A few weeks ago, I was working on a consulting gig with a team, and we were pulling some late nights to get complex ideas for solving a client’s business problem into a written proposal. More than once, we found ourselves staring at a whiteboard covered in something resembling hieroglyphics and realized we couldn’t get to the next step of whatever problem was on the board. And more than once, we took the advice of one of our colleagues and called it night, hoping to get better results when we returned in the morning after a good (or at least mediocre) night’s sleep. This took me back to one of our McDaniel courses when we talked about discovery and working through plot problems using multiple techniques, including dream work.
Paul McCartney (who celebrated his 72nd birthday last week! but I digress) has spoken many times in interviews over the years of falling out of bed one morning with ‘a lovely little tune’ in his head. He spent weeks playing it for people, thinking he must have heard it somewhere, believing he couldn’t possibly have written it so easily in his sleep, but no one had heard it before then. That little tune turned into a little song called Yesterday, one of the most played and most re-recorded songs in the history of pop music.
I’ve never had an epiphany like that while dreaming, nor have a woken up with an entire scene or answer to a major plot point problem. But I have woken up with bits and pieces bouncing around in my brain that, after writing them down and working on them for a while, have turned into really important pieces of a plot puzzle. While working on discovering more about our stories in the McDaniel class, I woke one morning with a few lines of poetry in my head. I am no poet by any stretch of the imagination, but when I strung multiple lines into stanzas and stanzas into a one-page poem, I realized I’d just discovered the backstory of one of my antagonists.
The poem was from the POV of Linney Newman, mother and thorn in the side of protagonist Sarah. When I read the poem, I realized it was Linney lamenting the untimely death of her husband. Before that morning and that poem, I hadn’t realized Linney’s husband (Sarah’s father) was dead. Unexpectedly widowed in her 50s and left with too much time on her hands, Linney turned her laser-sharp focus on solving her grown daughter’s problems. You can imagine how much Sarah welcomes this ‘help’, hence the antagonistic relationship between them.
Brain science now supports what we have intuitively know for years: dreaming can help us face stressors, work through fears, and solve complex problems. For creative types, that might mean something as simple as revealing a character motivation or as complex as conjuring an iconic song.
By the way, our little work experiment was incredibly successful. We managed to solve each of the two biggest issues we were encountering after reconvening after a night’s sleep. Whether you want to call it activation synthesis, dream work, or plain old effects of a good night’s sleep, all I can tell you is it worked. Our brains are amazing machines. Our brains on sleep might be damn near unstoppable.
Have you ever written a famous song, come up with an entire story, or at least solved a plot problem through dream work?