Begin Your Dream Journal

4 May

The god Hypnos, so powerful he swung the Trojan War. Statue. British Museum.

Consider how you listen to your dreams.

Do you?

I don’t pretend to understand what my dreaming mind is, but I do know it’s a creative workhorse, offers me regular insight, and generally seeks to help me on my “day job” (writing) whether I ask it to or not.

Right now, I’m working on a novel about the Spanish queen Juana the Mad. Recently I hit an impasse. I had decided long ago that Juana was a reluctant hero, but it seemed very important not to stop at the idea of “reluctance.” I wanted to her reason for reluctance to be palpable in the story, not just understood with a nod and wink because people get the reluctant hero trope. (A decent thought exercise: Come up with three “reluctant heroes” and define their reluctance if you can. It might not be as easy as you think.)

I decided to put my dreaming brain on the job. I wrote my question on a piece of paper (“Why were you reluctant to be queen, Juana?”) and kept it in my hand while I fell asleep.

That night I dreamed I was breaking into a woman’s apartment. I was with an unsavory character from my own past and we were ransacking this woman’s house looking for pot (mari-JUANA) and found pictures of a Latina woman all over the place. The woman with her parents. Her with her children. Eventually neighbors came in and confronted us saying, “Leave this poor woman alone! Why are you tormenting her? You can’t do this!”

I woke up, like, wow. Thanks for nothing, dream-brain. So I tried again the next night. Same ritual with the piece of paper. But this night, I dreamed I actually spoke to the Latina woman and her son. Same apartment. Same items everywhere. The woman was furious and clutched her little boy to her chest, sneering at me, “You have no right to do this. You have no right to ransack through my personal life, like I’m not even here. Like I don’t care what you’re doing. You don’t care about me, you just WANT something.”

When I woke up, I was chuckling to myself. At myself. Right. Juana was reluctant because she wanted her privacy. She didn’t want to be queen because she knew it would be the end of her private internal life. And I couldn’t see that, because I was one more historian/writer completely violating her privacy. And she was a very private woman — the guards and layers around her make her both intriguing and difficult to understand, but they were there for a reason. She had been destroyed by tragic losses. She was humiliated by her husband and court intrigue. Her own son ransacked her castle for gold when he needed it.

Me, I’ve turned her inside out, too, trying to understand this confusing, fascinating, and sometimes opaque character from history.

I wouldn’t have had that revelation about Juana’s role as hero in my story without approaching and offering my toys for my dreaming self to play with. I don’t know how I would have ever come to this thought on my own — that Juana was resisting history, me — especially as tied as I was to historical, empirical research. Leaping beyond the facts and intuiting something deeper and human about Juana was exactly what the story needed.

I hope you keep a dream journal or otherwise make time to heed and record your dreaming self’s stories and symbols. If you aren’t, you may be missing out on some of your freest, most wide-ranging creative outbursts.

Writing Prompt 1: For one week, write 500 words per day inspired by a dream. Start a a dream journal if you haven’t already. Even if it’s just a fragment of a sketch of an image from a dream, this prompt will help your dreaming mind start to believe she’s being listened to. Keep your hand/fingers moving. Don’t stop until the word count is met.

Writing Prompt 2: Taking one of the above 500-word entries from above, flesh it out to a 1000- or 2000-word fiction piece. Create a drama. Characters. Try to keep the juice of the dream intact. Or abandon it if it’s in the way. Write it in one session. Let the first draft sit for 28 days before you rewrite a single word of it.

Make Your Story is a series of articles by novelist Barth Anderson about things you might consider when writing your life-story, autobiography, or when mining personal material for your art. 

In approaching your life story, consider that you might not know it as well as you think you do. Consider your own life the way you might consider a stranger’s. Consider it unknown territory. Consider what you’ve never considered before.

Photo credit: By British Museum. Dept. of Greek and Roman Antiquities; Walters, Henry Beauchamp, 1867-1944 [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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