Having trouble writing creatively during the COVID-19 epidemic? Give your mind permission to write like its dreaming.
Like many, I have been adhering to shelter-in-place guidelines and working from home for the past several months. And like other artists, I felt compelled to use the time separated from the larger world to focus on my writing. Isn’t that why we have writer’s retreats?
Since I’ve been focusing on academic writing the past few years while completing my doctorate degree in higher education leadership at Oregon State University, I felt compelled to shift my focus to creative writing. I have an MFA in creative writing from San Francisco State University with an emphasis in playwriting, and I worried that I had been neglecting that aspect of my writing life – letting it atrophy.
But it wasn’t easy to get back into the creative writing groove – as easy as it may sound to non-creative writers. “It’s fun. It should be easy,” they may think to themselves.
But the first month of shelter-in-place was exhausting.
Working the day job became harder and more intellectually draining than normal as we converted to remote operations at the college where I work. Adjusting to staying at home required innumerable changes to daily routines which was also mentally taxing. Then there was trying to figure out the situation we were in – what was this virus, how was it transmitted, and what should we do to protect ourselves and our families? We also have our personal lives, which don’t just stop because the world is experiencing a pandemic.
So, it’s no surprise that it felt like a great effort to write. For the first month I was only able to make modest progress. But then suddenly I did – by being reminded about something I probably already knew but had forgotten.
Stories Are Dreams
Early on in our collective shelter-in-place experience due to COVID-19, I began hearing that people were experiencing more vivid dreams. This seemed to be confirmed by a KCRW’s Foxhole podcast “How the Global Pandemic Has Impacted Our Drams”, which investigated this phenomenon with two professors who specialized in conducting dream research. I found myself connecting to this podcast. I’ve never been one to frequently remember my dreams. But I have noticed that my dreams have become more vivid and memorable since sheltering-in-place during the COVID-19 pandemic.
As I reflected on this in relation to my writing practice, I recalled someone once saying that stories are like dreams. I don’t recall who said this. But it felt like a legitimate comparison.
So, I decided to adopt this mindset. I told myself not to write a story. Dream a story. It’s led me to unlock more of my creativity and productivity as a writer. And I’ve identified 12 reasons why I think this is the result of adopting this approach to writing fiction.
12 Similarities Between Dreaming and Storytelling
The following is a list of 12 similarities between dreaming and storytelling are not exhaustive. There may be more. But they provide a starting point to consider how close dreaming and storytelling are as phenomena. Maybe they will be useful to you in your creative writing process.
1. Dreams are our brains attempts to process our experiences and memories in order to make sense of our reality. Likewise, stories are our attempt to construct meaning about our reality based on our experiences through the act of storytelling. If we reflect on the earliest purposes of storytelling in tribal societies, it was to help people in the community make sense of their lived experience. I would argue remains true today. Let your understanding of reality emerge through your writing – make it a process to let your mind help you discover what you believe about reality and communicate it to others in your community.
2. Dreams do not obey the rules of the reality that we exist in when we are awake. They ae random, fragmented, and operate by their own rules. Most stories do not obey the rules of waking reality either. They are symbolic, metaphorical, and ethereal. Some genre based storytelling like science fiction, horror, fantasy, magical realism, and metafiction operate based on their own rules as well. Sometimes they even carefully break their own rules – and those are often the most interesting stories. So stories don’t have to adhere to the rules of our wake time reality. Discover the rules of your story as they emerge through your writing.
3. Dreams free associate. One event can be followed by another without a logical coherence connecting them. Writing a story requires the same ability to build off the previous ideas presented – but the best ideas happen when writers allow their minds to go in random, unexpected directions. This leads to the most fruitful and surprising discoveries – for both he writers and the readers. Go in the random direction your imagination takes you even if you have doubts about where it will lead you – it’ll probably lead you to more interesting places than you first imagined.
4. Dreams often present people in our waking life as symbols. The familiar people in our dreams are not themselves as they are in our awake reality. They are often symbols our minds are using to make sense of our reality. Characters in stories – no matter how multidimensional the writer tries to depict them – are also symbols. They represent an idea or concept within the context of the story. Think about what the character represents symbolically in the context of your story.
