Nancy: Sweet Dreams are Made of This


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?

6 thoughts on “Nancy: Sweet Dreams are Made of This

  1. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve rolled out of bed with plot ideas or fixes. In fact just this morning I woke up with a new idea (direction) for a scene I wrote yesterday. The idea will turn the scene in a different direction but will advance a brand new plot line, as well as play a role in the climax.

    Does that count as dream work?

  2. I haven’t gotten any great insight from dreams, but for me, I think it’s because I don’t sleep long enough. Brain research suggests that the more vivid, problem-solving dreams come later in the sleep cycles and the earlier sleep cycles are just daily processing dreams. There are some other famous examples of dreams as sources of insights. Genghis Khan received his battle plans from his dreams. Robert Louis Stevenson believed Dr. Jekyl and Mr. Hyde came from a dream. And Elias Howe invented the sewing machine after getting the core idea in a nightmare.

  3. I’ve definitely found dream work successful, though I would have scoffed at the idea a few years back if someone had suggested it. The contemporary story I’m currently working on (when I’m taking a break from my historical) has come almost completely from dream work. I woke up with the whole first scene one morning and it replayed for several nights running. Successive scenes have come the same way. I’ve also had success figuring out what comes next in my current story when I get stuck by thinking about it right before bed and then letting my subconscious percolate on it. Different things work for different people, but this really works for me.

  4. Dreaming definitely works for me, Nancy. I usually get my best ideas in the morning, in that weird state between waking and sleeping. My subconscious seems to focus on whatever it deems most important, so sometimes it’s my story but other times it could be family or finances or whatever is top of my mind.

  5. (-: My favorite version of the Paul McCartney anecdote is where he goes around singing “Scrambled eeeeggs!” to the tune of “Yesterday.” (-: He had the tune, and it was the seed, but he still had a long way to go (with a little help from his friends). Truly, a process, and those morning gifts are really something that shouldn’t be thrown away.

    I’ve been struggling with morning work lately. First, I haven’t been able to remember my dreams for years. Second, I have a startling alarm so anything in my head is scared out (and I’m afraid to go for something gentler because I must wake up). And third, I haven’t got the time in the morning to take notes.

    This could all be solved if I went to bed earlier — I’ve been under the weather this week, so I’ve been in bed by 8 p.m., and I wake up before the alarm. There are some stirrings . . . .

    Despite all of this, I have come up with some excellent ideas on Saturday mornings (when I can wake naturally). The Girls really are busy, busy, down there in their basement all night.

    Sleep really is an altered state of mind, and the oddest things bump into each other around 5 a.m.

    (-: But like McCartney’s “Scrambled Eggs” that great idea is just the beginning.

    • Ah, also, I notice my Girls get pissed off and go on strike when I don’t pay attention to them on a regular basis. Anyone else notice that? So, sometimes it takes a few days of pampering the Girls in order to get anything out of the ordinary. That means sleep, mostly, and clearing the decks in other areas of life. At least for me.

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