Reader Request Week 2017 #5: Remembering Dreams
Posted on April 12, 2017 Posted by John Scalzi 36 Comments
Fabrizio Toso asks:
Do you remember what you dream? If yes, has anything from your dreams found its way in your books?
I do remember a lot of what I dream, yes. Not all of it — some of it slips past me in the morning — but certainly enough of my dreams that I have a memory bank filled with them. I suspect this is also because I’m generally a lucid dreamer, which means I almost always know when I’m dreaming. Being a lucid dreamer has a number of advantages (for example, I’ve never really had a nightmare, because I’ll just wake myself up if the dream becomes too unpleasant), and one of them, I think, is that because some part of my brain is always observing in the dream, it remembers to remember most of the interesting dreams.
That said, I can’t think of anything I’ve dreamt that’s ended up in a novel, or a dream being an inspiration for something I’ve written in one of my stories. My dreams, frankly, aren’t particularly well-plotted, and even in individual moments they’re often disjointed and nonsensical. Even the ones that have a throughline aren’t the stuff of great literature. For example, the other night I dreamed I was skydiving in Australia, and then suddenly I was on the ground, walking around, and since I didn’t remember landing I was worried I was dead, so I went into a donut shop to order a donut, on the idea that if the person at the register could see me, I was clearly alive (she could see me; I ordered a donut; I only had American and Canadian money on me so couldn’t buy it). As a dream, mildly interesting; as something that should make its way into a story of mine, not so much.
(Honestly, most dreams are pretty boring, including mine, when they’re described to other people. The ones most people want to share are of the “I was in some place! And then something surreal happened!” variety, which I’m okay hearing as long as one is relatively quick about it. I’ll listen to nightmare stories also, because I don’t have them and I’m sympathetic to people who have had a good night’s sleep ruined by them. But generally, meh. Dreams, like one’s children’s school achievements, exist in the “more interesting to you than to anyone else” category. Please share, if you must, briefly.)
In terms of plotting, or of vivid imagery, that’s relevant to my books, my most productive time in bed is not dream time, but that period of time either just before I go to sleep, or just after I wake up. That’s when the connections in my brain are kind of whipping around wildly, and I’ll get interesting ideas out of the blue or something close to visions that are applicable to things I’m writing. I’m not asleep and it’s not dreaming, but I’m not always precisely awake, either (it’s also the time where my brain creates amazing melodies for songs, and if I will myself more awake, I can never remember them precisely. I write fantastic songs, people, in those liminal minutes. You’ll never hear them, alas).
Another thing my brain will do for me storywise while I sleep is work on plot points — if, just before I go to sleep, I say to my brain, “okay, while I’m sleeping I need you to think about [plot point in question],” my brain will do so as I snooze. I don’t have to say it out loud (although sometimes I do), but I do have to specifically tell my brain to work on it while I sleep. And you know what? If I ask it to, there’s a better than even chance that when I wake up, I have some new options for that plot point. They won’t always be good options, but they’ll still me more (and different) than the ones my conscious brain would have provided. I’m not sure if anyone else does this sort of subconscious problem-solving, but it’s worked for me for a while.
I’ll note that just because I don’t use dreams for story ideas/plotting/etc doesn’t mean other people can’t or don’t, or that I don’t doubt people who say ideas come to them in dreams. If they do, good for them! I’m glad it works that way for them. It doesn’t work that way for me. I tend to think of my dreams more as my brain sorting things that happened during the day, or just playing around when it doesn’t have my conscious self at the wheel.
And I’m fine with this; I like my dreams, by and large. They can do whatever they like. If I’m unhappy with ’em, well. I’ll wake up.
(There is still time to ask a question for Reader Request Week. Go here for all the details, and to ask your question.)
I totally use dreams to work out story ideas. I do a lot of lucid dreaming, and I have a lot of control over my lucid dreams, so I’ll deliberately dream myself into the same scene four or five nights in a row to try out different ways I can play the scene. I also sometimes use dreams to come up with solutions to difficult problems in my schoolwork. Results vary.
Interestingly enough, this very closely tracks what Neil Gaiman said at his public talk in Orange County a couple weeks back. Dreams have some interesting images, but the plots are crap.
I once dreamed an entire pilot for a new Kelsey Grammar sitcom. My brain hates me.
Literally keep a pad bedside because when I dream something interesting, I’ll dream “that might be good to write about,” and wake myself up to write it down. Otherwise, I won’t remember later. Days later I look over the list and there’s always one mischievous imp that makes me scratch my head and say, “What the HELL was THAT about?!?!”
I find in recent years I sequels to a dream. I’ll dream of something one night and the next night, It’ll be like the next chapter. It kind of freaks me out.
That whole “tell your brain to work on it” thing isn’t specific to sleep, I’ve discovered. I had a high school teacher who, when struggling to remember something that was on the tip of his tongue, would think about remembering that thing really hard, and then sort of just tell his brain to work on it. Then he’d go about his business, usually teaching class or something, and almost always like a half hour later, the thought would pop into his head. I thought it was a cool trick, so I started doing it myself, and it almost always works. Your subconscious mind does a lot without you actively being aware of it. I never thought to try it while sleeping, but I’m not surprised to hear it works.
