A modern writer's tools

Who among us has not thought at one time or another that they have a great story to tell? Maybe it's something that happened to us or to someone else in our lives. Maybe it's something we just made up. Whether or not we ever put pen to paper, that story may be no more than the stuff of dreams-literally. For as novelist John Barth once said, "there is a kind of work involved in the making a dream which is not dissimilar to the making a story..." (Epel, 53).

In our last post, we took a look at scientists who engaged in purposeful dreaming by reviewing unsolved problems and concerns just before going to bed. In many (though certainly not all) cases, luck favored the prepared-and sleeping- mind with inspirational images and ideas. Many writers have prepped for resolution of narrative conundrums in much the same way and with similar results. While writing her comic murder mysteries, Sue Grafton regularly appeals to the muse of her unconscious mind. So does novelist Amy Tan. "Sometimes, if I'm stuck on the ending of a story, I'll just take the story with me to bed," Tan has said. "I'll let it become part of a dream and see if something surfaces." In The Joy Luck Club, for instance, one of Tan's characters had to get out of an arranged marriage without breaking her promise. For some time the story problem seemed all but insurmountable to Tan, until she took it to bed and "dreamed an ending that turned out to be quite workable and funny" (Epel, 285).

Even when they have no compositional problem in mind, writers also look to dreams for narrative ideas, emotions and other inspirations that may sometime come in handy. "If something is interesting to me in a dream," Tan has said, "I'll tell myself, Pay attention and take a closer look..." (Epel, 286). Sometimes that closer look can reveal the solution to a narrative conundrum, as it certainly did for Tan. Sometimes it reveals an experience or an emotional state of relevance to the writing. Poet and novelist Maya Angelou has observed that dreams can take writers into situations where they wouldn't go in real life-and thus lend authenticity to their fictions. And Grafton finds that dreams keep her connected with strong feelings she doesn't personally experience but must recreate for her characters.

Sophie's Choice by William Styron, book cover

Finally, a closer look at dreams can deliver those defining images that serve as the very focal point of poem, story or novel. William Styron has said that his novel, Sophie's Choice, was the product of a dream or rather a "lingering vision" he woke to one morning of a beautiful young women, a book in one arm and a tattoo visible on the other. Styron found that vision so compelling that he "was seized by this absolute sense of necessity-I had to write the book" that would make it and all the narrative elements it implied come alive. In the dream image, he "had the various germs of the story just at my fingertips." The "whole concept of the book was, if not the product of a dream itself, the product of some resonance that a dream had given me" (Epel, 273).

Dreams can be such a rich source of fictional material that many writers actually train themselves to dream-and not just while asleep. As Stephen King, preeminent author of horror fiction, has put it, "Part of my function as a writer is to dream awake" (Epel, 141). And just as is the case with night dreaming, day dreaming can be purposefully primed. In fact, this is how King explains the ritual-like behaviors that he and other writers perform before settling down to work. Some writers may sharpen all their pencils and arrange them just so; others may brew a special tea or pour their coffee into a lucky mug; nearly all sit down at the same desk at the same time each day. King believes these and other rituals prepare for the dreaming state: "The cumulative purpose of doing those things the same way every day seems to be a way of saying to the mind: you're going to be dreaming soon" (Epel, 142).

Why should writers want to dream their way through work? For many, the answer lies in the similarity they perceive between night or day dreaming and the creative processes of writing. As Barth would have it, writing is a "kind of dreaming" that draws on hunches, feelings, and intuitions to assemble the various elements of a story (Epel, 44).

However an actual dream gets put together (and cognitive scientists are still probing that question), we tend to interpret the often random sequence of images and actions in terms of narrative. The dream tells a story. The links between cause and effect may be ‘logical', but far more often they reflect non-logical associations. The airplane turns into a bird, for instance, an ark sails through a rainbow, or the anxious traveler forgets his clothes.

By placing themselves in or close to a dream state while composing, writers try to capture some of that associational thinking in a directed way, in the hope that analogies, verbal puns, and emotional metaphors will open up the development of character, narrative line and figurative exposition. Then, too, we speculate that, neurologically speaking, the working dream may be like other positive and playful brain states that allow unusual connections and other insights to surface in the mind (Carey). What we do know, is that purposeful dreaming generates possibilities that may be spontaneously exploited in the writing.

There is also the notion, as expressed by novelist Charles Johnson among others, that the writer's business is to "creat[e] a dream for the reader" (Epel, 128). And for the work of fiction to read like a "vivid and continuous dream" (in the words of novelist John Gardner) it helps to have been written as one, as an imaginatively lived experience.

So, writing fiction is as easy as dreaming, right? Wrong. Whether night dream or daydream, there is always more to literary composition. According to novelist Allan Garganus, it's a mistake to say that the writer goes into a dream state and comes out with a novel. Dreams aid in the generation of material, yet there is still need for the narrative selection and aesthetic judgment of a fully awake mind. Writers must learn to trust and also test their dream inspirations. Johnson once wrote up a story right after dreaming, "but it was so surrealistic that I couldn't understand it...I couldn't publish it..." Ultimately, he realized, "it was for my own benefit" (Epel, 121).

And so are the many other images, ideas and story lines that never make it into manuscript. Purposeful dreaming is a chancy thing. The poet Jack Prelutsky keeps paper and pencil by his bedside and wakes up almost every night to write something down. "Sometimes you dream that you've found a cure for cancer or something and you think it's brilliant and, of course, you wake up and it's crap, garbage. There's nothing there. But about a third of the time there's a very good idea there ... you never know" (Epel, 196).

A dream journal can stimulate the writer's work.

The dream world offers the observant writer a plethora of literary material that can complement and expand real world experience. Of course, not all writers depend on dreams for narrative inspiration, but for many it is a creative strategy that works. In fact, it can work for us all, even if we don't really have a professional purpose in mind. As the novelist Reynolds Price has said, even people who don't write poetry, or choreograph dance or paint pictures do, "every night when they're asleep, construct works of art in their heads" (Epel, 202). In dreaming night and day, purposeful or not, we get a taste of the image making, narrative construction and problem solving that is the everyday work of writers, artists and other makers. We may even get an idea for a great story we just have to tell.

© 2010 Michele and Robert Root-Bernstein


Benedict Carey. (December 7, 2010). Tracing the Spark of Creative Problem-Solving. The New York Times, D2.

Naomi Epel. 1993. Writers Dreaming, Twenty-Six Writers Talk About Their Dreams and the Creative Process. New York: Vintage Books.

About the Author

Michele and Robert Root-Bernstein

Robert and Michele Root-Bernstein are co-authors of Sparks of Genius, The 13 Thinking Tools of the World's Most Creative People.

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