The first time I used dreams to teach writing was — like
many of my better ideas — a last-minute improvisation. I
was a freelancer looking for extra income. I had been asked to
submit a proposal to teach a writing workshop at the Center for
Creative Youth, a program for gifted high school students in the
arts, based at Wesleyan University. It had to be interdisciplinary,
challenging, and fun.
In my experience, those three things rarely go together, but I
was seeking new opportunities. My own writing at that time was
divided between plays — some of which had been performed
off-off-Broadway for audiences of, oh, fifteen or twenty — and
magazine journalism, mostly for magazines in which I had no actual
interest. Yet one thing connected my disparate writings: I often
found an image, phrase, character, or nascent idea in the jumble
of my dreams.
Of course, dreams and creativity have a richly intertwined history.
Writers, artists, scientists, generals all have found unexpected
inspiration in the Alice-in-Wonderland scenarios of their dreams.
Robert Louis Stevenson famously found a pivotal moment in Dr.
Jekyll and Mr. Hyde in a dream; he spoke often of the “little people” who
seemed to perform some of his work for him during the night, like
the elves who magically cobble shoes in the fairytale. I always
responded to that idea. But could I make it work for restless teens?
I proposed a four session workshop, Dreaming & Creating. It
was immediately declared to be interdisciplinary and challenging
enough. But would it also be fun?
That summer, I introduced my overwhelmingly sweet, bright, enthusiastic
sixteen year olds to Kafka, Barthelme, Garcia-Marquez. We read
fairytales, checked out Magritte, even looked at such picture-language
of the unconscious as tarot cards and the I Ching.
I cajoled the class into keeping a dream journal and directed them
to comb through it for the threads of creative insight that could
be spun into gold. We talked a little about Freud and Jung and
also about the creepy, inexplicable aspects of dreams.
We wrote scenes, stories, poems. At the end of the summer, one
of my students said, “No one ever talks to us like this.
This was fun!”
And it was.
I ended up teaching in that program for many years, and the dream
segment of the class was always one of the most successful. But
that was a creative writing class, full of students who were already
galloping headlong toward new ways of thinking. It did not occur
to me for some time that working with dreams could engage your
average college freshman.
Indeed, what engaged your average college freshman was not a subject
in which I had much interest. But in my 30s, after several semi-disastrous
years as a freelancer (during which the phrase this is a stupid
way to live became my mantra), I agreed to teach a freshman writing
course at NYU.
The second semester of this course demanded research papers. I
floundered around for a few years, seeking topics which might spark
my students’ interest yet not fill me with dread: Find
something that happened the year of your birth to research (appealing but
too broad). Find something you want to know more about and
research that (far too many papers on film-making, indie bands, and drug
laws). Find something about your family background you didn’t
know and research that (this elicited outright sighs of dismay
from some students, many of whom were in post-adolescent flight
from their families).
One year, a student came in for a conference and hesitantly confided
that she was interested in investigating her dreams. She kept a
dream journal, had read some of the classic texts, wanted to pursue
a career in art therapy. Could she write a research paper about
trying to understand her dream life?
She could and she did, and it was pretty good too. The next year,
I suggested dream studies as a topic to a few students I thought
might appreciate it. The year after that, I made it one of the
My initial impulse was to concentrate on dream analysis. I asked
my students to keep track of their dreams over a short period of
time, made available some of my own books on the subject, and exhorted
them to use one of the numerous approaches to dream interpretation
(Jungian, gestalt, content analysis) to probe their own dream world.
But there was resistance. The discussion itself — what we
know, think we know, or have heard about dreams — was always
among the liveliest of the semester. But many students claimed
they could not remember their dreams; some felt their dreams were
too complex or private to use as fodder for a research paper, and
in some I noticed an almost visceral reaction, as if pushing open
the shut door of their unconscious were like lifting a rock. They
were afraid of finding hideous squirmy things beneath it.
Around this time, I interviewed for a full time position teaching
writing in the General Studies Program at NYU. One of the considerations
was an ability to promote writing across the curriculum. “How
would I integrate that concept into my class?” I was asked.