I think most people’s brains beaver away on problems while they are asleep- hence the piece of advice ” sleep on it”.
Interesting answer, in part because the dream you described struck me as not entirely dissimilar from something that might show up in one of your novels. Maybe just in the way you described it.
Well, now I want to know how you address your brain when you “tell it to work on something. Do you call it “Brain?” Or do you just say “you?”
Many of my dreams are a bit odd in that I’m not in them (at least, this seems odd from my discussions with others)–it’s like sitting and watching a movie. Many of them might have been the seed for some writing, though I’ve never done the work.
The only one I’d want to repeat, because it’s stuck with me for years, is the retelling of the late 18th century, ranging from the American Revolution to the French, except that it had hobbits living alongside humans–there didn’t seem to be particular discrimination against them in America, but in France, they were 100% on the peasant side. Oh, and George Washington was played by David Duchovny, who made many long digressions to the camera.
The answer to your question is obvious- refer OMW and John Perry’s solution to this problem.
Solutions to problems often come to me when I’m driving home from work, or in the shower the following morning. I think detaching emotionally from the frustration of the problem is helpful.
My dreams are often like watching TV; and if I’ve been bingeing something, often are that show. The only regular non-show dream I get is the dream where I have a flight in 30 minutes and I haven’t even packed yet. It’s incredibly stressful and irritating but not frightening, so it’s not quite a nightmare. It only took two rounds to figure out that those dreams are related to anxiety about upcoming travel.
Dream Brain: You have a flight coming up!
Me: I know, it’s routine, no big deal.
Dream Brain: I’m going to make you have that dream again!
Me: You know, I don’t care any more, I’ll just wake up. It’s boring.
Dream Brain: Boring?! The heck it is! Fine. This time you have to pack a house!
Me: What?! Gahhh.
I’m very curious if there is some relationship between sleep patterns and people who always remember their dreams and people who never remember their dreams.
I have recurring dreams where I have to move in the morning and I have to pack and I haven’t even started. And where I’m trying to get to the airport and I don’t have enough time. Then there are the dreams where I wake up and think “I have to remember that in the morning.” And of course I don’t, although sometimes I do get up and put them down on my iPad. Then there are the dream with naked people . . . I’m talking to much, aren’t I?
My iron-clad rule for hearing about people’s dreams is that I ONLY want to hear about it if you can tell me in three sentences or less.
A dream type I used to have more often was the recurring dream of finding myself back at my college, only this time enrolling in another major. I realized after this happened a couple of times over the course of a few years that it meant I thought I needed to switch jobs. Do you have recurring dreams of any sort?
I only rarely remember my dreams. The ones I do are usually nightmares. I am thankful I dont remember more. I have never experienced lucid dreaming. In short, it all sucks.
My dreams occasionally have plot lines (not particularly *good* plot lines, but plot lines none the less). Sometimes they advance. I had an episode of this a couple of days ago, after a period of about a week or so where I’ve been spending a significant amount of time writing up bits and pieces of story on a project which has been stalled for quite a while. I figure the two might be linked – I get unblocked on one plot line, and the other one advances a bit further as well. It’s interesting as a phenomenon, but other than that…
The fruitfulness to be had by “sleeping on it” accords with things I’ve read about unconscious incubation and spreading activation in the brain. As one article put it, “… the research… suggests that insight is the culmination of a series of brain states and processes operating at different time scales.” One’s conscious rational brain has to be put on hold, it seems, for these connections to occur.
The eerie sensation of drifting off to sleep, only to become aware that there is an unfinished dream in your mind that has been waiting for you to go to sleep so that it can resume….
One of my recurring dreams is of having to pack a houseful of belongings and get them, and myself, onto a train before it departs the station that evening. It’s a small relief to know that other people experience similar dreams. Come to think of it, John Varley’s story “The Flying Dutchman” is that kind of tale.
At about age 15, I read a book about interpreting dreams. For close to 20 years after that, I did not remember a single dream. Whatever my brain was doing without me, it didn’t want me to know about it.
@Chris: Dreaming sequels – almost as bad as Deja Vú, isn’t it?
Do you (guys, Scalzi) also dream differently when you’re sick? I often dream repetetive motions, like having to do a specific task over and over, to the point that I don’t even want to sleep even though it’ll help recovery…
(Although I guess for those with lucid dreaming it’s a non-issue.)
I often remember what I dreamt – not for long, though. I mostly try to block it out, as it usually means that my body responded to the dream almost as if it were real, affecting my mood.
May be positive, but may just as well be incredibly depressing, without any real cause :-(
Lucid dreaming sounds nice. Any easy-to-follow hints to achieve that?
A long time ago I learned to stop being scared when I fell off what ever and JUMP! It took me a few false starts but after…
I’ve had some dreams that are SO vivid it makes life and HD and 42.7 surround sound seem like faded script.
When it comes to scary dreams, I just change the channel… … … unless things are REALLY interesting (Metoprolol I’m eyeing YOU!), in which case I’d pay cash for the Universal Studios 5D anti-gravity ride!
