“Everything in a dream is more deep and strong and sharp and real than is ever its pale imitation in the unreal life which is ours when we go about awake. When we die we shall slough off this cheap intellect, perhaps, and go abroad into Dreamland clothed in our real selves, and enriched by the command over the mysterious mental magician who is here not our slave, but only our guest.” — Mark Twain
And why do you suppose dreams have that vividness, that strength, that intensity? Here’s my theory: I would contend that in dreams, we are not limited to what the five senses perceive. Things in dreams have shapes, sounds — and probably smells, tastes, and feels, too, though I must confess I can’t remember perceiving any of those latter three in dreams — but they also have emotional values. In essence, emotion in dreams becomes another sense for us — a sixth sense. In the dream, something may look like a door, for instance, but we know we’re afraid of it. Or something may look like a tree gilded by a summer sun — a tree we’ve never seen before — but we know in the dream that we like it. It fills us with joy, wonder, or excitement.
As writers, we’re usually searching for emotional truths and striving to express them. We’re often delving into our memories as into an old attic trunk, rummaging through the curious contents for things that will be of great use to us in the stories we want to tell. The older a memory is, the more dream-like it becomes, for it takes on an increasingly greater emotional value. To survive in our minds, I think, memories must have an emotional imprint.
Reportedly, the poem “Kubla Khan” came to Samuel Taylor Coleridge in a dream. I don’t recall that I’ve ever turned a dream into a fiction story, but it seems to me that my dreaming mind does with ease what my waking mind strives to do when I write. My dreams often have fascinating premises, intriguing conversations, suspense, drama, mystery, conflict, and resolution; but best of all, they appeal to my emotions, and they sweep me into the world of their internal realities. When they’re nightmarish, I pass through them in frustration, dread, or mortal terror and awake in a cold sweat; when they’re at their best, I don’t want to leave them.
Isn’t that exactly what we’re attempting to do with the stories we write? Aren’t those the effects we’re trying to produce? There may be something we can learn from dreams, some things our subconscious may teach us through them. At times I find a dream so intriguing, so emotionally powerful, that I write down as much about it as I can after I wake up; I record the dream itself and how I felt about each element. One trick for remembering dreams: try to recall them before you say your first words in the morning. I’ve read that the act of speaking catapults us into full wakefulness. Before we speak, we’re still standing knee-deep in the shallows of the dream lake.
Look back over your shoulder at the ripples, at the fantastic shapes rocking in the mists. Their emotional connections may serve you well in your writing.
Here’s a poem I wrote back in my college days:
As I lay one night
In a troubled dream
I saw a man, a stranger,
From faraway lands where the
From the Sleeping Land,
Where the Green Men dream.
We passed in the mist of the
Moon’s pale beam;
I was the stranger,
And it was his dream.
And finally, here’s Twain again:
“The dream vocabulary shaves meanings finer and closer than do the world’s daytime dictionaries.” — Mark Twain