People ask why I bring dreams into my creative writing classes. Frankly, I now find it difficult to discuss literature without broaching the subject of dreams. Poems, stories, and dreams are all rich in narrative, vivid imagery and metaphor—and they come from the same place of memory, imagination, and mystery. They seem like such close cousins, it’s difficult for me to discuss one without bringing in the other.
But it was my experience of teaching poetry and creative writing in literacy settings, where many of my students had never read a book cover to cover, didn’t know the meaning of the word fiction or how to spell the word poem, where my belief in the connection between dreams and writing was tested and affirmed. When working with students who couldn’t—or wouldn’t—attempt to put pen to paper, and put words to their thoughts—and whose imaginations had in many cases had been sealed shut after the shock of abuse and trauma, my love for dreams provided the best teaching manual I could have asked for.
After all, even people who claim they never remember their dreams usually have at least one memorable childhood nightmare or dream experience that was bizarre or vivid enough to stick with them. And that dream often has the seed of a story or poem within it, as well as healing potential.
“Just write down the dream as if it’s happening now,” I instruct blocked students. And before anyone has a chance to say they have nothing to write about, pencils are flying across the page. For example, Latisha, a teen mother, and reluctant writer in a GED program, told me she dreams about spiders. “Write about that,” I suggested. But she shook her head: those dreams were too creepy, she said.
“Then think of the spiders symbolically,” I said. “What are spiders like? What might they represent to you?”
After a group brainstorm, in which she and her classmates suggested spiders are creepy, ugly, and sometimes poisonous, weavers, egg-layers, and more, Latisha began to write. The spider as metaphor was less threatening than the spider as a real-life arachnid. And the one in her poem, which took on the attributes of being a fierce and protective mother—just as Latisha was. Her poem had the entire class listening closely, laughing, and sighing in recognition.
During another poetry workshop for unemployed adults, we read Maya Angelou’s poem “Still I Rise,” which ends with the lines:
Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave,
I am the dream and the hope of the slave.
In response Kiki, a teen mother without a high school education, wrote:
I am the dream
a poor man’s daughter
strong, black and beautiful. …
I am the child
the child of a poor man.
Ah, but I am the rich one.
I could fill a book with examples of transformative experiences and literary breakthroughs prompted by dreaming on the page:
· There was the recent immigrant in an English as a Second Language class, whose pen lay frozen on the table, and whose eyes filled with fear whenever I asked her to write—who came to life when she wrote a dream-inspired story in a language she had thought was beyond her reach.
· And there was the widow who put the dream of her husband, alive again, into a poem, and began to heal from her decades-old loss.
· And there have been poem upon poem—many of which have made their way into print—that have transformed a dream into a work of art, and a high-school dropout (or a discouraged writer) into a confident (and often published) scribe.
My students in literacy settings showed me how dreams release our creative voice, and I’ve used these lessons in my workshops for MFA students, professionals, and experienced writers and authors alike. Using dreams as texts, dream images as prompts for poems, and the fluidity of the dreaming mind to jostle a creative block into a creative breakthrough, is a resource every writer has, literally, at their fingertips.
Tzivia Gover is an author and dreamwork professional and has taught dreams and writing for over two decades, including classes for teen mothers, immigrants studying English as a Second Language, community college students in developmental writing classes, and K-12 students living in poverty in New York City—as well as students in MFA programs, published writers, and professionals in the arts and sciences. Her workshop, Dreaming on the Page, will be taught through Writers in Progress on six Thursday evenings beginning March 29. more information here…