Your Dreams Can Improve Your Writing

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I love the idea of dream logic – how dreams can go, and how even though they’re very abstract, you can understand them.

– David Lynch from Thomas Caldwell’s ‘Living Inside a Dream: The Art and Films of David Lynch

Despite all the insight modern science has given us, it still hasn’t solved the mystery of dreams. The field of neuroscience is unlocking secrets of the brain every day, but it hasn’t yet cracked the code to explain why or how we dream. But we do know some things. According to Forbes’ 2016 article ‘Why Do We Dream? Recent Developments In Neuroscience May Have The Answer’, “the brain is trying to interlink our experiences of the world with our emotional drives… dreams may reveal the underlying structure of the motivational forces driving our life strategy and choices.”

Dreams can be a source of raw inspiration for authors.Click To Tweet

Isn’t that what David Lynch means by dream logic? Dreams can be so surreal, full of startling, confusing, and inspiring imagery, events, even conversations. Yet humans have been compelled to record and analyze them for centuries, because they offer us a window to the human psyche. In dreams, we find insight often suppressed by the busyness of our waking life. This logic of dreams can be a goldmine for authors. Here’s how you can use your dreams as a source of inspiration for your writing.

Finding a window to the unconscious

For centuries, poets, artists, and scientists have looked to dreams as a window on the unconscious mind. Freud championed that idea, and neuroscientist David Eagleman agrees.

Dreams are like fissures or crevasses in this iceberg [of the mind] down which we can descend to a kind of shimmering, chaotic Antarctic landscape of beautiful and bizarre shards and sculptures. A rich landscape of wishes, nightmares, puzzles and adventures.

– David Eagleman, Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain

Stephen King and Mary Shelley, Coleridge, Kafka, and Blanchot. These are only a sampling of famous authors who have turned to dreams for inspiration and insight. Our dreams offer a space where the constraints of our daily routines, societal expectations, and everyday pressures are removed, the dream world offers us an unfettered look at our desires, motives, fears, and truest beliefs.

Sifting through the data

This might sound good in theory, but how does it actually work? What if you feel you don’t dream very often? Or what if you rarely remember your dreams? Well, don’t discount yourself yet.

The brain is amazingly malleable. By dedicating yourself to a series of practices, you can tap into your dreams in surprising ways. Here are two simple activities to get you started:

1. Keep a dream journal

Simply keep a pad of paper and a pen by your bed and write down your dreams immediately upon waking. Don’t wait. Don’t get up for a glass of water. Before you do anything else, write down the events of the dream, your feelings in the dream world, images and other impressions, and any immediate interpretations. You don’t have to analyze the dream in the middle of the night, but you want to record the details before you go back to sleep or get up for the day.

The key here is to thoroughly distrust your future self – dreams usually begin fading immediately, even when they’re so vivid that we’re sure we’ll remember them later. Don’t be like Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who found himself unable to finish Kubla Khan because he was accosted by the infamous ‘person from Porlock’.

On awakening he appeared to himself to have a distinct recollection of the whole, and taking his pen, ink, and paper, instantly and eagerly wrote down the lines that are here preserved. At this moment he was unfortunately called out by a person on business from Porlock, and detained by him above an hour, and on his return to his room, found, to his no small surprise and mortification, that though he still retained some vague and dim recollection of the general purport of the vision, yet, with the exception of some eight or ten scattered lines and images, all the rest had passed away like the images on the surface of a stream into which a stone has been cast, but, alas! without the after restoration of the latter!

– Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Christabel: Kubla Khan, a Vision; The Pains of Sleep

Try it out, even if you think you don’t dream or don’t remember your dreams. You might be surprised that doing this once will train your brain to do it again. Over time the activity easily becomes habit.

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2. Take up daydreaming

Author, filmmaker, musician, artist, and actor David Lynch admits that many of his ideas come from daydreaming. He describes sitting in a chair and letting his mind drift into ‘daytime dreaming’, as he calls it. Lynch’s daydreaming has an element of meditation to it – a deliberate practice of allowing the subconscious the freedom to inspire.

If you’re prone to lapsing into daydreaming, this won’t be too challenging for you. But if you keep a busy daytime schedule, you might have to block out time for this activity. Here are just a few ways you might go about this:

  • Practice daydreaming while you work on mindless chores,
  • Create a block of time dedicated only to daydreaming and taking notes,
  • Cultivate daydreaming while you exercise.

Journaling and daydreaming are fairly easy to incorporate into your daily schedule. If you find this works for you, take it a step further. There are more advanced techniques you can explore online, and there are many books available on the subject. In the scope of this article, we’ll look at one more practice to take you deeper: lucid dreaming.

Going deeper into dreams

You may have heard the term ‘lucid dreaming’, but have you ever researched it or tried it for yourself?

Lucid dreaming is simply the ability to recognize that you are dreaming. Once you cultivate this ability, you can control your behavior and choices inside the dream world.

You can foster this skill by focusing on your environment and awareness during your waking hours. Lucid dream researcher Beverly D’Urso explains, “mental habits you practice during the day tend to continue in dreams.” So, learning to lucid dream starts with being more intentional, with becoming more aware and centered in the present moment. As you dream and you notice oddities in the environment, that’s your cue to recognize that you’re dreaming. Voila! You’re lucid dreaming.

