Can lucid dreaming set our creativity on fire?

How can we lucidly generate original ideas and artwork?

Can we develop fictional plots and powerful characters when we become conscious in our dreams?

Imagine the wonder of discovering you can easily dissolve creative blocks and never need sit anxiously before a blank page again.

Lucid dreaming is a fantastically creative state of consciousness and it has been my life’s mission to discover how we can bring this creative power into every aspect of our life.

My childhood was filled with flying lucid dreams, nightmares, creative storytelling, and sleepwalking. In a dreamlike and beautiful life twist, I later became the first person in the world to do a PhD on lucid dreaming as a creative writing tool (University of Leeds, England, 2007).

(Holding my thesis: “The Role of Lucid Dreaming in the Process of Creative Writing”)

My research methodology included a case study evaluation of 25 professional writers, artists, and lucid dream researchers. Through these primary sources, insights were acquired into the practical and theoretical possibilities of lucid dreaming as a creative tool.

My doctoral research was rooted in practice as I wrote a lucid-dream-inspired novel, Breathing in Colour. I drew on lucid dreams for inspiration at each stage of the creative process and reported my findings.

In addition to the case studies and the novel, I examined the experiences of famous writers who document the role of dreams in their creative writing process in Naomi Epel’s wonderful book, Writers Dreaming. I also examined two other novels that feature lucid dreaming. 

I presented my PhD research while it was ongoing, at international conferences held in various countries, and published papers. It was at this time that I discovered the amazing work of the International Association for the Study of Dreams (IASD).  I became President and CEO of this global dream organisation in 2018. 

 

Some of my Lucid Dream Thesis Research Questions
  • Might the high level of perceptual realism in lucid dreams stimulate the imagination more than a daydream would?
  • Can lucid dreamers explore plot development in the dream state?
  • What is a ‘creative trance’ and how is it connected with lucid dreaming?
  • What benefits could be had from writers entering into dialogue with their fictional characters during lucid dreams?
  • Could lucid dreams be useful in the elimination of creative blocks?
  • What are the pitfalls of using lucid dreams to complement the creative process?
  • Could the practice of lucid dreaming bring writers and artists into closer contact with the imagery and archetypes prevalent in dreams?
  • Do lucid dreams cultivate spontaneity?
  • Can lucid dreaming facilitate the creative flow of ideas in art and literature?

(A lucid dream graduation. Summer 2007) 

During the three years of my PhD on “The Role of Lucid Dreaming in the Process of Creative Writing”  I drew on my own lucid dreams to determine the usefulness of lucid dreaming in three main areas of the creative writing process – the generation of ideas, the writer’s trance, and plot development.

What follows in this blog post is not taken from my final dissertation, but is adapted from an article I wrote for Mslexia magazine in 2011. My PhD thesis can be found in Leeds University Library, and the novel that was an integral part of my doctorate is Breathing in Colour. Key elements of my doctoral work appear in Llewellyn’s Complete Book of Lucid Dreaming.

The Generation of Ideas

The lucid dreamer enters into direct, conscious contact with the creative medium of the dreaming mind. The imagination can be observed unfolding like a film, and the action can be directed if desired. Lucid dreams tend to be incredibly vivid – American author John Locatelli describes the moment of becoming lucid in a dream as ‘like the difference between watching a movie in black and white and suddenly having it change to colour.’ The imagery is memorable and often contains kinaesthetic, sensual, archetypal elements conducive to the creation of original fiction or poetry.

Anne Rice, author of Interview with the Vampire, writes: ‘The last time I had a flying dream I knew I was really doing it. I was aware but I was also really there. It was fabulously real… a deepening of the sensuous aspect of flying. And I can take that back to the typewriter’ (Epel 1994).

Lucid dreamers often have a high level of analytical thought and the ability to carry out predetermined experiments within the dream (Saint-Denys 1867, LaBerge 1986). Lucid dreamers can hunt for story ideas while in the dream, or summon their own fictional characters to get to know them better.

