“Dreams are real while we have them; can we say more of life?” –anonymous
My seventeenth year was a nightmare (a waking one!) My parents were in the middle of a bitter divorce, my mother had recently had a nervous breakdown, and my dad was having an affair. Late at night, through the heating vent by my bed, I could hear my father’s angry voice and my mother’s sobs in the downstairs rec room. It was a painful and volatile time but my older brother, who was away at college, kept urging me to keep our parents together and our family intact. I had no idea how I was supposed to accomplish this. Further more, I didn’t want to.
“I’m not interested in all this parent shit,” I wrote back. “I just want to get out of here.”
It would take me decades to discover that this was not the voice of a callous teenager but of a heart-broken young woman who cared passionately about all that “parent shit.” I did not learn this from distance and adult perspective; I learned it from my dreams.
When I was beginning to write my memoir and examining this chapter of my life, I returned again and again in my dreams to the brick bungalow in suburban Detroit where my family and I lived when I was a teenager. In these dreams, I begged my father to buy back our house (it had been sold shortly after I graduated from high school.) It bothered my dream-self that my family had been shattered and our home sold when I was fragile myself, and most needed the structure and protection of a home and a family.
“Our family is splintered,” I told Dad in my dreams. “We need a physical place to come together in dreams, to act out old dramas and try out new ones.” (Interestingly, I found out later that our old house was actually up for sale again while I was having these dreams.)
It took a lot of arguing to persuade my dream-dad to buy a dream house. When he finally gave in and bought an old frame colonial with a massivehouse for sale front hall and a fireplace (truly a dream house for me) I felt a deep sense of healing that spilled over into waking life. I was piecing myself and my life back together again, both in my dreams and in my memoir.
In other dreams, I’ve revisited scenes from the past with a joyous sense of immediacy not accessible in waking life. This is especially true in lucid dreams (dreams in which you realize that you are dreaming.) Recently, I had a lucid dream that I was walking down the familiar streets to my old high school. Everything around me – the dappled sunlight, the brilliant green trees, the shadows on the sidewalk, my very awareness – was sharper and more vivid than in waking life. I was waking up in my dream, and in the dream of life, to all the possibilities and insights I’d missed before. Like writingsunlight treesmemoir, dreams allow you to inhabit the “here and now” of the past.
Here are five tips to help you use your dreams, especially lucid dreams, to deepen and enrich your memoir:
Tip #1: Remember your dreams
Dream memories are fragile and easily disintegrate when you open your eyes. Some people keep a pad and pencil nearby at night to record their dreams. I like to use a mini-tape recorder because turning on the light chases an elusive dream memory further into the shadows. Later, you can transcribe the dream into your journal. What does it bring to mind? What would you like to explore further through writing? Dream recall followed by reflection is a fertile exercise for writing memoir.
Tip #2 Recognize your dream symbols
If you want to experience the euphoria and heightened awareness of a lucid dream, train yourself to recognize objects, people and places that show up repeatedly in your dreams. These are your own unique dream symbols and their appearance could be a sign that you are, in fact, dreaming. For me, houses in my past with new, unexplored rooms, nineteenth century costumes, and old watches signal a possible dream-state.
Tip #3 Test your reality
If I find myself gazing at an antique watch or talking about dreams with a friend, I try to remember to test my state to see if I am dreaming. (Don’t assume you are not dreaming even if you are convinced you’re awake. If you dismiss the possibility during a waking state, you’ll do the same in a dream.) One way to test your state is to jump up in the air and see if you can fly. If it takes you a fraction of second longer to drift down to earth, you are definitely dreaming. (Don’t jump out of any windows though, until you’re absolutely sure.)
Another way to test your reality is to glance at a digital clock, look away, and then glance back. If you’re dreaming, the numbers on the clock will look skewed, wiggle around, or suddenly jump an hour ahead.digital clock
By the way, don’t believe people who insist you’re being silly to test your reality because (they say) you’re obviously not dreaming. Daytime skeptics inevitably show up in your dreams and you’ll be sorry later that you listened to them.
Tip #4 Ask yourself why?
Both in waking and dreaming states, remember to ask yourself, why am I here? What can I discover or investigate?
Do you want to relive a chapter in your life to gain insight? Imaginatively “overhear” a conversation you missed the first time? Talk to someone who is no longer living? These questions will yield treasures both in dreams and writing.
Tip #5 Don’t try too hard
Trying too hard to have a certain dream or to dream lucidly is like trying to fall asleep – the more you try, the more elusive your goal becomes. Just do the exercises faithfully and then forget about it. Your dream work will come to fruition in its own time.
Dreams are an invaluable source of healing, insight and revelation. Use them sparingly in your memoir, however. Other peoples’ dreams are rarely interesting to readers unless they are a deeply compelling, integral part of the story, as in Amy Tan’s essay, A Question of Fate.
Note: A version of this post was originally published in womensmemoirs.com