Can someone be asleep and yet conscious? Can dreams be shaped as they unfold? And what does this have to do with creative writing? Clare Jay explores a new route to inspiration.
At the 2005 Dream Writing conference in Kent, I presented a doctoral research paper on the role of lucid dreaming in the creative writing process. As soon as I finished speaking, I was bombarded with questions from sceptical psychologists who doubted the very possibility of ‘waking up inside a dream’. So I asked the audience to raise their hands if they had ever been aware that they were dreaming – whereupon fully half of the hands in the room instantly shot up.
Lucid dreaming has been scientifically verified in sleep laboratories since 1978, when a clinically asleep subject wired up to a polygraph machine performed preagreed eye movements to signal the onset of dream lucidity. Parapsychologist Charles Tart explains that the lucid dreamer has ‘awakened in terms of mental functioning within the dream world’. My own lucid dream experiences took off in my early twenties when, fascinated by the idea of becoming conscious in my dreams, I began
'a lucid dreamer can conjure up a dream theatre and watch her own fictional characters act out the next chapter of a novel'
to cultivate lucidity. Lucid dreaming may seem a paradoxical concept, but it is in fact a learnable skill and can help writers in specific, practical ways.
Bestselling author Amy Tan is adept at lucid dreaming her way into fiction. In Naomi Epel’s book, Writers Dreaming (Vintage, 1994),
she says: ‘I have found in dreams that I can change the setting by simply looking down at my feet then looking up again… The key is realising that it is a dream and that there’s a part of me that can control what’s happening… when I get into a dream world I can create fiction by going down surprising pathways’.
For my Creative Writing PhD, I interviewed fiction writers and poets to discover how their lucid dreams informed their work. While writing Breathing in Colour, the novel that was an integral part of my doctorate, I drew on my own lucid dreams to determine the usefulness of lucid dreaming in three main areas of the creative writing process: the generation of ideas, the writer’s trance, and plot development.
Generating ideas The lucid dreamer enters into direct, conscious contact with the creative medium of the dreaming mind. The imagination can be observed unfolding like a film, and the action can be directed if desired. Lucid dreams tend to be incredibly vivid – US author John Locatelli describes the moment of becoming lucid in a dream as ‘like the difference between watching a movie in black and white and suddenly having it change to colour’. The imagery is memorable and often contains kinaesthetic, sensual and archetypal elements conducive to the creation of original writing. Anne Rice, author of the Vampire Chronicles series, writes: ‘The last time I had a flying dream I knew I was really doing it. I was aware but I was also really there. It was fabulously real… a deepening of the sensuous aspect of flying. And I can take that back to the typewriter’.
According to d’Hervey de Saint-Denys (Les Reves et les Moyens de les Diriger – Observations Pratiques, Paris, Editions Oniros, 1897) and Stephen LaBerge (Lucid Dreaming, New York, Ballantine Books, 1986), lucid dreamers often have a high level of analytical thought and the ability to carry out predetermined experiments within the dream. Writers who are experienced lucid dreamers can even hunt for story ideas while dreaming, or summon their own fictional characters to get to know them better. Dream characters are full of surprises: during one lucid dream chat with the artist in my novel, he huffed,
‘You might be the author but you’re not God’. That told me! Lucid dream researchers LaBerge and Rheingold advise: ‘If you want to learn to paint, summon Rembrandt. Go fishing with Hemingway or Hesse and talk about that novel you’ve always wanted to write’.
A lucid dream may provide a valuable idea when there’s a block in the creative process. When I began Breathing in Colour, I had a lucid dream in which I experienced a fistful of sand as having an orange texture and taste. This gave me the idea that my protagonist, Mia, would have synaesthesia, a condition where the senses are mingled. Mia’s voice then became a key element of the novel.
The writer’s trance ‘Part of my function as a writer is to dream awake,’ says Stephen King. ‘Whether you’re dreaming or whether you’re writing creatively the brainwaves are apparently interchangeable’. He’s referring to the EEGverified presence of alpha brainwaves in both a relaxed, waking state and during REM sleep. King goes on to say how precious this waking dream state is, how it’s ‘like finding a secret door in a room but not knowing exactly how you got in’. I call this state the writer’s trance, and I have developed a method for going through the ‘secret door’ (see How to lucid dream, over).
The writer’s trance can be seen as a waking version of lucid dreaming, where we sink as deeply as we can into our
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