resolve plot problems and develop my writing ideas, as well as to gain insights into anything which might be bothering me in my everyday life.

If you want to try it, think about your dream intention at points throughout the day, affirming, ‘Tonight, I will dream about…’ Repeat your intention as you go to sleep.

You can reinforce your intention by writing it down, or drawing an image to represent it. Promise yourself that you will record any and every dream you recall when you wake up.

This last point is important. If you don’t automatically record everything, your conscious rational mind can click in too early and push your dreams away.

Besides, if you’ve asked for a dream, it would feel rude not to note down the answer. The dream will not co-operate if it thinks you’re just messing around.