Dream characters are full of surprises: during one lucid dream chat with the artist in my novel, he huffed, ‘You might be the author but you’re not God.’ That told me! Lucid dream researchers LaBerge and Rheingold advise: ‘If you want to learn to paint, summon Rembrandt. Go fishing with Hemingway or Hesse and talk about that novel you’ve always wanted to write’.

A lucid dream may provide a valuable idea when there’s a block in the creative process. When I began Breathing in Colour, I had a lucid dream in which I experienced a fistful of sand as having an orange texture and taste. This gave me the idea that my protagonist, Mia, would have synaesthesia, a condition where the senses are mingled. Mia’s multi-sensory voice became a key element of the novel. I went on to deliberately induce synaesthesia in further lucid dreams, a fascinating experiment which enabled me to write more authentically about synaesthesia, since I had experienced it while conscious in my dreams.

The Writer’s Trance

Stephen King notes: ‘Part of my function as a writer is to dream awake… whether you’re dreaming or whether you’re writing creatively the brainwaves are apparently interchangeable’. He’s referring to the EEG-verified presence of alpha brainwaves in both a relaxed, waking state and during REM sleep. King goes on to say how precious a waking dream state is, how it’s ‘like finding a secret door in a room but not knowing exactly how you got in’ (Epel 1994). I call this state the writer’s trance, and I have developed a method for going through the ‘secret door’ – my Lucid Writing technique, which has now been used by many thousands of people around the globe.

The writer’s trance can be seen as a waking version of lucid dreaming, where we sink as deeply as we can into our unconscious minds while remaining awake, allowing ideas to flow freely and rapidly as dream imagery mingles with our imagination. The writer will find that a dream image quickly morphs into something else – a memory, a face, a moving scene – and as she describes this new imagery, she slips into writing fiction.

Since lucid dream images are often particularly radiant and intense, they are ideal for working with in the writer’s trance, but any vivid dream image can be used. Anything can happen in the writer’s trance, so it’s wise to have someone you trust on hand in case painful memories emerge. As with any dreamwork, it’s vital to retain a sense that you are in control of your material, and know when to stop.

My development of lucid dream imagery in the writer’s trance resulted in some weird and wonderful characters. An initial image of a scarecrow-like figure sinking into a field developed into a silver disc-headed man. An elephant emerging from a tree trunk became a winged elephant with diamond blue eyes. These creations found roles in the novel as my protagonists’ personalised archetypes.

(In 2005 I won the Student Research Award of the International Association for the Study of Dreams for my original research on lucid dreaming and plot development)

 
Plot Development

Freud likened lucid dreamers to playwrights when he spoke of people who ‘seem to possess the faculty of consciously directing their dreams’. He noted that such dreamers can replay the action, ‘just as a popular dramatist may under pressure give his play a happier ending’ (1965). Indeed, screenwriter Paul Schrader develops his plots in the lucid dream state through creating and recreating film-like narratives: ‘I’ll critique the “dream story” as it occurs. I’ll think, “This is not a good scene,” “I should drop this character,” or “I need some action” – back up and “re-dream” the scene’ (Barrett 2001).

Non-lucid dreams can be chaotic and random, but researcher Ed Kellogg notes that ‘Intentionality in the dream state seems almost akin to creation’ (1999), so that in a lucid dream the expectation of a coherent sequence of events is likely to prompt just that, thus providing a useful platform for experimentation with plot development. The lucid dreamer could conjure up a dream theatre and watch her own fictional characters act out the next chapter of a novel-in-progress, or throw a question about plot into the dream environment and observe the response she gets.

Plot development can also take place after the dream, in the writer’s trance. Following a disturbing conversation with a friend who has a sleep disorder and admitted to dragging his girlfriend around the bedroom by her hair while he was asleep, I had several lucid dreams about sleep violence. Writing off one powerful image in the writer’s trance, the scene opened up with startling intensity and morphed into a fictional world so compelling that I realised I wanted to write a story about the effects of a sleep disorder on a loving family. This became the premise for my second novel, Dreamrunner.

Dream Control

My doctoral research identified four different levels of dream control, from Passive Observation and Passive Participation to Sporadic Control and Continuous Control. Lucid dreamers can become skilled at inviting ideas, creating scenes, and exploring plot twists, while engaging with the natural, boundless creativity of the dreaming mind.

