Working while we sleep

We spend roughly one third of our lives sleeping, and while we are sleeping, we are nearly always dreaming. Usually we dream three or four times per night, and we forget about 95% of what we dream.

Dreams are a very rich source of inspiration for writing, particularly for poetry, because the logic of dreams is so unconventional, and often so radical, that our dreams take us places that we would never normally allow ourselves to go. The mood of a dream can be so pervasive that it can haunt us for the entire day.

Many writers credit dreams for their compositions. Samuel Taylor Coleridge wrote the poem Kubla Khan based on a dream he had while taking an opium-based medication. Paul McCartney heard the melody of Yesterday in a dream and wrote it down immediately upon waking. He was convinced that he must have heard it somewhere else and spent a long time trying to track down the origin of the song before finally laying claim to it and writing the lyrics.5316922952_a6758ae9a7_m

Dreams are a door to parts of our mind that can only be opened when the conscious bureaucrat (our waking mind) goes off-duty. Sometimes they are just brain-digestion. Often when we recall a dream we can see the seeds of it were sown during the events of a day, conversations overheard, or news stories that we only half-paid attention to.  And often dreams will completely disrupt any sense of who we are, because they operate by a different set of rules:

Dreams, as everyone knows, may be confused, unintelligible, or positively nonsensical; what they say may contradict all that we know of reality; and we behave in them like insane people, since, so long as we are dreaming, we attribute objective reality to the contents of the dream.  (Freud, An Outline of Psychoanalysis, p. 47).

In our dream states there are no rules of time and space, and anything can happen.  It is possible to find oneself in bed with Tom Cruise (the horror!) or unexpectedly piloting a 747. We can be naked in the shopping mall or living in the supermarket. All of these scenarios would make premises for great stories.

Carl Jung argued that dreams allow us to access levels of consciousness that go beyond the individual, a species-level set of images and symbols that are archetypal, and understood without needing language.  Great writing seems to tap into these veins without being self-conscious about it.

The sense of being out-of-control in dreams is tremendously fertile. It especially applies in writing Gothic or horror novels. Stephen King is a master at this. I once scorned his novel, Tommyknockers, which I read at a cottage one summer and pronounced ridiculous, and then proceeded to have vivid nightmares based on it for several weeks.


As writers the best tool for accessing the creative fertility of our dreams is to keep a dream journal.

Keep a pen and a notebook beside your bed, and when you wake up, record what you can remember right away. You will find, like all things, this process becomes easier with practice.  Do not judge or try to analyse your dreams (while this is tremendously interesting it is not necessary to the writing process).

Use the images or the scenario of the dream in a new way. I once had a dream about a secret passageway and a strange office, and then turned it into this:


In the end there is only love.

Open the secret door
behind the furnace and climb
the cool dark stair. It spirals
upward to a suspended room
in a suspended house rendered in
bamboo and teak. Look at the ebony
desk in the centre. It is framing a
blank sheet of white bond paper.
Sit a spell in the revolving leather chair
and spin a few rounds, a few words,
a few heartbeats. Don’t mind the serpent
coiled underfoot, he is not for you, not
yet. The loops of your cursive
conjure his pupils. He will not strike
so long as you write.

Now look upward and notice

that cleft in the Baobab tree
that conceals a passage, that leads
to more passages, more caves,
more stairs, more indifferent
reptiles. The whole illusion is suspended
on a breath, on a fragile impulse, as
simple as a swallow.

Don’t swallow.

Make your way now to the dust
ensconced attic, where the snake
charmer’s skeleton crumbles dryly.
Cobwebs curl round his vacated basket.

Concentrate. Try to remember
the way back down. Pray that the phone
doesn’t ring.

In the end there is only fear.



So there you have it. A passable poem made out of a dream. Of course I rearranged it, and added the framing statements, but I did the best I could to convey the sense of foreboding and strangeness that I originally felt.

Try keeping a dream journal. It will be another tool you can use to get you writing, whether it leads somewhere or not. You’ll start your day by writing, and a little exercise first thing in the morning might be just what the Dr (Frankenstein? Freud?) ordered.

Have you written any pieces based on dreams? We’d love to hear about it. Drop us a comment.

Until next time,


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We hope you’ll consider joining us for a Day Away to Write on October 6, 2013. The leaves will be just starting to turn – a perfect time for a country drive. We’ve also posted our 2013-14 retreat dates on our home page.

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