My first impulse was to blurt out that all good writing is writing
across the curriculum, or that writing across the curriculum has
to be handled by teachers across the curriculum, or that I had
no real idea what writing across the curriculum meant. But I stifled
that impulse. I said: My dream research project. I improvised different
possibilities: writing about the Surrealists for art history majors,
about the neurology of dreaming for pre-med students, about Native
American dream structures for anthropology majors…
And as I spun out this scenario, I began to think it sounded rather
Spring 2006 marked the tenth year I have assigned my Dream Project.
Some years, students transfer into the class because they’ve
heard about my interest in dreams (full disclosure: some also transfer
out, in a mad dash to avoid this unwanted encounter with the unconscious).
Occasionally, the project clicks with only a few, but most years
my students come up with their best ideas and write their strongest
essays in response to this assignment.
I tinker with the project every year but the outline remains fairly
• We begin by reading two stories. The first is largely realistic
but with some darker overtones (e.g. “Where Are You Going,
Where Have You Been” by Joyce Carol Oates); the second a
story with an indisputably nightmarish milieu (Kafka’s “The
Country Doctor” is my current favorite). We look at some
of the distinctions between realistic and (for want of a better
term) surrealistic depictions of the world.
• I ask my students to fill out an elaborate dream questionnaire:
how often do they recall their dreams? Have they ever had recurring
dreams? Nightmares? Do they ever fly, fall, die in their dreams?
What kinds of objects, people, colors, landscapes do they recall?
Have they ever had dreams that seemed to them significant? Do they
feel that they understand their dreams (more or less)? Have they
ever had a dream that seemed premonitory or psychic? What ideas
about dreams have they heard from their families, friends? We spend
at least one full class, often two, discussing the multifarious
answers to these questions.
• We read and chat about some related material; this varies
every year but Freud, Jung, the Surrealist movement, ancient ideas
dreams, and pop-cultural versions of dream lore are usually in
• They make a proposal for the paper and begin preliminary
research, both to make sure they are genuinely interested in the
that they can find enough material to construct their work.
• They write two drafts of the paper, sharing it with a small
group, conferring with me, working on their own.
Just as there are certain types of common dreams (social anxiety
dreams, sexual conflict dreams, childhood memory dreams), there
are certain categories of dream research papers which recur every
year. The mystifying and empowering aspects of dreams are very
big with college freshmen; most years I read half a dozen essays
on dream telepathy, psychic dreams, the prophetic dream, shared
dreaming, out-of-body experiences, dreams and witchcraft, dreams
and the shamanic journey. A related topic — lucid dreaming — has
recently reached the top five.
My students spring from remarkably diverse ethnic and cultural
backgrounds, and this too is reflected in their paper topics. In
2003, I read two essays comparing Korean dream lore with that of
the West. Dream interpretation in Haitian culture, Hindu/Buddhist
dream mythology, and dreams in the Talmud have all been proffered
in the past few years.
Dali and Magritte inevitably loom large in this project for my
artistic students. Sometimes I beseech them to look at any other
Surrealist — why not Max Ernst, for heaven’s sake?
Brilliant, not nearly as familiar. Similarly, Kafka remains an
enduring choice for potential literature majors but essays on the
significance of dreams in medieval literature, Shakespeare’s
plays, and the oeuvre of the Beat poets occasionally wash up on
the vast shore of this project.
But perhaps the two most common categories in recent years manifest
an intriguing dichotomy of interests:
1) The neurological basis of sleep and sleep disorders/the chemistry
2) An investigation and interpretation of their own dream mythology.
Perhaps, these two kinds of essays reveal inherent truths about
the pressures and influences on today’s college students — the
student wired for the pragmatic world versus the perennial undergraduate
interest in the self. Or perhaps, they represent some larger schism
in contemporary pop culture, like the tug-of-war between “reality” programs
and fantasy shows on television (The Apprentice versus Lost?).
Or perhaps, it merely means that students are interested in sleep,
brain chemistry, and themselves.
But the past few years have also produced more interesting hybrid
papers: a well-researched essay on post-traumatic stress dreams
coupled with an analysis of the author’s recurring nightmares
following an automobile accident; an investigation of Calvin Hall’s
content analysis approach to dream studies melded into an essay
on repeated dream themes within the author’s own family;
a consideration of the relationship between the imagery of Surrealist
paintings and Ernest Hartmann’s theory of connectivity in
This change may be because the students in my program are increasingly
well-read and better prepared for research than previously; it
may also reflect my own desire to allow them more freedom to find
their niche in the labyrinthine palace of dream studies.
