Dreaming for Freud

The internal conflicts

The Three Sources of All Stories.

Where do our stories come from ?

I would like to consider the source of stories. To simplify, one might say that they are three: the unconscious mind, literature, and life itself.


The romantics saw genius as receiving inspiration from some secret source which came to them willy nilly—the artist possessed, Chateaubriand walking on his windy cliff, hair flying, at Combourg. Here’s what Orhan Pamuk says in his lecture given when awarded the Nobel Prize : “If I think back on the books to which I have devoted my life, I am most surprised by those moments when I felt as if the sentences and pages that made me ecstatically happy came not from my own imagination but from another power, which had found them and generously presented them to me. “


Many of our stories come from precedent works that we have absorbed. Literature provides a sort of intermediary space, one that Winnicott might call the transitional zone. It enables us to step back from our own story and to see it through the eyes of another. Ironically, our own voice can probably only be found in a dialogue with others. Literature, of course, teaches us how to structure a story. One needs to condense and select, to choose perhaps the three unities suggested by Aristotle: unities of time, place, and dramatic action.

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We have to read the great writers and have the courage and hopefulness to believe we can take a step further along the path they have trodden. To ignore their path is to get lost in the wilderness.


I would like to suggest that many stories come out of a trauma of some kind. In my own case, my sister was killed in a car accident much like the one described in a book called “Crossways” but I have written of this event in many different forms and in many different books and much of the material in my work draws on real details from my life or the lives of others.

At the heart of much of my work lies the simple desire to bring my sister back to life, to eulogize and perhaps idealize.

I suspect that much of our writing comes simply from a need to repeat and transform the traumatic experiences of life from passive ones into active ones.

I would like to stress here the active part of our work as writers, the transformation of bare facts: the truth, if you will,  or the remembered truth into a work of art, which attempts to reach the reader through the restructuring of real events.

Freud, of course, has talked about this in “Beyond the Pleasure Principle” as an “urge inherent in all organic life to restore an earlier state of things.” He suggests that we repeat traumatic events in order to take control of them, reverse them as in the fort/da game played by his grandson making the mother go away and come back again.

The act of writing a novel or short story or perhaps even an essay like this one enables us to restructure material, taking chaotic, fragmentary, and often senseless acts or thoughts and making something orderly, understandable, and conclusive, or ones that give the impression of order and logic in a chaotic world.


Sheila Kohler is the author of many books including the recent Dreaming for Freud.

 Becoming Jane Eyre: A Novel (Penguin Original)by Sheila KohlerPenguin Booksbuy now


Dreaming for Freud: A Novelby Sheila KohlerPenguin Booksbuy now 



Sheila Kohler teaches at Princeton. She is the author of many books including Dreaming for Freud, Becoming Jane Eyre, and Cracks, which was made into a film with Eva Green.


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