Tag Archives: interpretation

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?

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Our stories, our selves

My work is emotionally autobiographical. It has no relationship to the actual events of my life, but it reflects the emotional currents of my life ~Tennessee Williams

This quotation from Tenessee Williams seems to me to encapsulate where dreams and creative writing are the same.

Being literal-minded, if we try to relate the writing to the author we only do it in a direct way, wondering whether the people in the story are based on real people or the events are things the author has actually experienced.

We do the same with dreams, especially if we focus only on the symbols and not the emotions.

But even where we don’t find any obvious connection between the story and the author, the dream and the dreamer, it is powerfully there because dreams, like fiction, are simply story-versions of the dreamer’s or author’s emotional experiences.

Have you ever written a story that seemed to have nothing to do with your own life, only to realise later that it was ’emotionally autobiographical’?

One of the mysteries of writing

Last week, I posted the picture Paul Farrington gave me before Christmas. Somebody else has given me a gift recently that I’ve been contemplating, and that was the dream therapist, Brenda Mallon. She generously read the MS of my book, ‘Writing in the House of Dreams’ and gave me some really helpful feedback.

'The dream Experience' by Brenda Mallon
‘The dream Experience’ by Brenda Mallon

Brenda’s feedback was helpful largely because it focused  on what I had said about using dreams therapeutically – which I hadn’t even noticed I had talked about. It’s one of the mysteries of writing that you often don’t see everything that’s in a piece until it gradually reveals itself through other people’s reading.

I had thought my book was purely about using dream material for creative inspiration, because that’s what my workshops are. In dreaming-and-writing workshops we don’t relate the dreams we share in any way to our waking life – that would feel intrusive and be as creatively inhibiting as setting out to write fiction by first trying to analyse where it’s coming from in ourselves and our lives. We use dreams purely as a creative resource.

In this blog I’ve tried to steer away from interpretation and focus on dreams as creative resources too, but Brenda’s feedback has shown me that although I can easily narrow the focus in workshops, I haven’t done it in my book, I don’t do it in my life and I’m not really holding that line here on the blog.

So I’m throwing open the gates. This year, I’ll be writing about dreams from every angle, including some thoughts on interpretation and an interview with Brenda on using dreams in therapy. I’ll be doing some more general articles about writing too.

After all, it doesn’t matter what we write – we’re always writing in the House of Dreams.

Has a reader ever found something in your writing that you didn’t intend or realise were there?

Do you notice the hidden connections?

In interpreting dreams, we’re looking for the hidden connections between the dream and waking life. The clue is often in the emotional quality of the dream, which may resonate with the dreamer’s feelings about a waking life situation.

When we find the emotional echoes, we will often notice that the dream is a kind of alternative story-version of a daytime event or situation. ‘I felt shocked and anxious to stumble upon a shallow grave in my dream when I was wandering through a dark wood… and, come to think of it, I felt shocked and anxious to discover something I had previously been in the dark about…’

Wandering through a dark wood

The events of the dream are so different, we won’t usually notice the hidden connections unless we go looking for them, and it’s the same with writing.

The stories we write come from the same layers of the self as dreams, and like dreams they are usually symbolic versions of the stories we’re living in our ordinary life.

If we notice this at all, it will often be years later when we’ve gained some distance on both the real-life events and the story we’ve written. But it can be instant, as I experienced this week with the book I’m working on. I suddenly thought, ‘This character is me!’ and it was not a very sympathetic character (hello Shadow!)

Having clocked the mirror she was holding up to me, I really examined my attitude towards a situation I was struggling with. Then she was free and I changed her in the story.

I think there is a psychologically healing or self-developmental purpose to creative work in exactly the same way as there is to dreaming. Through these imagined stories, we rehearse our real-life problems and dilemmas; we experiment with different paths and processes in imagination, and explore all the possible outcomes.

I’ve used creative writing with children in schools in a deliberately problem-solving way to explore the issue of bullying, where the children will create a character who is being bullied and then develop their story by asking, ‘What can they do to make it stop?’

The character will try lots of ideas, until they find one that works. In the writing, the children are exploring a difficult real-life situation and imagining strategies they might use if they had to deal with it themselves.

When writing is free, and not a directed exercise like in my bullying workshops, writers will naturally put their protagonists in situations where they will be faced with emotional challenges and find solutions which might blaze a trail for the writer in real life.

Does this mean we should feel exposed by what we write? Not at all. Like dreams, our stories have hidden connections only we can see, because only we know the secret processes of our hearts and minds. Even people who know me well would not be able to identify the link between my shadow-character and what I had been thinking about during the week.

As Jung said, an interpretation tells more about the interpreter’s current state of mind than the dreamer’s, and any hidden connections readers might find in your stories will be connections with their own lives, not yours.

Have you ever had one of those a-ha moments about a piece of writing, when you suddenly realise, like waking from an obvious dream, ‘I know what that was about!’

Gove levels – give me strength!

So here we are, facing yet another shake-up of the English education system, with the emphasis still on core academic subjects and rigorous testing. Ahem and excuse me, but what about that non-transferable and non-testable vital ingredient of a successful life – creativity?

When I examine myself and my methods of thought I come to the conclusion that the gift of fantasy has meant more to me than my talent for absorbing knowledge ~ Albert Einstein

Little children learn to be adults through imaginative role-play, pretending to be mummies and daddies, doctors, teachers, engine-drivers, soldiers, window-cleaners, cafe-owners…

Older children and adults make important decisions by imagining different outcomes – ‘If I did that course, I might become a chemist… then I’d work in a laboratory… or I might be a teacher… I could do that anywhere, in a city centre or a remote island… I could work overseas… or be an independent tutor…’

We make the most trivial of decisions in the same way. ‘If I go shopping right now, I might bump into Donna… she might be angry with me because I got the job she was going for… or she might be happy for me, if she didn’t really want it anyway… or I could go later when she’ll be picking up the kids… but by then they might have sold out of saffron buns…’

We make up stories all the time, quite unconsciously. They give us direction and certainty. If we develop this innate ability further through creative activities, we can explore more complicated issues; we can try on other people’s stories, which helps us to develop empathy and a deeper understanding of what life is.

Creative writing gives us access to experiences we would never have in our own lives.We can imagine ever further, extending the limits of our self.

Imagination is more important than knowledge. Knowledge is limited. Imagination encircles the world ~ Albert Einstein

Creative dreaming is the same. If we unhook dreams from the shackles of interpretation, they also become experience for the self, just like waking life, opportunities to go to places and meet people and have adventures and insights beyond our normal range.

You don’t have to teach creativity – you have to allow it; you have to nurture and value it. You can’t measure and assess it, the way you can test academic knowledge.

But imagination is the start point of everything in life, including learning. We shouldn’t be trying to cut children off from their inner world, by loading the curriculum with academic subjects and stealing more and more of their free time for homework and extra tuition. 

Children in the UK are among the least happy in the developed world, and they are also among the most tested. But even if happiness is low on our priorities, it makes no sense educationally to focus everything on academic subjects and intellectual skills, because the story-making mind is the seedbed from which knowledge and understanding grow.

The mind can proceed only so far upon what it knows and can prove. There comes a point where the mind takes a higher plane of knowledge, but can never prove how it got there. All great discoveries have involved such a leap ~ Albert Einstein

That’s it. I have nothing more to say. I’m completely fed up with politicians on both sides of the House narrowing our children’s abilities and aspirations, and harming their happiness, through their obsession with  ‘rigour’, ‘standards’ and testing. But please feel free to add your own views in the comments!

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.