Tag Archives: emotions

Do antidepressants help or hinder creativity?

A while ago, I stumbled upon an interesting article by the novelist, Alex Preston Does Prozac help artists be creative? and reading it reminded me of my own experience of prescription drugs in my teens and twenties.

In his article, Alex Preston interviews a number of successful writers about their experience of taking anti-depressants and one thing that comes to light is that although the pills might help people to overcome blocks and inhibitions so that they can start writing again, that doesn’t mean they’re necessarily producing very good work.

I first experienced depression as a young child and I was receiving treatment by the time I was twelve. Before I started taking the pills I had always thought of my extremes of emotion as being like the weather, some days dark and overcast, some bright and sunny. Sometimes, with a sense of dread, I could feel the storm clouds gathering; other times I could feel the dark clouds lifting away.

Storm clouds gathering
Storm clouds gathering

How I dealt with the darkness was through drawing, painting and writing poems. One time, I designed the cover of a poetry book which I called ‘Poems of the Darkness and the Light,’ and my teacher didn’t believe I had made the title up. As if children could not feel the darkness as well as the light.

My darkness and light were part of my nature, they were my micro-climate, and after I started taking anti-depressants I stopped feeling like me. It felt as if someone else was living my life, but doing a better job of it than I would have done in terms of passing exams and doing the work at university.

I stopped taking anti-depressants some ten years after I started, because when my older sister killed herself with prescription drugs it seemed clear to me that they weren’t any kind of cure at all. The withdrawal was terrible.

But in time, I started to write again. I learnt to flow with my own rhythm of highs and lows. It felt like the difference between trying to find your way in the dark within the narrow beam of a torch, then switching it off and waiting until your eyes acclimatise and gradually the dark is less dark, there are stars and glimmers, a faint smudge of hedges, a pale ribbon of road.

All these years later, I remember what it felt like to be numbed out of my own life on a diet of pills. If I hadn’t been shocked out of it by my sister’s suicide I probably would have stayed like that, and never discovered the fertile darkness, or come home to myself.

Walking in the dark
Walking in the dark

The Uses of Sorrow – by Mary Oliver

(In my sleep I dreamed this poem)

Someone I loved once gave me a box full of darkness.
It took me years to understand that this, too, was a gift.

My feelings about anti-depressants have come out of my personal experience and I’m sure other people will have very different views and stories. Have you ever taken anti-depressants? Did you feel they helped or hindered your creativity?

Matt Haig (Reasons to Stay Alive) has written a moving and thoughtful article about depression here. Like me, he believes there isn’t any one size fits all solution.

If you think you may be suffering from depression there’s a balanced guide that’s well worth reading here

You may also like to read Carolyn Hughes’ moving account of her own experience and treatment in The Hurt Healer


How to have dreams that you can understand

Last week I described a dream I had when I was planning my writing projects for 2014, whose meaning was absolutely obvious. In that dream, I diverted from following Deborah Meaden on the path to the station and felt wonderfully happy on the beach.

Happy on the beach
Happy on the beach

I’d been thinking I should pitch some projects for the market rather than follow my writer’s heart into probable penury with a self-publishing project and an idea for a book I almost certainly couldn’t sell to mainstream publishers, so the meaning of my dream was very clear.

Just to make sure I got the message, I had a second dream in which I woke up to find I had been sleeping on the beach, and as I lay there blinking in the bright morning sunshine I saw a baby playing on the sand right in front of me, happily absorbed, the two of us drawn together in a moment of pure magic.

Hearing a sudden sound of voices, I looked round in time to see the big double doors of the public hall at the top of the beach thrown open. A very successful author I know came out, surrounded by press people and fans. She had been doing an event at the literary festival in the hall. She was beaming under a truly fabulous blue hat.

I waved and shouted hello, and she waved back. I felt delighted for her, because she loved doing major events. A second author I know came out, also dressed beautifully and wreathed in smiles. I waved and felt happy for her too, but I was glad it wasn’t me doing festivals in fabulous hats. The sun was warm on my face, and I looked back at the baby, who was now watching me with intense interest. She had a pebble in her little fist that she held out to me.

