Harnessing Your Dreams in Writing
Updated: Jan 14
I’ve had a recurring nightmare since I was in kindergarten. The dream is inextricably linked to a trip my Brownie troop took. I don’t remember the details of the trip, but I know we took a guided nature walk through the woods in Western Massachusetts, where I was born.
The nightmare, however, is still vivid and fresh in my mind:
I’m hiding in a chest at the foot of the bed in the bedroom of a small house. The house is old and looks like something from “once upon a time” — wide plank, bare wood floors, wooden furniture, woven rugs and blankets, a fireplace instead of an oven, a large black kettle, a cape on the back of the door, and so on.
The house is small with only three rooms — the main room, the kitchen, and the bedroom — and it’s located in the woods from my Brownie trip, though unlike during my Brownie trip there are no other houses are around. This is “once upon a time,” after all — a time before streets and suburbs existed.
From inside the chest, I can see out through a crack in the wooden sides and I can hear the old woman, who I think may be a witch (though I’m not sure, and I wonder if she is a wise plant lady, like the nature guide from my Brownie trip), calling to me from another room in a singsong way. At the same time, I can see her face clearly in my mind and I know she can see me in the same way.
My heart starts to pound. She knows where I am.
I want to get out of the chest and flee, but I cannot move. Not paralyzed exactly, but I know that if I open the chest, she will win.
Her voice gets louder as she gets closer, and then she’s in the room. She’s smiling a knowing, joy-filled smile, and I can see black lines where rot has formed between her teeth. Her eyes travel all over the room, never looking at the chest where I am struggling to control my breathing, but she is looking right at me all the same.
The witch wears a black dress and black shoes, her hair is white and wispy, and she has spots from the sun and deep creases on her face. Her eyes are blue.
She tells me to come out, that she knows I’m here as she circles the area in front of the bed slowly, looking in drawers in the wooden dressers and cabinets. She walks out of view and up the side of the bed, and her voice drifts off, becoming more distant.
It is quiet for a few seconds, and I manage a breath when suddenly a large, bulging blue eye fills the crack I’m looking through and she says my name.
And then I wake up.
I’ve had this dream more times than I can count, though the frequency has dropped off as I’ve aged. I always wake up dripping with sweat. And I always have the sense that there is someone else in the room as soon as I open my eyes. When I was little, I’d pull my teddy bear, a well-loved brown bear with a dangling string mouth, close and yank the covers over my head. Now I move closer to my husband.
I could spend hours analyzing this dream. Or I could use it and pieces when I write creatively.
I choose the latter.
I may use the dream (or parts of it) someday in a finished product, like a novel or short story. We’ll see. But I have and will continue to use it and parts of it in my writing practice.
I think using parts of dreams (especially if they keep coming back!) is a like a dream catcher - a way to use what might otherwise seem like useless material floating around and around in your mind. It's also an easy and accessible writing "prompt' whenever you're stuck.
All you have to do is note a few key elements of your dream or dreams, then incorporate these elements into whatever you write during your practice session or when you sit down to journal. It can be a scene, a character sketch, a setting description, a poem, a memoir... anything goes.
To help you get writing, try using elements of your next dream to create a "copy cat" poem based on Carl Sandburg's "Theme in Yellow."*
Why this poem? Well, a few years ago I had a strange dream, and it somehow triggered the memory of the poem, which I'd read long ago. In fact, I didn't even remember the poem properly. I just knew when I woke up that I'd read a poem about yellow and pumpkins and Halloween. After finding it, I decided to use elements from my dream in my own version. I'll copy it under the original below.
“Theme in Yellow” by Carl Sandburg
I spot the hills
With yellow balls in autumn.
I light the prairie cornfields
Orange and tawny gold clusters
And I am called pumpkins.
On the last of October
When dusk is fallen
Children join hands
And circle round me
Singing ghost songs
And love to the harvest moon;
I am a jack-o'-lantern
With terrible teeth
And the children know
I am fooling.
And here's the excerpt from my practice notebook:
June 8, 2017
I had the craziest dream last night, and it reminded me somehow of this poem I read years ago about yellow. So I looked for it and found out it’s a Carl Sandburg poem - Theme in Yellow. I need to try something with the dream, so I’m “copying” Sandburg’s piece here but changing it based on my dream.
“Death Dances in Blue”
After “Theme in Yellow” by Carl Sandburg
I see the sky at dusk
the blue streaked with gray and purple light.
I drift across and over the glassy lake
silver and cobalt and ebony and dotted with stars
and I am called Death.
When night falls and the owls cry,
the children dream in their beds
and mothers pray to keep me at bay
while others pray for me to take them away
offering love songs to the midnight sky.
I am both feared and awed
and with trembling aquamarine arms
I dance everyone home.
So, not the best poem... but in my dream I had this sense of Death as a blue “something” drifting and dancing. It wasn’t scary. It was like I was watching someone work who loved their job when people begged for relief from pain and suffering or when their time was at hand, but also who knew their duty even when it was difficult, even when they didn’t love it. In my dream, Death was a blue dance, in all senses of the word. Sad, calm, peaceful. Now I can tell myself I did something with the crazy dream and move on!
Next time you have a dream, write down a few key elements when you wake up and try the copy cat exercise! It may lead to something, it may not, but if nothing else, it's fun!
And if it feels right to use the elements in something other than writing, try using them in whatever creative activity you choose.
*The Carl Sandburg poem is in the public domain. I retrieved it from https://poets.org/anthology/poems-your-poetry-project-public-domain where you can find many other poems to use!