5. Dreams depict the people in our lives behaving in ways that are unexpected based on how we know them – often in disturbing ways that are inconsistent with the people we know in our awake life. These people who appear in our dreams – even though they may look and somewhat behave like the people we know in our awake life – often do things that seem irrational and inconsistent with the character of the people we know. Characters in stories can also be irrational and inconsistent. And they are often at their most interesting when they are behaving irrationally or make an inconsistent action. It surprises the writer and the audience/reader. Embrace the inconsistencies and paradoxes of your characters – it reflects us as irrational beings.
6. Dreams do not conform to a linear narrative. They are often characterized by random events with loose – or hard to discern - cause and effect relationships. Some of the most interesting stories use non-linear structures to tell their stories – shifting back and forth in time to reveal important information. Even the most linear of stories use flashbacks or exposition – and even flash forwards – to help the reader or viewer understand the story – or even mislead them for effect. This does not mean stories do not require structure. They do. You can’t mislead a reader without structure. But rather than relying on a formulaic structure, you can leave room for the story to reveal its own structure as it emerges rather than force one upon it. Let the story structure emerge like a dream – and then work on making it more defined during the revision part of your writing process.
7. Dreams – at least the ones I remember – are shocking and surprising. Good stories always have a shocking or surprising element to them – something happening that the writer – and hopefully the reader/audience – does not expect. Let yourself go to shocking places. Surprise yourself.
8. Dreams are told in physical sensations – especially images. A good story is also told in physical sensations – sound, touch, taste, smell – and imagery. Dreams don’t tell you. They show you. Make your reader experience these sensations like they are dreaming them through your words.
9. Dreams don’t project their meaning. They don’t tell us exactly what they mean like in an academic paper. They require reflection and analysis to understand them. Stories likewise shouldn’t announce their meaning with a bullhorn. That is didactic storytelling. It’s fine if the writer doesn’t know the meaning behind what they wrote. It’s also good if there are multiple possible meanings. Let the readers figure it out for themselves. It’s not necessarily your job to convey an absolute meaning. Let the reader decipher the meaning of your story like a dream interpreter.
10. Dreams are subjective experiences constructed from the dreamer’s mind. Stories are also subjective as well – told through the fictional mind of a narrator (the person telling the story, which may or may not be the voice of the writer) and also the human mind of the writer themselves. I use the term human to indicate that the mind is fallible – it cannot have access to a complete picture of reality and is subject to bias based on personal experience. The naturalist or realist idea that a writer can capture objective reality in their writing is a myth. The fact that there is a mind choosing what to show in a story makes all stories subjective. The third-person omniscient voice – a writing voice that can see into the minds of all characters and discern all the factors impacting their lives - is a lie. Even the field of journalism is beginning to really tackle the notion of the concept of objective reporting. How can objective reality really be depicted when it is filtered through the many biases contained in a writer’s consciousness? Surrealism and absurdism may be better pathways toward depicting the truth of human existence. Embrace the subjectivism. Objectivity is impossible.
11. Dreams make us feel. The dreams I remember usually make me feel something – grief, anxiety, fear, humor, happiness. Stories should make people feel as well. It’s often said that the arts help people increase their capacity for empathy. This is probably because stories help us understand that we all have similar emotional responses to specific experiences like the death of a loved one or a first kiss – with someone you don’t want to kiss. Write to make readers/audiences feel the emotions that your characters are experiencing.
12. Dreams are ethereal. There is a spiritual, intangible, and universal quality to them. Neurologists may be able to explain dreams based on the physical processes of the brain, but I imagine they would be hard pressed to explain the mystical sensation people feel when they experience them. Likewise, stories often take us to emotional states that might be best described as oceanic – a sensation that makes us feel the deep, interconnectedness of the universe – the idea that there is an underlying meaning to reality both beyond and intertwined with our individual experiences. Strive toward the oceanic and ethereal in your writing.
These are the beginning of some thoughts about the creative writing as a process of dreaming while writing. I’ve found this approach useful in re-activating my writing process and have finished five short stories using this mindset over the past two months. Hopefully others will find this approach to thinking about their writing useful to enhance their creativity and increase their productivity. Don’t just write on the page. Dream on the page.