It was very easy to understand where these dreams came from, as I was totally preoccupied in waking life with what direction to take with my writing this year. Most dreams are story versions of waking-life events and concerns, and if you have one thing in particular that’s occupying your mind the connection is often obvious. People involved in research or creative projects will commonly have dreams that develop and resolve problems they are working on.

In normal life we aren’t usually so intensely preoccupied with one major question or concern – our energies are more dispersed and the connection between the minor ups and downs of waking life and the world of our dreams can be more difficult to spot. One way of having dreams you can understand is if you narrow your focus through dream incubation.

Before you go to sleep, think back over your day and notice anything that’s been bothering you, any decisions you need to make, any problems you need to resolve. Choose one and ask for a dream about it. Promise yourself that whatever dreams you have, you will record in full, because often in the first moments of waking we’ll dismiss a dream without bothering to write it down if we can’t immediately see the meaning or importance of it.

Although the rational mind works instantly, in the symbolic mind, meaning takes time to unfold, and a dream that has seemed random on waking might, on re-reading later in the day, surprise us with its resonances.

Sometimes when you have incubated a dream it will be easy to see the connection between your daytime situation and the dream. Other times, you may ponder it, put the dream to one side and get the a-ha moment later. Or if you ask for another dream about it you may have one the next night that makes things clearer.

Incubating dreams in this way means you are thinking about your day life instead of just living it; you’re noticing the way your mind is organising experience into stories, so that it’s easier to see when dreams are carrying the story on.

Setting up dreaming intentions means your waking ‘I’ is communicating with your dream, and very soon you’ll find your dream is answering back.  If you want to understand the answer to what it means, it really helps to know the question in advance.

You can find a bit more about dream incubation here

Have you ever incubated a dream?

The gifts of writing – 3

So Christmas is nearly here, this great celebration of loving and giving – the perfect time to talk about the third gift that writing gives us, the gift of empathy.

When I wrote my children’s book about writing, How to be a Brilliant Writer, I asked my friends in the Scattered Authors Society if they would like to send me a few sentences on what they loved about writing. This is what Enid Richmont sent me:

A writing game I sometimes play when I’m trying to bring one of my characters to life is body-swapping! I pick a stranger – in the bus perhaps, or the supermarket – then I try to become that person. I feel the wrinkles on my skin, I walk with a limp, I look at my long scarlet fingernails or I run my fingers over my shiny bald head. Right now, I’m being a squirrel! I like to think, as well, that ‘becoming’ other people, or creatures, also helps me to understand them.

In fiction, we create characters and give them big problems to deal with. There’s always going to be struggle, conflict, pain because if everyone’s happy there’s no impulse for change, no movement, no story.

As we imagine what it feels like to be homeless, or orphaned, or bullied, or bereft, we feel everything our character is feeling – we have to, because otherwise we can’t know how they will behave, and our story will feel hollow and unconvincing.

It takes emotional toughness to do this work, and everyone has to find their own way. I personally have usually opted to put my characters in situations that are difficult but not overwhelming, and I use humour to leaven the hard parts. If my reader – and I – feel like crying at times, I want to make them feel like laughing too.

Other authors I know are braver and tougher than me, going into dark areas of experience such as criminal gangs, drugs, self-harming, eating disorders, abuse – which are part of real life that older children need to know about, and reading serious fiction by responsible authors is probably the safest way of gaining this knowledge.

Writers are used to imagining another person’s story, looking beneath the surface, feeling their joys and pains.  We do it in imagination, and that spills over into real life. I think that’s why most writers I know enjoy hanging out in cafes on their own, people-watching.

I like to think, as Enid says, that ‘becoming’ other people might help us to learn to be less quick to judge and more aware that sometimes it can take real courage and faith to get through the vicissitudes of even an ordinary life.

So there they are – stillness, awareness, empathy –  the three greatest gifts I think I get from writing. What does writing give to you?          

