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Unlock Creativity Through Your Dreams

03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Few rhymes capture the enchantment of sleep like the lullaby "Wynken, Blynken, and Nod". Sailing off in a wooden shoe on a "river of crystal light, into a sea of dew," these "fishermen three" were sped by the wind beneath a moon that "laughed and sang a song." All night long, they cast nets of silver and gold "to the stars in the twinkling foam." "'Twas all so pretty a sail it seemed, as if it could not be," concludes the rhyme, "And some folks thought 'twas a dream they'd dreamed."

Ah, to sleep like a child, lulled to slumber by a parent's soothing voice. Indeed, perhaps our widespread problem around disrupted rest has to do with a lost connection to sleep as a mysterious world unto itself: a fantastical place of bewitchment, where strange things go on. After all, just to fall asleep requires a suspension of reality. Letting go of our bodies, our conscious minds become submerged in a nocturnal sea of images -- a difficult feat in our 24/7, techno-driven world.

Perhaps it's because I'm a writer. But the older I get, the more central to my creativity, and my sanity, the nightly voyage to the "Land of Nod" becomes. Take away my eight hours of sleep, and I feel a little crazy and on edge. Sleep provides a welcome break, carrying me off to a place more like myth than real life. Ironically, this makes waking up just as interesting. Like the "fisherman three" returned from sea, I begin my work day by faithfully recording the night's haul of dreams.

As it turns out, a long tradition exists of writers and artists who have likewise drawn sustenance from the night world. In his book, Our Dreaming Minds, Robert Van de Castle describes film director Luis Bunuel's obsession with dreams: "Give me two hours a day of activity," Bunuel wrote, "and I'll take the other twenty-two in dreams."

I'm not a filmmaker. But each night dream sequences play out in ways my waking mind could never have made up. Transcribing these dreams before I begin writing infuses a kind of multi-dimensionality into my creative process. It's as if I've tapped into a magnetic field of imagination that streams a steady flow of landscapes, wild animals, fairy tale creatures, unlikely scenarios, numinous objects, and colorful characters -- the raw stuff of art and literature. "The experience of dreams operates in an altered state of consciousness 'below' the level of waking consciousness," write Jungian analysts Sylvia Perera and Edward Whitmont in Dreams: A Portal to the Source. Dreams speak in a language of sensory images, the authors write, "beyond our rational categories of time and space."

To understand the dream, counsel Perera and Whitmont, the dreamer must intuitively "enter the dream's own realm, its metaphoric, symbolic, and dramatic dimensions." This concentration aids the artist, who must set aside daily demands, and enter wholly into the imaginary creation taking shape, believing it to be is as real as ordinary life.

Dreams can be as melodramatic as Greek theater: the existential loneliness of the exile wandering in a barren landscape; the rage of confronting a difficult parent; or the humiliating abandonment by a lover. Dreams can also be as banal as an image I once had of myself chewing gum while standing outside a Safeway grocery store. Working psychologically with the deeper meaning of these dreams -- in therapy, a journal, or with a trusted friend -- can add to our self-knowledge. But more than that, these "feeling" dreams can deepen our connection to the human condition. And without that connection, few writers or artists can produce anything lasting or meaningful. The reclusive author of Jane Eyre, Charlotte Bronte, used dreams, writes Van de Castle, to help her describe sensations "she had no way of understanding in reality."

Dreams, in fact, often contribute directly to the creative process. While working on an article on the soul of Washington, D.C. some years ago, I dreamt that I was driving George Washington around the city. This dream-encounter enhanced my sense of the living history of the city. Robert Louis Stevenson, writes Van de Castle, attributed the plot of The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde to a vivid dream-scene. The Sixties beat writer Jack Kerouac provided a key for characters that had appeared in his dreams with characters in his books.

One of the greatest mysteries surrounding dreams is their origin. Some creators have dropped provocative hints. The poet William Blake, for instance, painted a portrait of "The Man Who Taught Blake Painting in His Dreams." Stephenson, Van de Castle writes, spoke of the "Little People" who worked in "the nocturnal theater of his mind". One thing about dreams, however, is certain: we all have access to our dreaming minds. And whatever our profession may be, we have within us a creative voice that speaks in the language of the night, and that provides a richly imaginative commentary on our daytime lives -- if only we would listen.