Friday, March 7, 2008

Our Dreams

A few years ago after my uncle’s funeral, I had a dream I still remember clearly. I was running, and breathlessly, I ended up in front of a beautiful brick house. The front lawn was filled with birdhouses—not those square boxes with a hole, but rather, beautiful scale models of Victorian homes with gingerbread trim. My cousin opened the door and ushered me in. Every time we tried to speak, someone new arrived and interrupted our conversation. Soon his living room was crowded with relatives, dead and alive.

For a long time I tried to figure out what this dream meant. Why would I be dreaming about this cousin? We had lost touch, seeing each other only at family funerals. Why were the dead relatives in his living room? And what was the urgent subject of the conversation we never finished? I looked for messages and warnings. Maybe I was supposed to call my cousin. Maybe the birdhouses symbolized something. I was grasping for a logical meaning. I never figured out what the dream was supposed to mean, if anything. Now I have a recurring dream about a white house. In some dreams it crashes into the ocean. I’m not going to drive myself crazy trying to figure out what that one means.

Dreams don’t have to mean anything. According to a therapist I know, she says dreams don’t mean anything unless they’re about your mother or umbrellas. I’m not sure if she was kidding. I bought a dream dictionary anyway. Instead of trying to find a logical meaning in our dreams, we should focus on the vivid images, the colors, the lights, the feeling that sticks in our gut when we wake up. Hone in on those images and jot them down.

In her book, Word Painting, Rebecca McClanahan suggests if we stop trying to figure out our dreams in order to "apply our conscious minds to the unconscious mind it is painting," we may begin to feel the power of the images. We can use those images in our own writing. Or you can use your dreams to help unblock your writing. Amy Tan would let her dreams help solve her story endings. Dreams may also be a source of story ideas. William Styron’s Sophie’s Choice was sparked by a dream. I used the actual dream I mentioned at the beginning in my short story, "Dead Relatives."

Keep a dream journal at your bedside. Record your dreams upon awakening, while they’re still fresh. Record as many details as you can remember—textures, colors, smells, sounds, lighting, and the feeling in your gut. Use your dream journal to record daydreams or other reverie. If you get into the habit of recording your dreams, you’ll probably remember them more and remember more details. After a week, review your journal. Are there any echoing themes or images? What images evoke strong negative or positive reactions? Freewrite about those. Can you use them in your other writing? Maybe an image fits into a short story you’re been working on. Or it is the ideal image with which you can start an article. It'’ possible to find a story idea in your dreams. Dreams lack the logical cause and effect sequence of fiction, but they can be seeds for stories. Or use them in stories, as I did.

Let’s go back to my recurring dream. In trying to figure out what it meant, I asked a lot of questions: Why were there dead relatives in the living room? What was the urgent subject of the conversation we never finished? Who made all the birdhouses? If I answer these questions, they could be bases for story conflicts. Pull out one of your dreams. Ask the five basic questions: Why? What? When? Where? How? Why? Then write possible answers for these questions. Remember, you’re not trying to interpret what the dream means. You’re brainstorming story ideas. If nothing comes to you at the moment, set it aside. An idea may come to you later, perhaps while you’re dreaming.

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