Invoking the Muse: How to Get Inspiration You Can Use III: Keeping a Dream Diary

Last time we talked about various authors who got inspiration from dreams and visions.  This time we’ll talk about practical suggestions for keeping a dream/vision diary and transforming them into something you can actually use.

  • Keep a dream diary. Every morning (or whenever you have a dream), jot down a 1-2 sentence description, or even just a couple of keywords, of your dream(s).  Such a brief description may feel restrictive, or as if you are in danger of forgetting the dream.  On the contrary!  Attempting to write down exactly what happened in a dream is often a fool’s errand, and will only send you down the wrong rabbit hole as you fixate on extraneous details or try to recreate the entire dream experience.  Dreams rarely translate well onto paper in their original form.  Instead, write down the first words or sentences (but only a couple) that come to mind.  Then, some hours or days later, look at the words or scribbled phrase again.  This is the essence of your dream, and what you want to use as a basis for your actual work.  Let this be a jumping-off point for the real-world work you will create, which needs to live its own life.  Trying to convey your dream too precisely will cause you to fail in your objective.  Instead, focus on the main feeling or central image of the dream, and let that inspire the actual words you put down on paper.


  • Be attentive to your waking visions and ideas, if you have them. (If not, we’ll talk a bit more about cultivating them later).  In my experience, there are two kinds of waking visions: those that are averbal and unpredictable, like a dream; and those that come in the form of words ready to be put down on paper.  For me regular practice has taught me to transform the first, less usable, form into the second, much more accessible, form.  Try letting your mind wander as you exercise or do some menial task.  Then, when a story idea comes to you, try “writing” it in your head.  Write and re-write it several times mentally, and then write it down in actuality.


  • If you have some long-running or recurring fantasy or fear, imagine writing it down. Again, “dictate” it to yourself in your head.  It may sound awful, or at least like something that needs to remain firmly locked away inside your head!  Or it may sound great, at which point—write it down!


  • And, as always, keep telling yourself stories. I got my start as a writer when as a small child I started telling myself stories.  I distinctly the first time: my parents had just read Whisper the Winged Unicorn to me, which was the BEST book I had ever encountered (I was six).


One of the most awesomest children’s books ever

But it was so short!  They could read through the whole thing in a few minutes, and then it was over and there was no more (sequels later came out, but they were also short picture books).  But, I suddenly realized, I could carry on the story in my head!  I leaped up and ran outside, where I started walking around and around in circles telling myself my own continuation of Whisper the Winged Unicorn.  This started a multi-year behavior of walking in circles, frequently on high places like walls and fences, or riding in circles on my bike, while telling myself stories.  At first I narrated them out loud, but after a fair amount of ridicule I switched to narrating them silently.

I get three takeaways from this story: 1) Fan fiction can be a good place to start your creative journey, although you will probably want to keep it to yourself.  2) Don’t be afraid to talk to yourself and the voices in your head, no matter what anyone else says.  3) Visualization and mental composition take a lot of practice.  You may need to move back and forth between saying out loud, writing down, and visualizing your ideas, with several rounds of back and forth before you find the form you need.

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