When I first began the project, I was sufficiently concerned about
my students’ ability to find appropriate material that I
restricted them to subjects I felt they could mine within a short
period of time. Now, with the world of research enormously expanded
by the Internet, my concerns are often different.
Will they be able to wriggle free from the octopus embrace of the
World Wide Web, for instance? The word dream — indeed the
whole concept of dreaming — is so shadowed with alternative
meanings, nuances, and evocative pop imagery that any noodling
around with a good search engine will pull up thousands of pages.
Hours can be spent — or lost — in perusing those entries.
And while almost all of my students (and most other human beings)
are more technologically savvy than I am, many of them are not
yet sufficiently good critical thinkers to pluck the nuggets of
knowledge out of the river of nonsense which flows through the
Of course, there are many useful, responsible websites regarding
dreams: the Association for the Study of Dreams, Dreamtree, the
Freud and Jung archives, the Lucidity Institute, to name just a
few. And with an occasional nudge from me, most of my students
learn to distinguish these from the numerous less useful sites:
sites which offer to interpret your dreams for a fee, sites which
feature paeans to various dream gurus but little in the way of
actual information and countless sites suggesting Get Newest
Dream for Small Business! or Hot Dreams Now!
Some of the crackpot websites are not without interest, and I often
remind my students that it is not necessary to believe in a phenomenon
to write interestingly about it. But this is a hard sell. I did
once get a quite sophisticated paper analyzing the approach to
dream interpretation found in tabloids and the little booklets
for sale at supermarket checkout counters. More often, my students
complain that I am too cynical when I point out that just because
the Edgar Cayce Institute claims that Cayce’s numerous dream
prophecies were stunningly accurate does not necessarily prove
But in truth most complaints about this project are merely contemporary
variations on the two classic cries of student researchers: I
find enough material! and I have so much material I don’t
know where to start! And as with more conventional research projects,
a little shove sometimes makes all the difference.
For the student struggling to write fully and interestingly about
a narrow topic like insomnia, I might suggest expanding the topic
to cover the larger (and slightly eerie) category of parasomnias,
or interviewing her friends on the sleep struggles of average college
freshmen, or expanding her focus still further to include contemporary
ideas about sleep in books, magazines, films.
For the student wishing to analyze his own dreams, I usually suggest
an essay positing only one or two of the countless theories of
dream interpretation, using his own dreams as examples. What might
a Freudian suggest about that corpse lying naked on the dorm room
floor? What would be Eugene Gendlin’s body-centered take
on the same image?
Of course mediocre, rambling, and unengaged papers emerge from
this rich stew as from any other assignment in a freshman English
class. But many students come back semesters or even years later
to tell me that this one paper stuck in their minds, introduced
them to a world they knew little of, produced a bright new spectacle
in the theater of their thoughts.
And have I learned something from this dream project as well? Reader,
I have learned some remarkable facts, fascinating theories, wild
and weird lore about the unconscious and its manifestations in
human culture. I even wrote a book about it (The Dreamer’s
Companion, Chicago Review Press, 1997).
I have learned how capacious a topic dream studies really can be,
and how (unwittingly) shrewd I was in suggesting that it crosses
curricular boundaries. I have learned that even weak writers can
be so gripped by an idea or image that they snag my interest too.
And I have learned something about hope as well.
I always ask my students to write an end-of-semester journal entry:
what (if anything) did they learn this semester that they didn’t
expect to learn? A couple of years ago, in response to this prompt,
one of my students wrote the following: Dreams taught me not
to give up hope! I was hoping to find something to be interested
my freshman year and I hadn’t until we did the dream project.
I was hoping to be pleased with something I wrote and I wasn’t
until we did the dream project…
Hope is decidedly not the first image which comes into most people’s
minds when they consider dreams. My own dreams are far more likely
to teem with anxiety, absurdity, inchoate fear. But dreams have
opened creative doors — in my own work, in my students’ work,
in artists and thinkers across time and culture. So, perhaps, hope
is not so inapposite a word; perhaps thinking and writing about
dreams is not merely a good way to occupy college freshmen, not
merely a difficult exercise in capturing and describing the ineffable,
but is also a path pointing upward toward a larger truth.
For, as Yeats says, “…it is dreams/That lift us to
the flowing, changing world/That the heart longs for.”
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