The gifts of writing – 2

In this, the second of my pre-Christmas posts on the three gifts of writing, I’m thinking about the gift of awareness.

In ordinary life, a lot of what we experience is subliminal. We engage with the world through our senses, but barely notice what we are feeling. For example, sitting here at my computer I’m only really seeing the keyboard and screen, unless I take a moment to deliberately notice the four different colours of gel pen right in front of me, one of them a very vibrant green, the particular blue of the walls, the dark grain of the old table, the torn or crumpled bits of paper in the basket beside my chair.


When we write, we picture the scene. We use all our senses to fully imagine it. We notice the detail of our protagonist’s clothing, the colour of their eyes, the quality of their voice. We notice the smell of the air, sharp and clear on a winter’s morning, close and musty in an old drawing-room, or wafting from a warm kitchen carrying cinnamon, or cabbage, or toast.

Our senses are the gateway to the world of our story, and describing what we can see, touch, hear, taste and smell there is how we bring our readers in too.

In writing, in imagination, we can experience life more fully and intensely, and that vibrancy spills over into our experience of real life.

Another thing that we do in writing, which is part of show-don’t-tell, is to notice and describe our characters’ emotions through their bodily sensations. When they are angry, we imagine where they might feel that in their body, and so experience it in our own. Again, this habit in imagination spills over into real life, and we become more aware of how emotion is expressed in the body.


Writing non-fiction also brings an increased awareness, not of what we experience through the body but of what we know, the life of the mind. When you write non-fiction, you become aware of knowledge you don’t normally notice or think about – it’s just there, part of the scenery, like the background details I never notice when I’m working in my study.

How to look after a rabbit; how to write a biography; how to grow plants from pips – these are some of the subjects I’ve written about. Others include the skills you learn just by being alive for a long time, such as cultivating happiness, building self-esteem and handling bullying. I’ve never done much research because I write the things I know about through my own experience, and in writing them, I notice what I know.

Shintie -sweet source of all the know-how in my little book, 'Rabbittalk - How to make friends with your Rabbit'
Shintie -sweet source of all the know-how in my little book, ‘Rabbittalk – How to make friends with your Rabbit’

This increased awareness of the knowledge and experience we normally take for granted and stop noticing is my second great gift of writing. Next week, I’ll close this little series with Gift Number Three.

How can a really sad dream be a really good thing?

A sad dream can make you feel out of sorts all through the following day, but it may be Nature’s way of helping you to cope with stress. Here’s how it worked for me.

As I mentioned in my last post back in July, I decided to take the whole of August off, and headed North for four glorious weeks living mostly under canvas. All that fresh air and freedom… when the time came, I did not want to come back.

Paddling across to Oransay from Colonsay at low tide with Barbara Gay from New Zealand. Fun!
Paddling across to Oransay from Colonsay at low tide with Barbara Gay from New Zealand. Fun!

I had been redrafting 24:7 right up until the day before I went on holiday, so I arrived home to a messy house and a garden full of weeds, as well as a stack of paperwork in my study that I had been putting off for months.

Top of my to-do list was my tax return. Enough said. Two days of hair-tearing and tedium.

Second was my self-publishing venture, a new e-book edition of Help your child to handle bullying, which I had abandoned back in June. Everything about it made me feel anxious, and there were endless technical problems with the formatting that had to be ironed out (thank-you draft2digital – you were very patient)

Even deciding which endorsement to use on the cover was stressful
Even deciding which endorsement to use on the cover was stressful

Frazzled and still fed up about not being still on holiday, I moved on to seeking copyright permissions for the forty or so quotes I want to use in my child-of-the-heart book, ‘Writing in the House of Dreams.’ This entailed days and days of tracking down publishers and agents, writing emails and filling in lengthy forms.

More stress. Would I be able to trace all the copyright holders? Would they grant permission? Would they demand a fee I couldn’t afford?

