Tag Archives: gathering material

It’s publication day!

Today is publication day for my latest children’s book, The Binding. 

'A tense, compulsive exploration of the effects of secrets, authority, boredom and fear.'
‘A tense, compulsive exploration of the effects of secrets, authority, boredom and fear.’

I started thinking about the idea ten years ago, after witnessing an unsettling incident in a remote part of Scotland.

I was walking past a ruined crofter’s cottage when I heard a commotion inside and went to see what was going on. I found four children, out of breath and flushed with excitement, the biggest one grasping in his fist a baby bird.

They flashed each other a guilty look, before the big boy rallied, took the chick to the nearest window and opened his hand. It fell to the ground.

‘It was stuck in here,’ he said. ‘We were trying to catch it so we could help it to get out.’

We all knew that wasn’t what they were doing, but the bird was free now, and I stayed there watching it limp away to the nearest cover while the children ran back towards their houses.

I got to thinking, how would it be for a child to live in a place where there were few other children, and virtually no adult supervision?

Then, in the wonderful way that fiction works, that little nugget of an idea began to layer up with other ideas. It resonated with memories from my own childhood, particularly the secret club I had with my three siblings, which we called ‘the meeting.’

My big sister was in charge of the meeting. She it was who made the box which contained all the secret business of the meeting. She decided the tasks and set the penalties.

On the less serious side, we had the mischief club, where I was in charge, being the second oldest, but it burnt out long before the meeting because it didn’t have the same magic and I lacked the power to hold it together.

My own childhood memories, stories other people had told me and new fantasies were called into my mind by this seed idea, and transformed in imagination to fit into it.

I love this process. It makes me feel energised and happy. And when, as occasionally happens, it also grows into a publishable book, well that’s just the icing on the cake.



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 top five rules for writers

It’s eighteen years since my first few books were published and I’ve had a very varied and productive writing career ever since. I’ve also got to know lots of other authors, at various stages in their careers; I’ve been on many workshops and read many books about the art and craft of writing.

Books, poems, magazine articles... my varied writing life
Books, poems, magazine articles… my varied writing life

Although I’ve experienced occasional bouts of frustration, stress and despondency over the years in relation to the business side of things, I’ve always felt happy and confident in my writing, and I think that’s largely down to finding and following my five golden rules:

Focus on the big picture

The real work-in-progress is yourself as a writer – every word, draft and manuscript you produce contributes to that. Therefore even if a piece of work is turned down by publishers or agents, that doesn’t mean it’s been a waste of time, because it’s added to the sum of your writing experience. (In fact, rejected MSS will often go on to have their day – they’re eminently recyclable)

Don’t push the river

Creative work has its own rhythm, requiring fallow time as well as pondering, planning, drafting and redrafting. If you try to write a book before it’s ready, you’ll come up against blocks and difficulties; if you learn to be patient, and allow the ideas to fully form up in your mind before you begin, the writing will flow.

Go with the flow
Go with the flow

Don’t expect to please everyone

We’re all different, so we all enjoy different themes and voices in our reading, and that includes publishers and agents. If you get rejections, take notice of constructive criticism but don’t take it personally. Ditto if you get bad reviews.

Understand your soul’s needs

Some people want to write because they have a burning desire to tell their own personal story, or to achieve celebrity, or to become a public speaker. Some people hope to earn a lot of money. Others may simply want to be able to create objects that please them. Identifying what you want from being a writer will help you to create achievable goals and lasting satisfaction. I’ve written about this on the blog, in What kind of writer do you want to be?

Life-coaching techniques could help you to identify your writing goals
Life-coaching techniques could help you to identify your writing goals

Be grateful

As soon as you start to write, whether you are published or not, you begin to see life through a writer’s eyes. You notice everything. Snippets of overheard conversations; the story in a stranger’s face; the movement of light in leaves. You uncover the unconscious narrative streams that flow in your own psyche, and so magnify your experience of everyday life.

The story in a stranger's face
The story in a stranger’s face

These are the rules which have underpinned the whole of my writing life. What are your writing rules?

Some sound, if neglected, writing advice

People often ask me for writing advice, and they’re surprised when the first thing I tell them is to keep a dream journal… keeping a dream journal is perfectly sound, if neglected, writing advice ~Andrew Blackman on writetodone

This extract is from a blog post I read last week which had me punching the air – yes! The author says even people who don’t normally remember their dreams can become dream-recallers through practice. He recommends

  • recording whatever you can remember immediately upon waking
  • not trying to judge or analyse your dreams

Then he outlines the advantages for authors in keeping a dream journal, which boil down to inspiration, breaking through blocks and seeing the world differently.