Lucid dreaming allows authors to plumb the depths of their subconscious.Click To Tweet

The most common method that lucid dreamers recommend is developing a habit of checking your watch regularly during the day. Once this becomes second nature, it can be carried over to dreaming, where time is expressed oddly, and the cue of the behavior can prompt you to become lucid. Of course, it’s more complex than that – the repeated behavior is a way of concentrating on becoming lucid later – but it’s an approach that many swear by.

D’Urso describes many benefits to the practice, too. Because it requires greater focus and intention, it cultivates increased self-awareness and spiritual growth in many aspects of life. This can be especially beneficial for you as a writer, allowing you greater insight into both real and fictional worlds.

What a powerful tool! This one simple practice can simultaneously jump-start your imagination and fuel long-term growth in your writing craft. Dreaming doesn’t just dredge up fresh ideas, it offers new angles from which to approach the themes and concepts of your writing. Remember, though, that dreams are personal. They offer new tools to apply to your writing, but it’s rarely advisable to present them directly to a reader. Curate what your dreams give you, just as you would any other source of inspiration.

I dreamed a dream

There is a wealth of possibility available inside your own mind if you can tap into the wisdom of your dreams. Start as simply as keeping a dream journal or go as deep as learning to lucid dream. Whatever you do, I hope you’ll take advantage of this powerful tool available to you inside your own mind. I think writer and teacher Ardashir Vakil says it best: “We should plough, water, replenish and harvest our dreams as a way of adding crucial components to our imagination and helping our creativity flourish.”

What role does dreaming play in your writing craft? Can you share another technique for harnessing your dreams in your work? I’d love to hear about a time your dreams directly inspired your writing. Tell me about it in the comments. Or, for more great advice on this subject, check out Want To Disturb Your Readers? Mastering The Uncanny Is The Answer and Why More Authors Should Harness The Power Of Conceit.


11 thoughts on “Your Dreams Can Improve Your Writing”

  1. Thanks for your thought-provoking article, Paige.

    Freud called dreams “the royal road to the unconscious” and I’m sure mountains of studies have been published along this line.

    My question is, does this lead to creativity? I’m sure it does for many. It does not for me. My dreams are boring.

    But I do believe that there is a muse who speaks to us. A muse is “a person or personified force who is the source of inspiration for a creative artist.” There is a plaque in the Tuileries Garden in Paris that shows the Muse lifting a cover (blindfold) from an artist’s eyes. This metaphor applies to me because as I write my stories, I often wonder “Who wrote this? Oh, my Muse. did” 😉

    1. A great tool for me is to set an alarm to wake me after being asleep a few minutes. All the secrets are surfacing as I delve deeper into dreams and can catch them in my net by verbally describing the events over and over a few times.

      1. Hi Santiago,

        I love this idea! I’d never considered waking on purpose to take notes. Thanks for sharing.


    2. Hi Jim,

      Thanks for your comment! I agree that not every writer will find inspiration in dreams. I do want to encourage writers to try, though, as the ability to remember and affect one’s dreams can sometimes be developed over time.

      I love your insight about the muse. I completely agree, and I think the artist-muse relationship is so unique and rewarding.


  2. Pilgrims Progress was a dream John Bunyan had that turned into a full-length novel hundreds of years ago. I can definitely use my dreams as ideas because my dreams tend to have mystery and villains in them.

    1. Hi Parker,

      Great point about Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress. Dreams that are rich in unconventional images, ideas, and characters make for such great inspiration, don’t they?

      Thanks for commenting!

  3. I dreamed an entire short story once. I wasn’t even in the dream! Possibly I was half-awake? Anyway, I wrote it down and its one of my favourite creations. Thanks for the article.

  4. Francis Cadigan

    Hey there Paige,

    I’ve been trying to get into lucid dreaming for over a year now and it hasn’t quite worked out but I’m not giving up.

    What I’m missing in this article is some advice on how to apply your inspiration to your dream. Or to be more precise: what can you do in your dream to get good results for your writing?

    Do I focus on a scene or a setting I want to explore before going to bed and try to recreate it? Do I try to talk to characters from my book?

    1. Hi Francis,

      Hope you find success soon with lucid dreaming!

      Great questions! I like the ideas you’ve mentioned–trying to talk to characters or to re-create a specific scene in your dreams. In reading about dreams, inspiration, and lucid dreaming, I didn’t encounter anything similar to what you’re suggesting. I’d be curious to know if this is even possible, beyond what we know of lucid dreaming. Part of the allure of dreams, after all, is that they’re unpredictable and they unlock parts of our mind hidden to us during waking hours. In short, dreams often have a mind of their own–no pun intended.

      Maybe your best chance for directing your dreams is to prime your mind before sleep. Tell your mind repeatedly what you’d like to dream about, maybe read a scene or journal about it right before sleep. I did find one article that went into more depth about lucid dreaming. Though it’s about trying to dream of a real-life person, I think the tips would apply nicely to a fictional person or scene. You can read it here:

      Let me know if you have success with this or another technique!


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