I am sure everyone is familiar with the experience of a vivid dream being forgotten just moments after waking. Ironically, it is only if we could remember these dreams that we would appreciate the tragedy of having lost them – for dreams are the raw, unchanneled creative power of the imagination, and provide a vast landscape of ideas, few of which we manage to bring with us into the waking world.
I am a writer, and I can say with conviction that my best ideas are the ones I remember from the edge of sleep. Dreaming is a foray into the world of ideas. I do not mean to say that anything mystical is going on, or that dreaming somehow takes us out of ourselves – books, conversations, teaching, and preaching are much better at taking us out of ourselves in that they expose us to the broad landscape of other people’s ideas. Dreams show us only our own ideas – but dreaming sets our imaginations so free that it shows us ideas we did not yet know we had.
This is because our conscious minds are usually occupied with the day-to-day tasks and entertainments of the modern world, and it takes effort to make our thoughts wander far enough to find any ideas really worth keeping. But the unconscious is a sea where ideas roil without boundary and without filter. Sinking into it makes me think of Clarence’s “tumbling billows” speech from Shakespeare’s Richard III. (Ironically this speech is describing a dream, which, also ironically, he has no trouble remembering.)
Methought I saw a thousand fearful wrecks;
Ten thousand men that fishes gnaw’d upon;
Wedges of gold, great anchors, heaps of pearl,
Inestimable stones, unvalued jewels,
All scattered in the bottom of the sea…
Had [I] such leisure in the time of death
To gaze upon the secrets of the deep?
Methought I had…
Excerpted from Richard III, I.4.9-36
(Dover Thrift Edition, 1995)
This is a chaotic, alarming world, but one through which we can drift safely, with leisure to gaze at its treasures without fear of drowning. The much bigger danger is one we are all acquainted with: the inability to bring any of these treasures back with us. Remembering dreams is a little like bobbing for apples. (This metaphor gives a new meaning to the phrase “coming up with an idea.”)
A technique I recommend for bringing a few more of these golden apples into the waking world is to write your dreams down immediately upon waking. Ever since a Patrick Henry College literature professor suggested this practice of dream journaling, I have kept some kind of paper on my nightstand at all times (this article, as well as the connection to Richard III, were conceived this way). All students, and creative students in particular – writers, artists, and musicians – will be surprised at the results.
Writing your dreams down immediately after waking will not only help you remember your most recent dreams, but it also can discipline the mind to be able to remember dreams further back during the night. I expect this is because the more time I spend thinking about the world of imagination, the more comfortable I feel there. Of course, the majority of the apples you bob up with are very short notes – my gleanings are usually seeds and starting points of other ideas which need to be expanded later. This is why it is important for you to revisit your ideas and engage them – and writing them down is the first prerequisite for doing so.
One tip I can offer is that the best ideas come fresh from the verge of sleep. Here’s a little dream science: dreaming happens during what scientists call rapid eye movement (REM) sleep, the lightest part of the sleep cycle. REM occurs throughout the night, but with greater frequency and duration as you get closer to waking. This is why so many dreams seem to happen just as you are waking up! These are the easiest ones to journal, but even though I started out by journaling them, I personally get my best ideas as I am falling asleep. In these instances, years of journaling have taught me the skill of recognizing when an idea is good, and yanking myself awake in order to write it. It makes me wonder how many good ideas passed me by before I learned this skill.
I also find nap sleep, which rarely gets deeper than REM anyway (and car-nap sleep is particularly fun here), to be some of the best: During a nice hour-long nap today, I got the idea for an iPad app that keeps you in REM sleep via a carefully timed program of gentle alarms which go off at intervals that self-adjust according to your snooze-button reaction times.
Dream journaling is the best way to solve the basic difficulty of dreams: the unused creativity of dreams. May your journal catch some good apples!