Using dreams in writing

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I’ve read many a whimsical tale about writers who wake up with a really cool story idea still clinging to them from dreamland. I am (regrettably…) not one of those writers, but I’ve learned that there are other ways of using one’s dreams besides simply transcribing them.

Last July, I set a challenge for myself during Camp Nanowrimo. I wanted to write a different short story every day for 31 days. I actually blogged about the whole experience here if you’re curious.

One of those days, I woke up having just finished my ‘running dream.’ I’ve been having this dream for several years, recurring every few months or so, and I love it. It’s very simple: in the dream I’m escaping some unnamed evil by running through the forest, and having an awesome time while doing it.

When you’re writing a brand new story every single day, you latch on to the first idea that occurs to you, so I decided to write a story based on this dream. I wrote a few scenes and outlined a story about Forest Spirits and a crumbling world and magical stolen books, trying to really hone in on what was so fun about running through the forest in my dream.

I didn’t get around to actually writing the story until months later, and when I did it was… flat. Dull. Disappointing. Actually, the only part of the story that was really working was a conversation my main character had with a strange little boy obsessed with counting. So—because I’m sentimental and hate dropping stories—I decided to give it another try using the relationship between the woman and this boy as a focus.

Better. But still not working.

It was crowded, somehow. Forced. Overly complicated. So I got a notebook and whittled the story down to what really needed to be there, and was happy with the result for about three seconds. Then I realized that I had taken out absolutely everything that connected the story with the dream. There are still some scenes in a forest, but that’s about it.

I felt like I was betraying the story by abandoning the original inspiration for it and fought with revision notes for a while, desperately trying to make it work while keeping the dream elements intact.

But ultimately… why? I knew that the story I had outlined was a much better piece of fiction; why did it matter that I strayed from the original inspiration? I guess it was a matter of pride: I wanted to prove that I was one of those writers who could turn dreams into stories.

Here’s the big money question: Would I have ever come up with this story about a little boy who counts compulsively and the woman trying to protect him? I doubt it. I think I needed to go through that process of writing from a dream to meet that character and discover his story. I think that without that dream, this story wouldn’t exist.  

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My big takeaway: Just because something inspired a story doesn’t mean you have to shackle yourself to it. If the story takes on a life beyond that original inspiration, then that flame becomes more important than the original spark.

Any other dream enthusiasts out there? Do you incorporate dreams into your writing?

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