Writers, Dreams & the Creative Process

By: Penny Hanley, Blogger in Residence

Tapping into hidden creativity

In dreams we find ourselves on a bridge between realities. We can tap into hidden wells of creativity, with access to wisdom not available in our waking lives. In dreams we regain or maintain our mental health as our brain files information, consolidates memories and prepares us for the day ahead.

Going to sleep fatigued with the messy muddiness of an emotional problem, I’ve often had a lucid dream of healing or resolution, enabling me to wake in the morning with the waters of my mind running clear once again.

Lucid dreaming—being aware and able to guide the dream while in the dream—is used by many writers and artists, who rely on dreams to solve problems and enrich their creative lives.

‘Without access to the myth-making vitality of our dreams we are confined to a few rooms of the splendid mansion that is the mind, and shut out from the creative source of our own psychic life.’ (Fontana, 1993)

Writers dreaming—past and present

Mary Shelley based her novel Frankenstein on a dream. Robert Louis Stevenson dreamed part of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. Coleridge wrote ‘Kubla Khan’ from a dream.

Contemporary American novelist, Anne Rivers Siddons, said that dreams have helped her resolve plots and that dreams can give great order to our lives. ‘I don’t know how it would be possible to use that side of yourself, to write or create, without recognising your dreams or drawing from them.’ (Epel, 1993)

L. Borges said that all writing is a guided dream. The state of reverie emerges in many writers’ descriptions of their craft. Stephen King maintained that writing is dreaming awake. Joseph Heller’s ideas came to him ‘in the course of a sort of controlled daydream, a directed reverie.’ (Plimpton, 1992)

Six Canberra-region writers explore dreams and their role in the creative process:

The poetry of Paul Hetherington ‘is often produced in a state akin to daydreaming, when my feelings and recollections are flowing into one another and intermingling … [M]any of my poems are partly dream works … with some of the strangeness of dreams in their imagery and in the connections they make.’

John Clanchy, much-awarded writer of novels and short stories, believes in the power of the unconscious in creative work and said that he is ‘frequently “gifted” the answer to some puzzle about a knotty problem or word blockage at the instant of waking from sleep.’

According to poet Mark O’Connor, A. D. Hope drafted complex poems in his sleep. He revised them but regarded the contribution of his ‘dreamworkers’ as essential. Hope wrote his poem ‘The Nightshift’ about the workers who visited him regularly in his dreams and provided him with strange phrases, startling imagery or poetic lines. Sometimes they would give him entire poems but he always worked and re-worked them when he woke.

The dreams of Jack Heath (The Cut Out and 300 Minutes of Danger) are often nightmares, rarely coherent enough to make good plots, however, the emotion and sensations recalled from them are useful. He said, ‘I lead a safe, comfortable, happy life, so the bad dreams keep me from forgetting what fear and pain are like. This improves my writing, I think.’

This recalls Sue Grafton, prolific author of popular crime novels, who wrote that she now has a placid life and spends most of her days now typing in comfort. ‘So dreams keep me connected to very dark matters.’ (Epel, 1993)

Prolific fantasy and horror writer Kaaron Warren (The Grief Hole), runs workshops on how to use dreams in our creative lives. While a dream only rarely solves a plot problem in her fiction, she looks for pivotal moments or glitches in a dream and works around them. Dreams provide rich imagery that she can use to inform her fiction.

Dreams influence the work of historical fiction writer Robyn Cadwallader (The Anchoress): ‘I think the time between sleeping and waking is incredibly important, and I try to spend some time with the current piece of writing lingering as I wake up.’

Harnessing the power of dreams

It is possible to train your brain to remember your dreams. Repeat to yourself several times before going to sleep ‘I remember my dreams. I remember my dreams …’ Keep a dream diary by your bed to record them.

One website to explore lucid dreaming is that of Clare R. Johnson, the first person to write a PhD on lucid dreaming and creative writing.

Glorious things can happen while our bodies sleep and our minds are busy dreaming. If we pay attention to them, dreams have the power to solve creative problems and further enrich our lives.

Further reading:

Naomi Epel, Writers Dreaming, Bookman Press, 1993
David Fontana, The Secret Language of Dreams, Chronicle Books, 1993
George Plimpton, The Writer’s Chapbook, Penguin, Revised Edition, 1992

PeninStudyFranzePenny Hanley has been a film critic, book reviewer, artists’ model, caterer’s assistant, and deck hand on a yacht. Then after a 20 year editing career, she became a freelance writer. She has had a novel and 20 short stories published. Books commissioned include Creative Lives: Personal Papers of Australian Artists and Writers (NLA, 2009) and Inspiring Australians: The first fifty years of the Winston Churchill Memorial Trust (ASP, 2015). She has a PhD in Communications from the University of Canberra and a BA (Hons) in English Literature from the Australian National University. Penny loves books, cinema, travel and dancing the Argentine tango.

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