And what was the best way of producing the book and bringing it to market? Alongside seeking permissions I began doing research, which turned up a bewildering array of possibilities. I opened discussions, asked questions, discovered even more possibilities. More stress.

All the time, I was aware of the other things on the list, including coming back to my blog. I decided to quit the team on girlsheartbooks, where I’d been blogging once a month, and thought about taking this one down.

There were lots of lovely things on the calendar, as usual, those first weeks home from my holiday, but I was still cross about being back at work and stressed out by all the things I had to get through on my list.

'The Taming of the Shrew' by an all-female cast at the Minack theatre - one of the lovely things on the calendar
‘The Taming of the Shrew’ by an all-female cast at the Minack theatre – one of the lovely things on the calendar

Then one morning I woke up in tears, from a really, really sad dream. I don’t remember now what it was about, just that the sadness carried over into the day. I lost the will to start work, or the energy to stick at it. I read a bit, walked a bit, sat in the garden. Sighed and cried. Watched the birds.

That night, I slept better than I had for weeks and woke up feeling calm and clear, like the rain-washed sky after a storm.

Stress, like drink and drugs, can be an avoidance of ‘legitimate suffering.’ Life is hard sometimes, as well as wonderful, and one way of coping is by shutting the feelings out.

When you’re stressed, your whole focus is in your head; you spiral up into thoughts and ideas about what you should be doing, and push yourself so hard that you have no time to think about anything else.

Dreams connect you with your emotions, whether they are sad, frightening or euphorically happy ones. When you’re spiralling into stress and stuck in your head, it may take a very powerful dream that spills over into your waking life to slow you down and bring you back into your heart and body.

Instead of letting myself wallow as I had wanted to when I got home from my amazing holiday, I decided to ‘pull myself together’ and ‘stop being silly’ and get on with what needed to be done. My dream forced me to feel the feelings I had been avoiding.

Coming back to my blog after, as it’s turned out, two months away, feels really lovely. I’ve given it a new look, which I hope you’ll like, and got lots of lovely articles planned which I’m looking forward to writing.

The list can wait.

Have you ever had a dream that’s brought you down or lifted you up when you really needed it? I love to hear your thoughts and comments.

Authentically creative, by Carolyn Hughes

Carolyn Hughes is a writer with an interest in addiction and mental health issues. Her popular blog is The Hurt Healer and she has a lively and rapidly growing following on facebook and twitter

Carolyn Hughes
Carolyn Hughes

I must also have a dark side if I am to be whole ~ Jung

Like many writers I want my work to be recognisable by its unique and individual style.  For me, it’s crucial that what and how I write reflects my authentic self.  Anyone who has read my blog The Hurt Healer will be familiar with the fact that I share from the heart. It’s a deliberate approach to enable readers to relate to and hopefully be encouraged by my words.  Authenticity means being genuine and real.  Much as I would love to reveal only my good side, to be true to my work I have to disclose my whole self.

It is no coincidence that I am only now finding my writing voice as it has taken a long time to find myself.  Years of battling with depression and alcoholism meant that I had very little idea of who I was. How I presented to the outside world was very different to how I felt inside. It was only through having the courage to challenge my past at every level that I was able to start the journey to healing and so begin to find personal identity and my authentic self.

My aim though isn’t just to be authentic, but to be authentically creative.  And the key to writing both authentically and creatively lies with the unconscious.  For me the unconscious is a limitless place in my mind where my spirit and soul meet. It is a place where I can visit those painful issues that used to torment me. But instead of being overwhelmed I can now bring them into my conscious, safe from their power to harm me.  So as I communicate from my unconscious, so I hope to reach the unconscious of others and in doing so share a collective moment of authenticity.

The interpretation of dreams is the royal road to a knowledge of the unconscious activities of the mind ~ Freud

Recently I’ve been looking at how I can reach further into the depths of my unconscious and take my writing to a new level of creativity.  I’ve started to look at the constituents of my dreams. This is a wonderful way to tap into those hidden thoughts and images that make up the psyche, as well as exposing my inner truth.

