Plenty of people don’t pay any attention to dreams. Dreams to them are nighttime entertainment to ponder a second or two and then be forgotten. Some others take dreams way too seriously and believe that they foretell the future (I’d personally say only one in 500 dreams has anything to say about what we are going to do in the waking world.) Others just forget about dreams the minute they wake up and claim they don’t dream. Psychologists say everyone dreams at night, and these often can be recovered in hypnosis.
Writers who ignore dreams do so at their peril. Because what’s just weird and amusing to most people can be rich fodder for stories, characters, and even plot lines. I go over my dreams when I wake up in the middle of the night, just to see if there is any useable material there. (No, I don’t write them down, and I should, but I’m just too darn tired. I can’t read the handwriting in the morning.) At awakening, I do the same thing and pay special attention when a similar dream seemed to be playing over continuously during the night. Those mean something, even if I’m not sure what.
I long ago got rid of those books that are supposed to explain dreams to you. They explain common symbols that are significant to a wide group of people, but don’t have much to say about my own dreams. I look for similarities to my life, a character who remains memorable long after the dream is over, and, of course, the landscape of dreams—in cosmic, space-like settings, in a house, deep within a cave. All of this can spark a story idea.
I once had an idea for a short story and went to bed imagining the characters, then what their dialog might be, and I gave it a hazy plot as I was drifting off. That germ of a story took off in dreamworld. When I woke up, I had the entire story ready. I got out my computer, started typing—and with just a few revisions—had that short story nailed down in about two hours. I read it over a couple days later and decided to send it out to the little literary magazines that publish these things. Indeed, it was published in a journal called Folio. Since I hadn’t been lucky selling my novel ideas to anyone at this time, this publication meant a lot to me. And it gave me an enhanced appreciation for dreams.
Now when I’m stuck on a plot point, or just can’t make a character interesting enough, I “sleep on it.” And most times it really works. Even if I only get a couple usable sentences from my subconscious, it’s usually enough to send me off into a new and more fulfilling direction.
I’m convinced that not enough writers pay attention to their reveries and they could greatly improve their work if they’d just pay attention to the mind’s night-time wanderings.
I once talked to a writer who said he often pulled all-nighters just to get his word count up.
“No!” I said. “You are sabotaging yourself. You’re probably losing some great ideas by not dreaming, and word counts are meaningless if they really don’t have anything new or daring to say. “ (I’m really against the daily word count method of writing. It makes what should be inspired work feel dull.)
He was a bit shocked and I don’t know if he changed his ways. But I told him all-nighters are for term papers (and he was long beyond that). Sleep is for writers.
I’m happy to report that my work-in-progress is replete with dream material, some of it remembered from long ago, some of it new. And it’s making the writing feel more inventive. The words just flow. Am I keeping it all? Well, when it’s time for the second draft, we’ll see if some of this is extraneous. But right now my best advice to all you fledging writers out there is to turn off the late-night news (it just repeats anyway), get some sack time, and see if you don’t start coming up with some dreamy fiction.