The Intensity of Dreams

“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,

   it seemed,

From faraway lands where the

   goblins dream,

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


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6 Responses to “The Intensity of Dreams”

  1. Eunice Says:

    For me, dreams reveal the beauty of the familiar with luminous intensity. They show uncomfortable realities about myself or about a situation that I can’t or won’t see in my waking hours. And occasionally, they bring back a vivid memory that I’ve forgotten in wakefulness, that in fact did not ever exist in wakefulness–or did it?

  2. Baron_threadkil Says:

    Normally my dreams have the storyline coherence of “Naked Lunch” by Wm Burroughs, but if I’m lucky sometimes they are more along the lines of “Pi” (the movie). But last night I had the most linear and fascinating dream I’ve had in a while.

    It was very much like watching a movie, only I was “living” it complete with the feelings etc. In it a thermonuclear bomb had been detonated in Los Angeles and for whatever reason we in San Diego were being directly and roughly impacted with a pitch black sky and a rain of “snow-like” fallout. I was at work and just wandering around looking at the black sky realizing we were all likely going to die, but still somewhat fascinated by the scene. In the movie and watching the movie.

    It was strangely “linear” for my dreams and followed a standard sort of sequence of events. I think I finally had my first “made for TV dream”. Hopefully it isn’t a miniseries.

    This was, sadly, all too predictable though, since it was on the evening of a day when massive “re-orgs” were announced at work and the threat of layoffs is being whispered about. So it was an almost “textbook” psychological tie-in. It was more like a story written by a bad author who just discovered the joys of “symbolism”.

    Geez, my dream writing staff has been outsourced to LA screenwriter hacks. That sucks.

  3. I loved MADDOG's sassafrass tea Says:

    I have always believed that those already gifted and working in “the arts” (literature, cinema, whatever) are far more inclined to remember their dreams. It is just how their brain works.
    A good joint will do you just as good,or so I have been led to believe 😉
    I envy those who so easily recall their dreams, as I rarely recollect my own. When I do they are usually so illogical and unlikely as to be unworthy of further consideration.
    However, I did have a dream once in which I saw a girl I knew have an automobile accident, an event I “knew” had to be in the future. I was so moved I called her and told her the next time she was going to a certain place not to take the road I saw her on. She actually took my advice, and … nothing happened. Does that mean contacting her and convincing her to drive a different route saved her? Or that it was all foolishness?
    Amazingly, we are still friends …

  4. Catherine Says:

    Emotions in dreams…yes, I’ve noticed that. Like finding myself in a woods that I have never been in before–but I know it’s my secret place, and that I love it and that I always come there when I’m upset; to find peace, I suppose.

    I had a dream like that and there were people in the woods that I began to develop relationships with, and I understood their quirks like I would real people; and we worked together to patch up the environment…after I woke up I filled in some of the details and tried to write it into a story…it made no sense, but I still remember that wood so clearly and there are times I wish I could meet the people I dreamed about.

  5. Ozment Says:

    The dream’s infusion of powerful emotion into an object or scene that is, in itself, mundane or banal: Yes. For me the object that springs to mind is a bedroom window. An ordinary window, with its contemporary Venetian blinds, looking out over an ordinary shrub onto an innocously small, ordinary back yard–in dreams that recurred throughout my childhood, that window was transformed into a nightmare portal, a source of supreme dread. The awful fright was not the window itself, or what might come through it, but simply what I might see through it. I note with fascination that in these feverish night terrors, I never actually SAW anything through the window, anything at all. The terror, the intolerable suspense, was often invoked by the simple act of trying to close the blinds lest I glimpse whatever might be in the yard beyond, or lest something looking in should see me. The horror framed by, embodied in, that window…if I could convey just a hint of that in my stories, my grasping attempts at evoking frisson… But I have never seen it done, though I sometimes recognize the attempt. On film, David Lynch has come closest.

  6. Carlos Says:

    Should I say dream or dreams? If I say dream I talking about a paticular dream. If I say dreams, it means many dreams, obviously. I just want to say, dream or dreams is or are the window or windows to another dimesion.

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