Dreaming of Writing

Sometimes I feel jealous of my unconscious mind. When I’m dreaming, storytelling comes so naturally, but when I wake up it feel difficult again.

After a sleep-deprived week of staying up late and waking up early to do homework, I finally got to sleep in today. I was unconscious for about nine or ten hours, but my night was full of vivid dreams.

I don’t know how other writers dream, but this is how it usually works for me: I dream like an omniscient narrator who is watching a story and composing it at the same time. I can hop from character to character. I can zoom into their bodies, so that their thoughts are my thoughts and I’m tasting, touching, and smelling the world they are. Or I can step out of their bodies and observe the action from the outside. I can pause the story or skip ahead to a new scene. Or, if I don’t like how the action played out, I can rewind a scene a scene and start it over.

(Here is an example: one time I dreamt of a character who was trapped in a corner surrounded by zombies. I was in that character’s viewpoint at the time and I decided the dream had gotten too scary, so I summoned Bruce Campbell to swing in on a chandelier Errol Flynn-style and rescue me. Then I watched Bruce Campbell swing the POV character to safety from the outside, over the clutching hands of all those zombies, while at the same having that visceral centrifugal force feeling of being in a swing. Then Bruce Campbell and I hopped onto a balcony—I was back in the POV character’s body again—and ran to safety.)

Last night I remember stepping out of a character and then pausing the story so I could take notes in my notebook. I remember the pressure of the pen between my fingers, and the paper beneath my palm, and the tidy cursive handwriting. I remember thinking, “I’m really on today. These are some great details.” Then I looked up and resumed the action of the dream.

When I woke up this morning I had this really satisfied feeling of having had a really good writing day, one where my brain has been firing on all cylinders, the details were crisp and specific, the characterization was really rich, the pacing was natural, and the plot really worked. Then I realized, several hours later, that I hadn’t written anything; it was all in my head. All of that fantastic stuff I’d written was gone, swept away by the morning light like sandcastles with the tide. (Curses!)

This isn’t the first time I’ve dreamt of writing. It happens all the time, especially if I’ve been writing a lot during the daytime. Even when I’m not writing in my dreams, the way I dream still has that same feeling of composition. It feels like I’m using the same muscles as when I’m actually writing…only everything is easier.

It’s at these times I feel really jealous of my dreaming self. When I’m awake I feel like I have to labor at aspects of craft: things like psychic distance, and dialog, and setting, and capturing the character’s visceral experience, are all so difficult. When I’m awake I can almost feel the sweat beading at my forehead as I try to find the right word, the right image, or the right sentence structure that will capture the rhythm I want to produce. Yet when I’m asleep it all comes so naturally. Everything is sharp and vivid and seems perfectly timed.

It makes me feel like my unconscious brain somehow got all the genius. My dream-self is the talented one and my conscious brain is just its idiot sibling.

But my conscious mind can do something my unconscious cannot: access the outside world. Nothing in my dreams can be shared or given. It’s like having a magic room where everything you make is incinerated once you leave. Maybe someday, with a lot of practice, my conscious mind won’t be so talentless. Maybe learning how to write is the process of learning how to dream while awake.

About E.S.O. Martin

E.S.O. Martin is a writer, a California native, and a graduate of SF State's Creative Writing MFA program.
This entry was posted in Writer's Notebook and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.