Fall 2006

Volume 1, Issue 2



In Dreams Begin


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 assignments.

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 good.

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 consistent:

• 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 about dreams, and pop-cultural versions of dream lore are usually in the mix.

• They make a proposal for the paper and begin preliminary research, both to make sure they are genuinely interested in the topic and 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 of dreaming.

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 the brain.

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 web.

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 them so.

But in truth most complaints about this project are merely contemporary variations on the two classic cries of student researchers: I can’t 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.

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 in 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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