Saturday, October 06, 2007


Although I sometimes remember and enjoy my dreams, they're generally worthless to me as a source of inspiration. They're too random and unstructured. The rules of causality don't apply. I've never awoken from a dream with a flash of inspiration, jotted a note on the pad beside my bed, and had it be good, useful, or even very interesting in the light of day.

I always figured that was because the dreaming brain makes it up as it goes along. I assumed that, like a three-year-old telling a story of unrelated events linked by "and then ... and then ... and then ...," dreams aren't created with any particular structure, narrative, or destination in mind. It's as if that process demands some higher-brain storytelling function that just isn't engaged while asleep.

That's what I thought until last night, when I had a dream that was a brilliant short story with a beginning, middle, and a boffo surprise ending with an O. Henry twist that tied all the previous events together. I don't remember all the details but, when the dream climaxed with my car getting towed away, it was just the perfect ironic, inevitable culmination of that story. Perfect.

Now the question is: was this story really such a nifty little gem of narrative genius, or did I just dream that it was? I'll never know. In any case, it made me rethink some of my assumptions about dreaming.

By the way, I have had lucid dreams before. That's a dream in which you realize you're dreaming, and you're suddenly a god with a universe at your command. You can fly, breathe underwater, soar into space, all the while thinking, "This is just a dream, might as well enjoy it." Your own private Star Trek holodeck.

Physicist Richard Feynman wrote in his autobiography of disciplining his mind so he could dream lucidly at will. Every night he went to sleep knowing he'd be the hero in his own romantic fantasy adventures, and he said it was terrific fun for a while. Eventually, though, it began to wear on him, leaving him feeling tired, irritable, out of sorts. He finally realized his mind required the down time he was denying it, and stopped. The brain needs what it needs.

Although I've seldom found dreams useful, I do get my best creative work done first thing in the morning, still lying in bed about three-fourths awake. Cartoonist Lynn Johnston and others have written the same thing. I think the mind can still access the undisciplined freedom of dreams and yet is awake enough to guide it in productive directions. I'll often lie there semi-dozing and finally sit up to write down three or four ideas that are actually good. I've gotten adept at using that state of mind well. In some ways, it's the most productive part of my day.

At least that's what I tell my wife.


Anonymous said...

My husband used to say the same thing to me - best ideas, first thing in the morning, still in bed.It applied not only to his amateur cartooning but to problems at the office also. And he said it to others too, including the people he worked with.
At his retirement dinner, his very proper secretary added it to his "familiar quotations," and then, poor dear, blushed to the roots of her hair as everyone hooted with delight. It hadn't come out quite right the way she told it.
The other Ronnie

Namowal said...

I hear ya. I've had many "Whoa! This'd make a great story" moments in my dreams. By the time I wake up the details are gone and and, like you, I'm left wondering if it really was a cool story or if my dream logic was telling me so. Probably the latter.
Dreams can provide starting points- a grotesque character or a weird situation, but the plots are useless.