On Keeping a Dream Journal
Dreams: there’s a divisive and complicated topic for you that will polarise most groups. Many people are indifferent to the concept of dreams, dismissing it and being scathing of those (like me!) who talk or write about dreams. My mother was one such, often telling me that dreams didn’t mean anything, couldn’t hurt me and weren’t important. I think that has caused me more damage in relation to my journey into deep matters of the psyche than anything else: that nagging voice in the back of my mind that poured scorn on my hope, my belief, that dreams, my dreams, are indeed valid and important. Identifying that voice may have helped to disarm it.
In the last couple of years, my sleep has been so disrupted that there has been less than usual energy for my brain and my psyche to dream, and I’ve had no energy to do more than occasionally jot down a very striking dream when sleep of reasonable quality has taken place. I’ve kept dream journals for years, sometimes with more discipline, sometimes not.
From this particular place of experience I’m going to share a few thoughts on keeping a dream journal. I’m not fond of the whole “How to…” culture, where blogs list 13 ways to do X Y or Z, often breaking it down into frankly silly steps. I work on the premise that anyone reading my blog is an intelligent, thoughtful person, so I’ll break it down into two sections. WHY keep a dream journal and HOW to keep one.
WHY keep a dream journal?
Well, if you subscribe to the notion that, as Freud said, dreams are the royal road to the unconscious, keeping a journal means you record the messages your unconscious sends you. During a lifetime where we spend roughly a third of it asleep, dreaming is an activity that fills that third of life. It’s important. Scientists still haven’t agreed what sleep is for, let along dreams, but the fact is, both are vital to health and sanity. As a writer, vast swathes of my inspiration has come via the dream world. As a troubled human being, the potential for finding respite from those troubles in the messages of my dreams is immense. Writing down those dreams means you record and fix, both on paper and IN YOUR OWN MIND, the content of the dreams. There’s a process that does double duty. I’ve heard people say they don’t dream or they don’t ever remember their dreams; resolving to record them tends to aid recall, for the same reason resolving to wake at a certain time (with practise) also tends to work. Having a record of dreams helps you return to them, to analyse them more closely and also to keep track of progress. Dreams often send coded information, rich in symbols and often in puns, often via terrible, groan-worthy Dad jokes, which can take time (even years) to decode. Unlocking one such dream may provide the key to unlock a lot of other ones; having a record of them is invaluable for this.
HOW to keep a dream journal.
The accepted advice is to keep a notebook and pencil by the bed, ready to record any and all dreams. Some might counter that they’d rather do it digitally, on their phone, tablet or computer but honestly, don’t. The act of turning on a device, the blue light, and the potential for checking messages, all may cause a dream to vanish like smoke. My advice is this: keep not one but TWO journals. One simple journal, a cheap exercise book that sits at your bedside with a pencil or pen, along with a torch (I have one that has a casing that glows in the dark so I can find it easily) so you don’t put on the light (even if you sleep alone, putting on a bright light drives away dreams). In this you record the dream when you wake from it. Your writing will be hard to read, but almost certainly legible enough to fathom most of what you wrote and then recall the rest. The act of writing pins down the dream material in your consciousness. If you wake with a dream, write it before going to the bathroom because the act of walking to another room, plus turning on a bright light, will drive away or diminish much of the dream. Then, the following day when you are up and about, take a moment or two to transcribe and expand the dream into the second journal. This journal is more orderly. I use a Leuchturm Jottbook. This range of journals is very organised. Each page is numbered, has a space for the date, and there is an index at the front. They come with several stickers so you can make a title for the entire book (for example: Dream journal, from Jan 2019 – December 2020) and the bigger ones come also with a sticker for the spine. Date each entry, including the year. I specify when the dream took place too, either by time or by a more rough estimate. Then when you write up the dream, give it a title as if it were a story. Believe me, it helps. Use elements of the dream as the title (example, “At the high waterfall with old school friends”), and then add that, the page number and the date, to the index. This means it’s much easier to check when a dream took place and also identify themes and so on. You often start to see patterns emerging, and for me it hasn’t been unusual for a dream to reference other dreams (very meta). Don’t censor or edit your dreams when you write them down; yes, some of the content may be irrelevant but you don’t know that yet. It’s not unusual for apparently silly or unpleasant content to be very valuable.
And that’s it. Sweet dreams to you all.