I have always envied people who can recall their dreams in minute detail—expounding upon aspects of setting, dialogue, or the specific actions of every character. I’ll admit I’m a bit incredulous too, but mainly because I’ve never been able to manage what they seem to pull off with aplomb. And I can’t help but to wonder: Are they making this stuff up—perhaps embellishing their somnolent recollections for public consumption?
In most cases, they are probably not, and my suspicions are more reactive than intuitive. These people simply possess the ability to vividly recall their unconscious activity, whereas I do not. But, then, what is the problem if they are spicing up their dreams? Isn’t that part of the storytelling process, after all? Of course it is, as any cursory inspection of the world’s mythology, religious writings, and great literature will show. Dreams are good material.
I’ll not go into a lengthy dissertation here on the degree of significance (or lack of significance) that our dreams have on our day-to-day lives. For my part, I have no solid opinion on the matter, nor am I convinced one way or another regarding their possible psychological or prophetic properties. But I do acknowledge that dreams happen to us for one or many reasons; that they can be at times astonishing, entertaining, and terrifying; and of course, by their very ethereal nature, they invite speculation. I have had dreams that seem to fulfill an admonishing or cautionary “purpose” for me—such as those “back in school and failing” dreams that come up any time I’m not doing something in my life that I ought to be. I’ve also experienced what I might call “mental housecleaning,” during my sleep, in which a minor episode from my waking existence is replayed, and often distorted, in a manner that one might carry out in a writing exercise—like penning a brief, alternate version of a scene in a story draft.
And, of course, there are those “unfinished business” dreams which, for me, constitute the bulk of my unconscious excursions and are often thematically recurring. I think I understand these dreams best, if indeed dreams can be understood as mental events bearing applicable meaning. I am nearly certain, for example, that there is a compelling reason why, even years after their deaths, I have battled with my parents in my sleep, often nightly. And by the same token, I recognize a correlation exists between the lessening in frequency of these dreams and my recent coming to terms with the parent-child relationship I experienced.
But as a writer, I also like to believe that dreams—and sometimes just plain sleep—can inspire us creatively, even though I often cannot identify a direct causal link in my own experience. Not that I haven’t held out hope, though. Like many creators of song, verse, and story, I have placed a notebook and pen on my nightstand on many occasions, vowing to record my dreams immediately upon waking and make use of them. But more often than not the page remains blank come breakfast time. In fact, I can only recall one written piece, a set of song lyrics I penned during high school, which was the direct result of a dream.
In this respect, I suppose my experience with dream-as-inspiration is reminiscent of the Seinfeld episode in which Jerry wakes up briefly to jot down what he thinks will be a great punchline to use in his standup routine. Unbeknownst to him, the line is just a snippet of dialogue from a science-fiction show that was playing concurrently on late-night television. And to further complicate things, Seinfeld cannot make out what exactly he has scrawled on the paper in his half-awake state, and he spends the rest of the episode trying to figure it out. When he finally does decipher the line—“Flaming globes of Sigmund”—he realizes not only that it’s not useful, but that it isn’t even funny.
This rather sums up my own luck with dreams, at least to this point. But again, I continue to hope.
On the other hand, I am experientially aware that taking a nap break or getting a good dose of nighttime sleep can assist me in meeting certain intellectual or creative challenges that, in my wearied waking state, might seem insurmountable. Our brains are working for us even when we aren’t consciously aware of the fact.
I recall one occasion from my return to college during the early nineties where this very thing occurred. I was midway through a lengthy research paper—the capstone project of my major area of study, in fact—and felt myself unable to get to where I needed to be in order to wrap things up. Supremely crestfallen, not to mention exhausted too, I left the computer table and went upstairs for a late-afternoon nap. A couple of hours later, I woke to the song of a mourning dove outside my bedroom window. If you know that sound, you know how distinct and calming it is. At the time, though, I didn’t know what sort of bird it was; nor could I recall having ever heard that particular sound before. I couldn’t put my finger on it, but my intuition told me this was somehow significant. Then I sat up and stretched; and as I did, I realized exactly what it was I needed to write in order to guide my paper to a successful, cogent conclusion. I returned immediately to my desk and set about doing so. Later that night, I finished it.
But this is different from the case of a dream specifically inspiring a piece of written work. It goes without saying that I long to experience something like that. Possibly the best known, or at least my favorite, example of dream-to-paper creative success occurred in 1797, in England, when the Romantic poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge penned “Kubla Kahn,” that fantastical piece describing a legendary monarch’s “stately pleasure dome”—a palace he erected, by decree, within a mammoth, walled compound called “Xanadu,” located near:
Where Alph, the sacred river, ran
Through caverns measureless to man
Down to a sunless sea.
All told, “Kubla Khan” is a gorgeous, evocative piece: a poem that could easily stand on its own artistic merits. Yet it is rendered only more intriguing by the unlikely circumstances through which it came about. At the time, Coleridge happened to have been reading a pseudo-historical account of the palace and the Mongol emperor that built it, when, lulled by the effects of the opiate medicine he was taking, he fell into a dreamful sleep. He awoke sometime later in a feverish state of inspiration, and penned the first 54 lines of what he envisioned to be a much longer poetic narrative.
This is when fate, in the form of a local man making a business call, intervened. Coleridge received the man into his home and listened vacantly to his spiel, all the while wishing himself back at his writing table. But when he was finally free to return to it, he could not conjure the remaining lines. No doubt Coleridge considered the interruption a fatal disappointment, and the poem fragment an utter failure, because he did not consent to having it published until 1816. But, as so many lovers of verse have concluded in the two centuries since it came out, the work is as good as complete just as it is. In fact, it could be argued that the final lines provide adequate, and poetic, closure to the narrator’s ode:
And all who heard should see them there,
And all should cry, Beware! Beware!
His flashing eyes, his floating hair!
Weave a circle round him thrice,
And close your eyes with holy dread,
For he on honey-dew hath fed,
And drunk the milk of Paradise.
Of course, the story of Coleridge’s poem does not simply serve readers. It stands as an encouraging example to modern-day purveyors of the written word, no matter what genre or mode of expression we might employ. Of course, realistically, we will likely encounter far more “flaming globes of Sigmund” moments than “Kubla Kahn” flashes. But that is just how the writing life plays out; and, in fact, it is one of the characteristics of the life that makes our personal successes even more special. But if we endeavor to make use of (or in my case, reconsider) the inspirational opportunities inherent in dreams, that will be just one more craft tool we can add to our kit.
Now, isn’t it about time you took a nap?