The poet M R peacock has talked about the creative process as arising from that part of the brain where dreams are made, and she suggested that calm and quietness are prerequisites for both. That seems to me more like day-dreaming than the dreams that come in sleep: day-dreams, the slipping of a cog in the brain towards unfocussedness, letting thoughts drift as they will. I’ve found that story or poetry ideas sometimes float through in that pleasant, what-looks-like-idle, state. They may just be fragments that float off again and never make it into wholeness, but occasionally they grow and settle into something worth working on. My children’s story Goose Anna came from that out-of-focus state on a long motorway drive (I was a passenger, I hasten to add) with a soft-toy goose on the back seat, and picture book The Crows’ Nest formed from a chilled-out evening (with wine) in a friend’s garden, half-listening to crows gossiping in nearby trees.
Days out in the wind and sun between Keyhaven and Hurst Castle Spit, with nothing to do but stroll along the marshes or take the little ferry across have produced two poems. On the Ferry is obviously directly related to the sea, the little tethered boats with their poetic names and watching a kite-surfer soaring over us. Here’s a bit of it:
Oh, I am nudging threescore years and ten,
Needing to feel my feet flat on the ground;
But now I’m up there with the surfer – past him –
Riding the wind on strong and tireless arms.
The ferry chugs below.
Skugga and Sylph, Sea Eagle, Seren Wen
Clatter and tug and fret;
Sea-bound, earth-bound, while I surf the sky.
But The Name came out of the blue while we were walking; years after my last pregnancy had ended in a miscarriage, the urge to name the lost child came surging up out of the blue:
the ache – the need to name her, came from everywhere.
It called across the waves, sang in the salty wind,
and could not be denied.
It was odd, inexplicable, and disturbing – why at that moment, after all this time? why there? - until I could release the tension it created by putting it into a written form. It made me think that, sometimes at least, the creative process owes more to the strangeness of night-dreams than to the more familiar state of day-dreaming.
Sometimes it’s obvious where the issues and anxieties in the dream have come from, even though they will have been transformed by the mysterious processes involved in dreaming. On the other hand, sometimes the content of a dream is so off-the-wall that it defies understanding. In a recent Fb post by writer Katherine Langrish, she recounted an incomprehensible dream which, if I remember rightly, involved being in a railway carriage with Margaret Thatcher, papers being spilled and people arriving with chocolate cakes. Katherine could not make any sense of it – not surprisingly, perhaps. Jung’s explanation is that we dream in symbols, but that’s not much help in understanding the content unless you know what the symbols stand for. Freud translated some of them (you know, sex, penis envy...) but they are so many and so various that they mostly remain unaccounted for – although they may be very useful for writers, gleaners of odds and ends to weave into words.
I like the ‘clear store’ theory of dreams, the idea that while we sleep, our brains sift out the accumulated bits and pieces of the day and bring them to the sub-surface, where we are aware of them albeit in transformed guise, and they can then be removed to leave space for the next day’s lot. Something like that, anyway. Neil Gaiman once set a theme for a mini-opera libretto based on the idea of a Sweepers of Dreams, whose job is to ‘clear the store’. I was very taken with the idea that if the Sweepers didn’t do their job, people would be driven mad by all the swirling junk in their heads:
The scrapings and the tatters of your day
The guilty thoughts that will not go away
The fury and the lust you keep inside
Your avarice, your envy, sloth and pride
Your naughty habits, secret fears, your lies
Lurking between your ears, behind your eyes,
Swirling, heaving, jostling in your brain
You hide them there - we dig them up again.
While you are sleeping we will peel away
The inhibitions of your waking day
Your Dreams will set them free!!
But if you can use them creatively instead of going mad, perhaps you’re a writer.