At a recent party with fellow writers, I mentioned my last story had come to me in a dream. People seemed surprised, which I found surprising. Dreams have been essential to me, both in art and in life, and to hear other writers don’t use them is like hearing they don’t use their legs.
Dreams are not messages from beyond or from some benevolence inside oneself. They are a cognitive filing act to help store and retrieve information. This is why dreams are hard to remember. They are not meant to be saved.
My personal belief is that they lay the groundwork of intuition and creativity — the mind connects what you just learned against what you already know and experience, creating associations that allow you cognitive leaps. An unprovable opinion, but it works well for me.
But, just as analyzing urine tells doctors what your organs cannot, dreams contain information you can use. For a writer of the fantastic especially, dream images and scenarios are a rich inspiration. Dreams help with living too. In dreams, you see things you wouldn’t let yourself see in waking life, without a fully functioning you to object to them, to deny them. For one example of many, a dream of a three-way with an ex-girlfriend and her new boyfriend fully cured me of any resentment about the breakup. Not that it revealed repressed attractions — only that I had lost sight of the difference between loving, and winning. (And perhaps that there was no love on offer, for me or my successor. At least, that’s how it turned out.)
To get your dreams, you have to do a little work. Spend a couple of weeks trying to remember them on waking, and put down what you do remember. You may have better luck with pen and paper or a voice recording – I think the backlighting of a smartphone or a computer screen scares them away, as does the greater dexterity required to use the device – but, whatever works.
Ponder them. They are your dreams and no one else’s. The reductive vocabulary that says water means money or flying means sex is what charlatans or fools have sold since at least the beginning of writing. Yes I know I’m gathering up Freud and Jung in that — but, seriously, how could it be otherwise? Our individual lives change our mental associations over decades — how could we collectively share them over millennia?
The story of the dream is the easiest to remember, but there is great value in the setting, the rendering of the dream world itself. Our dream-mind is not just an actor. It directs, it designs sets, it chooses viewpoints. It makes a you in the dream, and another you watching it. It is cast and crew and audience, reader and writer and unwitting subtext. There is knowledge in all of it. I have seen complex visual and verbal meanings in dream settings, even jokes and puns, wholly separate from what seemed to be the story, and as densely encoded as the art of Hieronymous Bosch or Geoff Darrow.
I hope this serves you well. For all my attention to my dreams, I never got to the point of “lucid dreaming,” of taking control of my dreams and acting in them consciously. I don’t know why but it never felt right. I didn’t want my dreams to be a new world; I wanted them to expand my powers in this one.