Fuel from the unconscious ~ why dreaming is vital to me as a writer

Fuel from the unconscious ~ why dreaming is vital to me as a writer

One of the other less obvious effects of insomnia for me is the absence of dreams. I simply don’t seem to dream “properly” when I am suffering with sleep problems. Some people never remember their dreams but I’ve trained myself to recapture the key images and experiences of a dream and mull them over during the day. If I can, I write them down. I have notebooks with scribbled dreams dating back years and some dreams from childhood still haunt me. I work over old dreams, aiming at uncovering information from deep inside my psyche. I’ve been trying to do a lot more of this yet lately it has been rare for me to dream and remember more than a few tattered fragments the next day.

The sheer tiredness has meant I’ve not been able to do much creative writing at all, and no less than three novels are sitting on my hard-drive in varying stages of completion. There are other reasons why my creative drive seems to have gone AWOL but I’m not going to focus on those now because once I get sucked into that particular nightmare, it scuppers all reasonable thought.

Without the input of my dreams, I feel as if I am writing blindly, without any inner vision to carry me forward. It’s a nasty feeling, like driving with your eyes half shut and I find that those who advocate just forcing yourself to write when feeling blocked perhaps are asking(of me at least) something impossible and undesirable.

It’s the inner vision that carries any artist forward in their work, that shining thread of something that drives the work forward. I have little drive without the impetus that dreams bring me.

I’d like to share two passages from Away With The Fairies. Both illustrate scenes I experienced in dreams and was unable to forget in the light of day. They also show the power of the unconscious working its way to the surface and to consciousness in the mind and life of an artist. Isobel has suffered two serious bereavements and has failed to express her own grief; the paintings she produces are to some extent extensions of her inner workings to try and embrace death and dying.

From p74:

Can I see what you did today?” he asked, eagerly and silently Isobel unwrapped the board and held it up for him to inspect.

He was silent long enough for her to become uneasy.

Don’t you like it?” she asked.

I’m not sure I understand it enough to like or dislike,” he said, thoughtfully. “It’s amazing but you must admit it is a bit, well, disturbing.”

She shrugged, and said nothing.

Well, it is,” he said defensively. “I mean, have you had a proper look at it?”

What do you mean, have I had a look at it? I painted the bloody thing, I’ve been looking at it all day,” she said crossly.

Have a good long look at it now,” Mickey said. “Now you’ve had a bit of time to detach from it. Look at the shape of the mound and the way you’ve got the interior showing as well as the exterior. What does it look like now?”

Isobel stared at the painting for some minutes, blankly, until with a reeling sense of shock that she had not seen it before, she finally saw what Mickey was trying to show her. Even though it hadn’t been at all what she’d painted, she could see now that the entrance to the tunnel and the shadowy depiction of the cavern inside had the look of great hollow eye sockets, and the bare pale frost covered surface of the mound had the look of ancient bone, weathered and scarred by time. With growing horror, Isobel saw that what she had painted had the look of a skull, an ancient flensed head, crowned with monstrous trees that writhed and wriggled their roots down into the skull like burrowing maggots or worms.               

From Page 143

Loneliness and isolation were both swept away once she set up her easel and began to work. She was drawn into her own visions and only when she was in actual pain from cramped muscles and complaining bladder did she stop to rest and look at what she’d done.

Standing on the mound, surrounded by the smooth boles of the beech trees, was a stag, fine and strong and unafraid, the shape of its antlers echoing the barely seen branches above. The ground at its feet looked more like skin than earth, and in places it seemed to have ripped or cracked open, the crevices showing what lay beneath the surface. Closest to the surface the cracks showed heaps of carcasses of deer, piled up and rotting, some newly dead, others in advanced decomposition. As the eye was drawn down to deeper layers, the cracks showed bones and skulls, the antlers still attached and as the very deepest layers were revealed, the bones were crushed, by time perhaps or by simple weight of the corpses above, till at the very bottom, only bone powder remained that blew out of the crevices in clouds like the smoky vapour from an autumn puffball. Above it all, the stag stood proud and alive, and unaware or uncaring of the horrors below it.

Bloody hell,” breathed Isobel when she saw what she had produced. She had been so absorbed by the work that she had been unable to see the whole, the complete picture till now. Obviously she had seen it but she had not taken it in, had not registered the finished images.

Now Isobel is in some ways a powerful alter ego of mine, and a character I identify with strongly; tying my night time visions into her experiences was very natural process of letting my unconscious mind direct my conscious one. Words flowed like spring water, easy and a plot unfolded without having to stretch and strain at contriving one.

Without this resource I am pretty much a hack writer, good with words maybe but useless at reaching anything deeper. And without that deeper expression, there is little point in me writing until that returns or is proclaimed missing presumed dead.

I’m not giving up hope yet. I’ve been taking a supplement called 5htp and it seems to have been helping me sleep a little better and even dream too. If I can get decent sleep, then maybe my dreaming will return. 

10 thoughts on “Fuel from the unconscious ~ why dreaming is vital to me as a writer

  1. I loved the extracts from your novel; your writing is very good indeed. I can see how images from the unconscious are playing in to your writing. Keep going, and get those 3 novels, completed and edited and out to publication!


    • Thank you so much.
      I hope that I can get at least one of them finished and stuck in a virtual drawer to stew by summer’s end.


  2. No, you’re not a hack. But sleep sure does help.

    Viv, I commented on your Susan Howatch post a few weeks ago, and I’m back again to say that I ordered your book Strangers & Pilgrims. I read the first chapter on Amazon’s kindle preview and it’s a lively read.

    The first paragraph caught my attention by the allusion to Tennyson’s “Lady of Shallott” with the opening “On either side of the river” and the mention of barley (and wheat, for some reason; not rye). I don’t think this could have been a coincidence, and if you insist that it is, you must have been inspired while dreaming.

    My first impressions also reminded me of a couple of other writers–Hemingway, for some of your slightly-rambling descriptions early on (that’s to be considered a compliment) and also Robert Farrar Capon, a little later on in the chapter, when your narrator gives a slightly other-worldly voice, outside-the-box, something like Capon’s playful narrator (himself, really) in Between Noon and Three.

    These are first impressions, so don’t hold me to them. I’ll read the whole book when it comes and adjust my opinion.

    I hope your dreaming starts again soon.


    • Hi Ted,
      well, a big thanks for buying the book, and a round of applause for spotting the Lady Of Shallot reference. I was haunted by the poem and especially by Lorena McKenneit’s song version of it. Sara is a version of the Lady of Shalott, using the internet as her magic mirror.
      I have read only a very little Hemingway and none of Capon, but thank you for the comparision. As for the rambling, yes, I take it as a compliment. I’vve been reading older books recently and have noticed that they take a longer time to get anywhere; we’re becoming lazier as readers and publishers are choosing to not publish books that take a while to read.


  3. In my experience insomnia too brings a sort of creativity…not one I’d prefer, perhaps, but difficulties are a force for forging too. Strain, stress, stretching…all forces that have taught me. I don’t write fiction and I can see that maybe dreaming might inform fiction in a different way some times.


  4. Pingback: Sunshine through the clouds ~ a respite from darkness « Zen and the art of tightrope walking

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.