Aside from the actual craft of writing, one of the best ways to improve your work (and generate more personal satisfaction and income as a result) is to harness the power of your dreams.
In this context, let’s use the word “dreams” to include those stories you tell yourself while you’re sleeping, of course, and also your waking daydreams, your fantasies about how life could or should or would be, plus those many “what if” scenarios you dream up in response to real life situations that strangers helpfully play out in front of you.
All of these ideas, scenes, set pieces, snippets, and snapshots may be sparked by external reality. But they nearly always feed off some of your innermost feelings, drives, and desires. As such, they are normally connected to strong emotions that, when woven into your writings, will tend to attract and captivate others much more powerfully than the relatively dry stuff that spills out from your comparatively cerebral creative processes.
It has often been said that if you are not crying while you are writing, you’re not doing it right. Starting with material from your dreams will make crying – and other high emotions – a more commonplace part of your writing process.
Here are some tips to help you harness the power of your dreams:
1. Keep Track of Your Dreams
The first step in harnessing the power of your dreams is to capture as much of this raw material as you can. This requires you to keep a “dream journal” in which, every morning on first awakening, you immediately note what you can remember of any dreams you’ve had during the night. At first, you might remember just a few disconnected snippets of your dreams. But as you continue with this practice, you’ll get better and better at remembering the details of what you dreamt the night before.
But don’t stop with nighttime dreams. Carry some kind of note-taking mechanism with you – scrap paper and pencil, a bound journal, your smart phone, a tape recorder, or anything else you can comfortably tote all the time – and use it frequently. Record random thoughts, complete ideas, simple stories you make up during the day, human interactions you witness, and any other fodder for writing that you encounter as you go about your daily business.
Don’t try to vet these items for quality, relevance, or any other virtue. Capture them all as they come to you. Later, you can decide whether a particular note has enough merit or potential to warrant further work.
2. Brainstorm On Your Dreams
You can think of dreams that pop into your head as “first generation” material, because it comes unbidden to your mind. But equally valuable is the “second generation” material you intentionally manufacture using your “first generation” material as starting points.
There are many rules to aid in brainstorming, the full range of which I won’t bother to discuss here. But I will cover just two: free writing, and pyramiding.
Free writing is a simple exercise designed to uncover lots of ideas that your native internal editor would normally try to keep hidden. It consists of starting with an item of first generation dream material and then writing whatever comes to mind, without stopping or thinking or editing, for 20 or 30 minutes at a time. If you have nothing to say, just write “I have nothing to say” over and over again until you do have something to say. The result of this free writing exercise is to “clear the pipes” and uncover subconscious material that often reveals additional thoughts, feelings, memories, and ideas tied in with your strong emotions.
Pyramiding is a more conscious process in which you start with an item of first generation dream material, then intentionally and logically build on it. Say you originally dreamt of an umbrella. You might pyramid on that idea by thinking of umbrella uses, such as shielding a person from rain or sun. You might think of other items that are reminiscent of or associated with umbrellas, such as awnings, tarps, tents, and porch roofs. If you start with an item of clothing, you might build to whole outfits or trending fashions. If you start with a snippet of human interaction, you might pyramid from there toward an entire play.
The discipline and practice of brainstorming applied to your first generation dream material is helpful because it produces further raw material on the basis of which you may later write something wonderful.
3. Refine Your Dream Material
Although your first and second generation dream material provides the valuable ore containing hints of golden promise, you extract the most value from this raw material when you refine it into ingots of first-rate creative expression.
To do this, sift through your dream material in search of nuggets, grains, or even flecks of worthwhile story material. Look for elements like a great line of dialog or description, a powerful conflict, a memorable character, a captivating visual, an exciting journey, an enthralling plot, or something better.
Collect and organize these as the basis for the most “writerly” part of this process:
4. Edit Your Dream Material Into Story Ideas
Here’s another place where we separate the “wannabes” from the professional writers. Anybody can think of a great line of dialog or an enthralling plot. It takes a professional to craft such elements into a complete idea for a story.
Take, for example, “Proof of Life.” It’s a compelling film based on a magazine article prompted by the actual practice of gaining freedom for hostages taken by terrorists. Lots of people knew about the practice; thousands more read the magazine article. The raw material was sitting out there in public view, just waiting for a professional writer to do the work necessary to wrangle the raw idea into a story.
Steps one through three, above, will regularly provide you with a treasure trove of raw dream material chock full of powerful elements from your own life, mind, and unconscious.
From that point on, you will have endless opportunities to use your writing chops to crank out a great story. Or more than one.
I’d love to hear your thoughts and feelings about all this in the comments below.