I couldn’t have put it better, but there are a few things I might add about the dream journal itself.

My two most recent journals - they have to look and feel beautiful!
My two most recent journals – they have to look and feel beautiful!

When I first started recording my dreams over forty years ago, I wrote them in school exercise books, just the dreams, packed together with no extra content except the date. I’m not knocking it – that’s all you need in order to establish great dream-recall.

Then I studied dream interpretation using the Western psychological model, and began to include some brief details about what was going on in my waking life, so in effect my journal recorded two parallel lives, waking and dreaming. This threw up some real insights into how both dreams and waking life work, but I wouldn’t necessarily recommend it if you’re looking to use your dreams as a creative resource.

Interpreting comes naturally with experience, in the same way as experience of life deepens our understanding, but if we approach dreams with this primary focus it’s easy to lose the bigger picture. Understanding dreams only as expressions of the waking life would be like understanding every piece of fiction you write as autobiography. It might be, but if you examine that too closely you can lose sight of the story and its own life.

My diaries have evolved: dreams, drawings, bits stuck in...
My diaries have evolved: dreams, drawings, bits stuck in…

Gradually, my dream journals have evolved so that although the core of them is my daily record of my dreams, and brief notes about events and preoccupations in my waking like, I’m also recording lots of other stuff such as

  • thoughts and observations that have engaged me during the day
  • sketches
  • plans
  • story ideas
  • tarot readings
  • notes on books I’m reading
  • quotations
  • scraps of paper stuck in with cellotape if I’ve jotted ideas down when I’m away from the house

This may sound like a mess, but it’s actually rather lovely, because I use different colour gel pens for the various different kinds of entry.

It may also sound like a major commitment of time but it isn’t. The only regular writing I do is the dreams – all the rest is random, and I’d be doing it anyway, only previously it was scattered about in various nooks and notebooks.

Pulling it all together means it adds up to a rich and satisfying record of my life, both inner and outer, which seems to provide a rich seed-bed in which my various writing projects can easily root and grow.

Guest post: Writing in the space between sleeping and waking

My guest in the House of Dreams this month is the author Alison Boyle, who attended one of my workshops a while ago. I love the idea of ‘writing in the space between sleeping and waking.’

Alison Boyle

In the space between sleeping and waking I found a way of expressing the internal voice of a main character in my latest book ‘from Pakistan to Preston’.

‘From Pakistan to Preston’

Most of the narrative is in the third person, and I’d been looking for a convincing internal voice for Tommy O’Reilly that exposed the indecisions whirring round his head. Tommy’s self-expressive flights, which I scribbled on scraps of paper at the moment they occurred to me and not a moment later, bring a change of tone and perspective to the story. Through this voice I hope that readers feel they understand – and feel – Tommy’s struggles in loving Sunehri Saleem.

The rest of the book is quite grounded, featuring the unusual work setting of an artificial silk factory in the North of England.

I found that the signposts in Jenny’s dream workshop allowed me to travel a little more confidently down some imaginative pathways I had only tentatively explored through my writing before. The biggest surprise was finding that her workshop didn’t activate a warning beep on my ‘Is this new age nonsense?’ monitor.

At the Manchester Literature Festival, Northern Debuts

from Pakistan to Preston by A.T. Boyle is published by Artificial Silk. You can see a 2-minute trailer here artificialsilk.org/video.html  and read about Alison’s event at the Manchester Literary Festival here http://manchesterliterature.blogspot.co.uk/2012/10/very-well-placed.html

Have you ever found the answer to a creative conundrum in a writing workshop?

Do you dream about your job?

A friend of mine made an interesting comment in facebook last week, in response to my post about the ants on the rat.

She said, ‘Since working at the vet’s, I am having a lot of animal dreams!!!! Am just thinking of places I wouldn’t want to work!!!’

I hadn’t really given much thought to work-related dreams, probably at least in part because most of my job these days consists of day-dreaming.

But I straight away realised that lots of people do report having workplace-related dreams, and not just big-ticket dreams about interviews or major projects; often these dreams feel like a continuation of everyday routines.