Most dreams are the ehhh, my life variety. Work, love, stubbing my toe. But that aerial battle just above my house with futuristic fighter planes chasing each other… and literally being able to zoom in on the bullets? OH YEAH! Mind you, one spiking into what was my father’s shop after taking a missile up the ol’ exhaust port and the subsequent explosion woke me up! But hey… If I could transfer it from brain to screen… Fat Cash wobblin’ my way.
@Rejutka: A way to induce lucid dreaming that works for some people is to just keep a journal and write down your dreams every morning for several days. You’ll start remembering more and more of them, and sometimes episodes of lucidity start happening after a while.
I wish I were a lucid dreamer. I’ve occasionally had dreams in which I am lucid, but on waking I realized that it was an illusion.
My lucid dreams always end up very strange – because it seems like my unconscious brain is fighting me for control of the story.
For example: whenever I try to do something awesome, like Jedi force-pull a light-saber into my hand… it will work, but it will bounce off and crack open and D-batteries will fall out of it…
So… have at it, psychotherapists…
+1 on subconscious problem-solving. I do that both while I’m sleeping, and by actively disengaging from a problem for a while and doing something else.
All of my early novels originated in dreams, although that doesn’t seem to be where the ideas are coming from any more as much. The novel ideas I had were never more than a scene and a feeling, though: plots don’t come from there.
My experience with lucid dreaming is that when it happens, I’m usually about to wake up. The challenge when trying to do something cool with it is to remain asleep for as long as I can.
Using the ideas from that transition phase between sleep and wakefulness (the hypnogogic state) seems to be a fairly common strategy among writers. I’ve seen references to it from other authors, as well.
I dream in television shows. I have been disappointed when I go to watch an episode of Firefly or Buffy and then remember, nope, that episode didn’t actually happen you just dreamed it. It’s kind of depressing
@Matt McIrvin said “You’ll start remembering more and more of them, and sometimes episodes of lucidity start happening after a while.”
I have episodes of lucidity – they almost exclusively while I’m awake :P
I don’t remember dreams mostly. Not sure when it started but I’d almost go so far as to say I don’t dream but I know that some times I do.
I don’t remember dreams unless they happen in between the dawn almost-awakening and the time-to-get-up truly-awakening. With a few exceptions, most of which have had to do with work.
I dreamed once that a postage stamp had gone missing in my office and someone had been killed as a result. The office was swarming with cops and everyone was going nuts. This is when I knew I had to leave that job. :-) To me, that dream was clearly my subconscious saying “these people will never not blow everything completely out of proportion and then blame you for their drama.” The job dreams are always very, very obvious.
I dream a lot about anxiety-inducing stuff.. Like you do.. Many times, it’s an “open the door and all your stuff is gone” panic attack.. Few nights ago, this happened, and I woke up thinking “Hey, what a good idea…”
What I like about my dreams is that there is a consistency of place. My high school doesn’t actually look like my high school, but I recognize it as such. It always has the same layout and is in the same place on my dreamworld map. The same applies to my college and the various homes I’ve lived in. Regardless of the fact that in real life some of them are in different states.
Vonneanton: I actually have a voice-recorder for that – but also, not for the dreams themselves but those just before and just after sleep ‘thoughts’.
I don’t think those thoughts ever brought me a new story but while I’m working on a story something sometimes happens. It can be a sentence/paragraph I’ve been struggling with, or a slightly new/different path a story may take. Mostly detail stuff but sometimes useful.
The thing about dreams is, they come with built-in feelings. When you’re in the middle of it it’s a *given* that the room/building you’re in is frightening, so of course you’re frightened. It’s like the dream sets up the beginning with, “OK, this is going to be a nightmare”, and the actual setting or events is just irrelevant. You wake up, think about it, and wonder “What was really scary about that?”, but it doesn’t matter because it WAS scary at the time–it’s a given. (Of course, that setting will probably be scary now and in the future!)
Or other feelings. I remember a dream where I was going from neighborhood to neighborhood and house to house just searching. I had to find it. What “it” was that I needed find was… vague. And I’m pretty sure the goal changed throughout the dream. But I absolutely HAD to find it, and woke up exhausted from the pressure of not finding it yet. At least when I woke up I was so relieved that I really didn’t have to!
But books, and other media really, can’t actually make the reader have a particular feeling. We might have media with HD 3D perfect visuals and SenseSurround Sound, but you can’t beam “Fear” or “Excitement” feelings directly into your audience! You can only try to convince them. So you have build a coherent mood, a setting, that matches the reader’s/viewer’s expectation.(and culture too) that hopefully gets them to have the right emotion, because most people get that feeling in that setting in that culture. So I don’t think dreams are really comparable to compelling fiction. Dreams have a direct control on the feelings knob, so plot and setting and characters can be completely irrelevant!
@Canucklehead: I usually don’t remember mine either. I think most people don’t, even people who say they do–most people have dreams essentially every night, and only a minority of them ever get remembered.
But if I make an effort to write them down, I find that I start remembering more and more episodes (were they memories of experiences or just fabricated memories on waking? Sometimes it’s hard to say). And the memories get more vivid after a few days of this.