Writers who Work with their Dreams

Dreaming can provide inspiration and practical, problem solving insights as you write.

I began dreaming my writing with the first serious short story I wrote, a fictionalized account of my grandfather’s funeral ten years before. The editor at Redbook said it had promise, but she didn’t like the ending. Six times I revised and six times she rejected. I gave up. Grandpa came to me in a dream, sat down at the typewriter and wrote the last paragraph of my story. I woke up and, since I had nothing to lose, immediately wrote the words he had given me. The editor loved them and my writing career began.

Throughout the years I’ve learned I’m in good company:

tree2William Stryon woke up one morning remembering a dream of a beautiful young woman he had known years before. The dream kept returning to his mind. Eventually it served as the inspiration for Sophie’s Choice.

Bharti Mukherjee once dreamed that she was cutting the wings from birds and sewing them together to make wings for herself so that she could fly. The dream became part of her story “Angela” in the collection Darkness.

When novelist John Barth is deep in in a writing project, he dreams words when he sleeps.

Mystery novelist Sue Grafton uses the physical reactions she has from frightening dreams to help her as she writes convincing scenes about instances when her heroine is in danger. She sometimes sets the intention before she sleeps to dream a solution to a problem in her writing. Usually she is given a solution.

Steven King says he uses his dreams in the same way one might use a mirror when one can’t see a thing head on.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge read the following line in a history book: “Here the Khan Kubla commanded a palace to be built and a stately garden thereunto. And thus ten miles of fertile ground were enclosed within a wall.” He fell asleep afterward and began dreaming vivid images that “without any sensation or consciousness of effort” made a story. Upon awaking, he dashed off hundreds of lines of the epic poem, Kubla Khan.

Jorge Luis Borges said that the Kabbalah, a Jewish mystical book, instructs that when words in a dream are loud and clear, but seem to come from no particular source, they are coming from God.

Margaret Mead frequently received help from her dreams as she wrote and kept a dream journal for years.

When Amy Tan can’t come up with a good ending for one of her stories, she takes the manuscript to bed where it becomes part of a dream.

Maya Angelou’s repeated dream of climbing inside of a tall building still under construction is a sign that her work is going well.

Robert Louis Stevenson often dreamed complete stories, which he would later write. He dreamed the plot for his book Jekyll and Hyde. He wrote in his book, Across the Plains: “For two days I went about racking my brains for a plot of any sort; and on the second night I dreamed the scene at the window, and a scene afterwards split in two, in which Hyde, pursued for some crime, took the powder and underwent the change in the presence of his pursuers.”

As my writing career progressed, I continued to dream bits and pieces of my writing projects. Nothing prepared me for dreaming the entire manuscript for my book Violent Voices: Twelve Steps to Freedom from Emotional and Verbal Abuse. It was an exhausting experience, one of the most intense in my life. Ethralled, I did little else but sleep and write. The book I had not planned to write was finished in five weeks and immediately attracted a publisher.

Two years ago, as I struggled with the cross references for my latest book, The Encyclopedia of American Indian Contributions to the World, my father, who had died the month before, appeared to me in a dream. “Do you think I could have wired houses all my life if I didn’t have a schematic?” he scolded. “Draw a schematic and pretend you’re wiring the book.” I did and it worked like a charm.

When in Doubt Take a Nap! We writers need all the help we can get.

Books about Writers and Dreaming

Writers Dreaming by Naomi Epel
Twenty six writers comment about how their dreams help them with their work

The Tiger Garden: A Book Writers’ Dreams edited by Nicholas Royle