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Harnessing The Dream

Giving structure to literary inspiration

Illustration by Fran Pulido of two books that look like open books next to a microphone.

I wrote songs before I wrote plays. Endless teenage evenings were spent bent crooked over a guitar, eyes shut, feeling the direction of the words, sensing the shift of the sounds under the lyrics. If there were structures at work within this process (verse, chorus, middle eight) they were buried in experience and memory, emerging as instinct. Songs were never work. They found me the way dreams did. I focused on a hint of a song until a shape emerged. A few years on when I began to play gigs, and mix with professional songwriters, our writing was our main source of conversation, but no one I knew admitted to redrafting or planning. That good songs came to us was proof that we were magical beings. This was Liverpool in the late nineties and we were giddy with myths. Ours was the city Carl Jung dreamed about without ever visiting, proclaiming afterwards ‘Liverpool is the pool of life.’ If we were able to write, it was because we touched that pool of inspiration. To intellectualise or analyse it more than that seemed dangerous. To name the process risked barring ourselves from it. Much of twentieth-century art is inspired by dreams and the unconscious, from the Surrealists to Paul McCartney who dreamed the entire tune of ‘Yesterday’, and played it straight out on the piano when he woke up.

This separation of the creative from the analytic stayed with me. As a student, the writers I was drawn to gave fuel to that perspective. In Milton was both music and the evocation of the muse. Paradise Lost opens with an invitation: ‘Of Man’s First Disobedience, and the Fruit / Of that forbidden Tree […] Sing Heav’nly Muse’. Time spent with Byron and Shelley confirmed the romantic notion of the writer as passive receptacle for inspiration. It was in this spirit that I wrote my first play sitting on a bench in Oxford’s botanical gardens, gazing blurry eyed into the bright burning colours of flowers.

On the Young Writers Programme at Liverpool Everyman Theatre in 2004, no one was talking about muses. In session one our course leader Suzanne Bell (then Literary Manager at the theatre) slammed on the table a stack of contemporary plays: magic realism, naturalism, surrealism, satire. All these works, she taught us, gained their live-ness, their spontaneity and human truth through redrafting, editing, honing, craft. If we were to become professional writers we were to strip bare the veneer of the art and look at the structure beneath. ‘I can’t teach you the art. I’ll teach you the craft,’ she said, staring us down with the challenge. The exchange of nervous glances made it clear I wasn’t alone in feeling some resistance, some anxiety. We hadn’t long escaped the rigour of essay writing at school or university. Now we were being told our fictions were also to be restrained: subject to a cold and potentially muting discipline? We’d come there to imagine, to be magical, and it seemed we were to become mechanics.

The fear lay in the idea that structure would be something imposed, rather than rooted in the storytelling process. Something mechanical was surely forced into being, not something organic. German playwright Gustav Freytag’s analysis of the five-act play appeared alien when laid out in headings: ‘Prologue, Conflict, Rising Action, Falling Action, Denouement’. Aristotle’s definition of the three acts (‘Protasis, Epitasis, Catastrophe’) seemed equally remote. But over time, as these blueprints were laid over the shapes of beloved plays, a tangled relationship between dreaming and narrative structure began to emerge. Aristotle’s labels were translated as ‘Beginning, Middle, End,’ then redefined again by Suzanne Bell as ‘Desire, Obstacle, Outcome’. Across a year of formal and informal conversations about playwriting, something started to take shape. The mechanics began to reveal themselves as a system of motion, of flow. That principle of ‘Desire, Obstacle, Outcome’ I discovered was the building block of all drama, describing the units within scenes, the story arcs of scenes and the narrative arcs of entire plays. Suddenly, I imagined an organism like that of the human body, smaller parts mirroring the large, everything interacting seamlessly in waves of chaos and recovery, conflict and resolution. Beginning, Middle, End appeared not as something imposed, but as something innate.

Psychoanalyst Carl Jung’s work implies that narrative form lives deeply embedded in our subconscious. In his essay, ‘On the Nature of Dreams’ (Dreams, Princeton University Press, 1974), he describes the structure of a dream.

The dream begins with a statement of place, next comes a statement about the protagonist. I call this phase of the dream the exposition. It indicates the scene of action, the people involved, and also often the initial situation of the dream way.

After this comes ‘The second phase[…]the development of plot,’ followed by ‘The third phase[…]a sudden change of events, a reversal of circumstances’ leading to ‘the solution or result’. In the same way that we find human faces in clouds, we find desire, obstacle and outcome in the fractured information of lived experience. As playwright Stuart Spencer describes in The Playwright’s Guidebook (Faber & Faber, 2002):

 [...] three-act plays are not constructed as such because someone, somewhere made an arbitrary intellectual decision […] Rather, plays are constructed in this fashion because it’s a reflection of who we are, of how we think. We tell ourselves stories at night, in the form of dreams, which have beginnings, middles, and ends.

By contrast, Freud perceives dreams as having a more disordered relationship with narrative. In The Interpretation of Dreams (Macmillan, 1913), Chapter 1 Section D examines ‘Why Dreams are Forgotten After Waking’:

Now dreams, in most cases, lack sense and order […] on waking the attention is immediately besieged by the inrushing world of sensation, so that very few dream-images are capable of withstanding its force. They fade away before the impressions of the new day like the stars before the light of the sun.

This final sentence might almost describe the writer’s fears of exposing imaginative work to structural editing. However, in quoting Jessen (Psychologie, Veit & Comp., 1855), Freud too illuminates a vital connection between dreaming and structured storytelling.

[…] we almost always take liberties with the truth when we recall a dream to memory. Unconsciously and unintentionally we fill up the gaps and supplement the dream-images[…] The human mind so greatly tends to perceive everything in a connected form that it intentionally supplies the missing links in any dream which is in some degree incoherent.

Freud suggests that rather than dreaming in beginnings, middles and ends, we rearrange our dreams in this way in the retelling. We give them shape in order to transform the ineffable into the recognisable. This provides a striking connection with the process of shaping an unwieldy and fragmented first draft. We come to our writing instinctively, driven by images and ideas we cannot yet articulate, and through the process of writing and redrafting we commit the dream to solid form. Only then can it be viewed and interpreted communally. In this way, a writer transforms the personally symbolic into the universal.

I have learned the necessity to protect the dreamlike phase, not to edit too soon or describe the story out loud too quickly. First, time to dream is needed (walking, pondering, reading, staring out of the window…). Then comes the attempt to commit the confused and fragmented journey to paper before it is questioned and reconfigured. This is when we’re most private and strange as writers. It’s the part of our work we are least able to explain. At this point craft allows a writer to intervene. Narrative structure provides a guide through which our flashes of imagination can radiate, our quiet inner voices can resonate. Through a grasp of the mechanics, the most free and exploratory ideas can take shape.

Lizzie Nunnery is an award-winning playwright and singer-songwriter. Her work for theatre includes Unprotected, which was awarded the Amnesty International Freedom of Expression Award. She has written numerous original dramas and adaptations for Radio 4.

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