Just about everyone who works creatively is convinced that dreams play a role in their output. I interviewed Jeremy J. Lee for my mini-podcast On a Call With ... He said that his work as a sound designer often involved "back of the brain thinking." Before he begins a project, he will "sleep on it" -- loading all the details into his mind and then letting his subconscious work in the dark. In theory, I like this. If only I could do it.

As I wrote in a 500 Words post:

Someone once told me this great idea. If you were stuck on a writing problem, they said, all you had to do was pose it to your subconscious before you went to sleep, and by morning you would wake up and the problem would be solved. Your subconscious mind would work all night on the errant plot point, the character flaw that refused to focus, or the title that remained clotted with too many words. You’d throw back the sheets in the morning, spring from bed, problem solved.

When I pose a problem to myself before going to sleep it's a disaster. I stay up all night thinking about it. Words play above me as though projected on the ceiling. Neglected characters whisper their secrets. I act out scenes, coming awake with a twitch. I never sleep.

Maybe I am the exception because I lack the enzyme that permits one to sleep through dreams without moving around and acting them out. Of course, dreams are powerful. There's a book about the dreams of novelist Vladimir Nabokov called Insomniac Dreams: Experiments With Time by Vladimir Nabokov. In 1964, the writer of Lolita, The Defense, and many of my favorite novels recorded his dreams on index cards. Nabokov was a regular user of index cards. He wrote the first drafts of his novels — even the long ones — on stacks of cards.

In his dream experiment Nabokov was testing a theory, popular at the time, that you could dream of a future event. The idea was not so much that dreams could predict the future. It was that the flow of time is reversed when we sleep. In dreams we experience the future before we experience the past.

You can go round and round with that for a while. I do think it's possible to dream the future before it becomes the present. I dream scenes that become part of audio dramas and books before I write them down. The editor and compiler of Insomniac Dreams, Gennady Barabtarlo, used the last part of his book about Nabokov to list all the passages in the writer's creative output where dreams predicted what he later wrote in his novels. Nabokov dreamed people, scenes, and plot points before he wrote them, often with no knowledge that they appeared first in dreams.

Nabokov knew that the world he lived in his dreams would become the scaffolding of his novels. As he realized toward the end of his life, writing in some of his final journals, the soul of the novel is the successful manipulation of time, expanding, contracting, flowing back on itself like music. Novels are made of time.

See you next week, and thanks for reading.


Coming up on On a Call With …. I’m doing an interview with Christina Dunbar. She’s the creator of the one-woman show Dirty Me Divine and leads the RED workshops for female performers and artists. Here’s some advice Christina offers, by way of novelist Barbara Kingsolver. I’ll be asking Christina about this on our call.

Don't try to figure out what other people want to hear from you; figure out what you have to say. It's the one and only thing you have to offer. - Barbara Kingsolver

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Hello. I'm Lee Schneider. Writer from Santa Monica, California, originally from NYC. Podcast producer. Podcast consultant. Recovering television producer. Married to a goddess. Co-founder of three children. I have a writing habit and a production habit that I exercise regularly. I teach a media course for USC. If you have an idea for a podcast we can work on it together. Nice to see you here. This is a weekly email from me about living a creative life.