Examining my dreams however has only been possible from a position of emotional recovery and psychological stability. In those dark days of depression and alcoholism my night-time experiences were fraught with darkness and fear. The erratic and terrifying nightmares that emerged reflected my complete inability at the time to manage my physical and mental anguish.

Jung once remarked that nothing was ever lost in the psyche.  That is an horrendous thought for anyone who has tried to block out the past in the hope that the pain would stop. The idea that all thoughts, memories and emotions never disappear but remain forever can be frightening. Yet I found that there was indeed a freedom to be found in allowing the unconscious to simply ‘ be’. I stopped fighting the emergence of the dark side and celebrated the arrival of the good side. By no longer fearing my thoughts and dreams I was free to live authentically and to write openly too.

Il ne faut jamais regarder quelqu’un qui dort. C’est comme si on ouvrait une lettre qui ne vous est pas addressee ~ Sacha Guitry

I couldn’t mention dreams without including one of my favourite quotes. A general translation of this is; “You should never look at someone who is sleeping. It is like opening a letter that isn’t addressed to you.”

It is a quote I came across many years ago at a time when I was experiencing my first love.  After one of those deep conversations that you have in such relationships I remember feeling that he hadn’t been entirely truthful.  As I watched him sleeping I remembered the quote and realised that I had been right to doubt him.  His real emotions were disclosed on his face as he slept.  So dreams aren’t just for the benefit of the dreamer!

Dreams are often most profound when they seem the most crazy ~ Freud

Being new to noting my dreams, I must admit that at first they did appear to be made up of bizarre representations that made little sense and made no contribution to my creativity. But as I made more of a conscious effort to remember them and to focus on not just what they were about but how I felt, they became significant.  

Very often it’s in that winding down time between waking and sleeping that a word, phrase, image that comes into my mind and gives the essence to a piece of writing. Other times it’s a complete dream that a memory from the past, an issue of the present or an aspiration for the future.  

Sometimes this works better than others depending on the obscurity or relevance of my dreams. Yet the importance lies in allowing that writing to happen regardless of whether it makes sense at the time. So although I may have rearranged the words to make them flow, I haven’t messed with the essence of what my soul may have whispered to me.

I may never reach the purest form of authenticity or be famed for my creativity, but I will continue to write from the heart with my unconscious and dreams as my guides.

 How do you write authentically and creatively? 



My first rule of writing

I work and teach in the practice school of writing. This means that rather than studying technique and trying to apply it, as we mostly learn to do in mainstream education, we start from just doing it and allowing our own unique style to develop through practice.

Obviously, this approach depends upon doing lots of writing and, as no-one keeps going for long with things they don’t enjoy, the first rule of writing is enjoyment.

If you can’t enjoy it, it’s better to take a step back and wait until the mood or the ideas or the psychological space for writing comes back.

Work is love made visible. And if you cannot work with love but only with distaste, it is better that you should leave your work and sit at the gate of the temple and take alms of those who work with joy ~ Khalil Gibran, ‘The Prophet’

The paradoxical effect of this approach is that being prepared to wait means you never have to. When the impulse is pleasure, work is alligned with instinct, and you are flowing with life.

This is not to say you don’t have to work at your writing, but only that as long as you’re writing things which fully engage you, it’s work you want to do and therefore, however hard it may sometimes be, it never feels like a chore.

And what is it to work with love? It is to weave a cloth with threads drawn from your heart, even as if your beloved were to wear that cloth ~ Khalil Gibran, ‘The Prophet’

You may have noticed that although I normally blog every Wednesday, I’ve skipped a few weeks since Christmas. This is because I’ve been immersed in my work-in-progress and would have resented spending time on other writing.

I didn’t want to short-change myself, or you, or the spirit of writing by publishing something which felt like homework. So I took a break last week and the usual thing happened – lots of new ideas came into my head which are engaging enough for me to want to set aside other writing for an hour or so and explore them in the House of Dreams.