Bestselling author Amy Tan seems adept at lucid dreaming her way into fiction. In Naomi Epel’s Writers Dreaming, she says: ‘I have found in dreams that I can change the setting by simply looking down at my feet then looking up again… The key is realising that it is a dream and that there’s a part of me that can control what’s happening in the dream… when I get into a dream world I can create fiction by going down surprising pathways’.

Writing While Asleep

Anyone can have lucid dreams and, with practice, learn to work with them in ways which support the writing process. If you’ve ever had that sinking feeling that there aren’t enough hours in the week for your writing, consider the fact that we sleep for a third of our lives, and every night there are dozens of possibilities to become conscious while dreaming. Why not maximise and enrich your writing life by taking up lucid dreaming and continuing the creative writing process in your sleep? As magical realism author Jorge Luis Borges said: ‘Writing is nothing more than a guided dream.’

How to lucid dream
  • Improve your dream recall. Ask yourself on waking, What was I doing just now? Even if all you can remember is a colour, that’s a great start, and it’ll get better fast.
  • Recognise incongruent elements in your dreams: In the supermarket, a frozen pizza melts in your hand like a Dali clock. Or you find yourself flying, Superman-style, over your old school. Aha, you think, I must be dreaming this!
  • Cultivate a clear intention to become lucid in your dreams. Repeat to yourself throughout the day and directly before bedtime: ‘Tonight I will recognise that I am dreaming’.
  • For more tips on becoming proficient at lucid dreaming, read Llewellyn’s Complete Book of Lucid Dreaming, or (for a shorter read), try The Art of Lucid Dreaming, which even has a Lucidity Quiz to fast-track you to the best techniques for you personally.
  • Try my Lucid Journeying technique to enter a lucid dream from a state of blissful relaxation, with one of my audio and video courses such as Dream Yoga, or my 30-Day Power of Dreams class.
References

Barrett, D. (2001) The Committee of Sleep – How Artists, Scientists, and Athletes use Dreams for Creative Problem-Solving – and How You Can Too, New York, Crown Publishers.

Epel, N. (ed) (1994) Writers Dreaming, New York, Vintage Books.

Freud, S. (1965) The Interpretation of Dreams, trans. J. Strachey. New York, Avon Books.

Johnson, Clare (2006) “The Role of Lucid Dreaming in the Process of Creative Writing” PhD Diss., University of Leeds, UK.

Johnson, Clare (2020) The Art of Lucid Dreaming. Woodbury, MN: Llewellyn Worldwide.

Johnson, Clare, (2018) Mindful Dreaming: Harness the Power of Lucid Dreaming for Happiness, Health, and Positive Change. San Francisco, CA: Conari Press.

Johnson, Clare, (2017). Llewellyn’s Complete Book of Lucid Dreaming: A Comprehensive Guide to Promote Creativity, Overcome Sleep Disturbances & Enhance Health and Wellness. Woodbury, MN: Llewellyn Worldwide.

Johnson, Clare, (2017) Dream Therapy: Dream your way to health and happiness. London: Orion.

Johnson, Clare, & Jean Campbell (2016) [Ed.] Sleep Monsters & Superheroes: Empowering Children through Creative Dreamplay. Santa Barbara, CA: Praeger.

Jay, Clare, (Clare Johnson) (2010) Dreamrunner. London: Little, Brown.

Jay, Clare (Clare Johnson) (2009) Breathing in Colour. London: Little, Brown.

Kellogg, E. (1999) ‘Lucid Dreaming and the Phenomenological Epoche’, paper presented at the Society for Phenomenology and the Human Sciences Conference, Eugene, Oregon, United States. Oct 7-9.

LaBerge, S. (1985) Lucid Dreaming. New York, Ballantine Books.

Saint-Denys, d’Hervey de. (1995 [1867]) Les Rêves et les Moyens de les Diriger – Observations Pratiques, Paris, Éditions Oniros.

Tart, C.T. (2000) States of Consciousness. Author’s Guild Backinprint.com Edition. Lincoln, NE, iUniverse.com, Inc.

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