It struck me that this could be a double whammy, if you were doing a job that didn’t fire you and then having dreams about it that didn’t fire you either.

Which brought me to the wider question – is one way of making your dream-life more satisfying by trying to inject more fun and challenges into the day? I’ve seen this suggestion in a number of dream books over the years, but never felt convinced by it.

It seems to me that although the things of the dayworld are undeniably reflected in dreams, the practical, objective, outer life is very much the minor part of what the dayworld is. You can have a waking life which seems narrow and small, with very little variety and travel, yet your dream life be rich and amazing.

The day world is much more than external events; it is also the inner world of ideas and imagination, and dreams reflect the objects and qualities of both outer and inner daytime experience.

Therefore, although working at the vet’s might make me dream more about animals, so might reading animal stories or surrounding myself with animal pictures.

And if I got my nightmare job, taking the money in a toll booth say, then maybe listening to adventure stories on the ipod or grabbing a few pages in quiet times or jotting down ideas in my breaks might save me from dreaming, ‘One-fifty, please… thank you… one fifty please… thank-you…’

This suddenly makes me think of William Carlos Williams scribbling his poems on the back of a prescription pad between patients.

Confession coming up.

I didn’t have a medical problem when I was working in my various ‘proper’ jobs… I had the lid down, reading!

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 https://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.

Guest spot: The story of the picture

Would you like to know where the dream house picture at the top of this blog came from? I’ll let Mooncakelizzie explain… Picturing the House of Dreams, by Mooncakelizzie I’ve been interested in creative writing for the past eleven years. Attending a multitude of classes and groups freed up a rabble of short stories and some novels, jointly written with someone who’s now a friend, met at one of Jen’s workshop series. These have not the rigidly defined tick-box ‘outcomes’ of formal courses, but are absolutely absorbing and simply fun to take part in. In particular, ‘Writing in the House of Dreams’ opened up a kind of secret garden I’d lived alongside almost unaware. There, for example, I could meet myself at younger ages, and also a hidden self who was growing, maybe pupating under a cabbage-leaf in a homely but boundless place.

Liz's first dream hut picture

The first dream house drawing I made was during a workshop. We all told a dream, and then chose an image from one person’s dream to draw. We wrote three words to describe it. Then we asked three questions to spark a story – ‘Who finds it? Why are they there? What happens next?’

Liz's second hut

At home, I did more drawings. I began to put daydreams in, of living near the sea in a beautiful Oast conversion. A bit of Kentish beach; a view imagined from my little house.

Then a night scene, an isolated hut on a wild headland with distant lights of other houses far away across the water. I don’t consciously know what’s inside.

Here, I can hold dreams, experiences, events and things I’ve picked up or eavesdropped on while careering openly in and out of that world behind the ‘hedge.’

I had this amazing dream!

At the end of the first series of creative dreaming-and-writing workshops I did, my favourite feedback was from someone who said she felt as if she had been walking past the same opening in the hedge every day of her life, but never stopped to look over the gate. Now she had looked, she was astonished to find there was a whole new world on the other side to explore, which had been there all the time, unobserved.

The world of the unconscious mind on the other side of the gate is a treasure-trove for writers, and many do get ideas and inspiration from their dreams. (If you’re a writer with a dream story please get in touch – I’ll be inviting guest bloggers to share ‘The dream that sparked the book’)

But even people who value dreams and get inspiration from them usually do it in a fairly random way, rather than deliberately and consistently using their dream-life as part of their writing practice.

Creative dreaming and writing are both ways of opening to the hidden places of the psyche. You can use one to magnify the other. In my writing life, I use dreams for gathering material and for finding structures that work. I harness the currents of imagination and emotion at work in my unconscious mind in the moment to energise my writing.

In my dreamlife, I use creative writing to further explore and enhance my experience of dreaming.

This approach works brilliantly for me. I love sharing it in workshops and now I want to share it with readers too. I’m working on a book called, ‘Writing in the House of Dreams – creative dreaming for writers, creative writing for dreamers,’ which should be on publishers’ desks by the end of the year.


At parties or the pub, when I tell people I’m writing a book about dreams, they always say, ‘I had this amazing/weird/hilarious/alarming dream…’ And then they go on to recount it. I love that!

If you’ve had a memorable dream, please share!

Next week, I’ll be blogging about the thing people always say when they have finished telling their dream, ‘I don’t know what it means…’