Here’s an interesting post from the Stroppy Author (great blog) about not publishing any old thing http://stroppyauthor.blogspot.co.uk/2013/03/dont-publish-crap.html?showComment=1362832266092

And here’s another one from Abi Burlingham, on her decision to let go of having a regular blogging day http://abiburlingham.wordpress.com/2012/10/26/26th-october-2012/

And here is a beautiful contemplation on the important things, in life and in writing, from my very good friend, Liz Kessler http://awfullybigblogadventure.blogspot.co.uk/2013/03/remembering-what-counts-liz-kessler.html

Blogging is writing-work I thoroughly enjoy because, unlike most of what I do, it finds its readers straight away, and they can give instant feedback.

So, dear reader, thank you for visiting, following and commenting 🙂

When did you come out as a writer?

Out and proud now – it wasn’t always so!

A friend of mine was really pleased with herself the last time I saw her because, after a lifetime of writing, she had finally stepped into that space and owned it. She had told an events organiser, ‘I’m a local poet.’

It reminded me of another friend who had written several novels which absolutely no-one else knew about. She had only told me because she wanted my advice about how to find a publisher.

Coming out as a writer doesn’t sound as if it should be hard, but I think for many writers it can be. We may have to do it bit-by-bit, our family and close friends first, before going public enough to maybe join a writing group or sign up for some courses. Having confessed we’ve been writing, there’s another coming-out to do if we decide to try and be published.

Since I had wanted to be an author from a very early age, my family always knew, and I actually foisted my teenage efforts on school friends for a penny a chapter. So the fact that I wrote was never something I felt shy about confessing, and when the time came for me to try and earn a living from it, I was happy for everyone to know.

I reckoned that otherwise they’d just have thought I was a slacker anyway, sitting around at home when all my children were in school or playschool. On the whole, it seemed better to risk looking like someone with unrealistic expectations, wasting a lot of time and effort which was doomed to failure, than someone who wasn’t making any effort at all.

It came as a complete shock to me, therefore, when my first books came out, to find that I suddenly felt exposed. It wasn’t only my family and friends who knew any more – now everyone would know, and what’s more, they could read what I’d written.

I couldn’t understand at all why I was having such a problem – I mean, wasn’t that the point of being an author, to have people read what you’d written? So when I found myself on a psychodrama day with a group of counsellors, I told them I was totally up for exploring the reasons why.

In psychodrama, I went straight into a cave with all my writing and flatly refused to come out! 

In a cave… and not coming out!

It turned out that the essence of my anxiety was about having things out there that I’d written, which I might find embarrassing further down the line. This did happen, a decade later, when I was revising my adults’ book on bullying for a new edition. I had completely changed my mind on the subject of forgiveness, and I realised that there might be any number of earlier opinions in others of my books that I’d long ago left behind in my life.

I was reassured to read, in John Fowles’ preface to a new edition of his first book, ‘The Magus,’ how he had wrestled with just this difficulty. Much of what was in the book, he no longer felt or even liked very much. He said he considered doing a total rewrite, because he felt embarrassed about what he now could see were the book’s shortcomings.

But in the end, he decided to leave the text just as it was, saying

All artists have to range the full extent of their own lives freely. The rest of the world can censor or bury their private past. We cannot, and so have to remain partly green till the day we die… callow green in the hope of becoming fertile green.

 A lot of the books I enjoy reading are essays, memoirs and opinion pieces, and I like writing that kind of book too. Perhaps that’s why this was my particular stumbling block, when it came to coming out as a writer.

An enemy of self-reliance is consistency – we feel we can’t contradict our former ideas and utterances – but that’s just conforming to other people’s idea of who we are based on historical evidence. We think we may be misunderstood – but so what? We need to live and grow in the present, not be tied down by the past.  Ralph Waldo Emerson

The book I’ve just written about dreams is full of my own ideas, experiences and opinions, and now I’m writing this blog… I guess you could say that I’m over it now!

If you’re a writer, did you find it hard to tell people about your writing, or writing ambitions? Did you have a particular block when it came to going public?

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.

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.


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.