The Writer's Trance

In pursuit of the trance

You are writing as fast as you can: too fast to think. Bright images spool through your mind along with emotions, flavours, and memories. You write, your eyelids drooping closed, your words free and uncensored. This kind of writing is referred to in various creative writing handbooks as freewriting, flow writing, right-brain writing, and speed-writing. It’s a state close to dreaming. Writers freefall inside themselves and dream their story, their characters, their fictional world, into being. There’s nothing particularly mystical about it when it’s described in terms of technique (pick up pen, write without stopping), but it can be difficult to get into a state of mind where rather than writing stiff, predictable sentences, you manage instead to sink into the deep images and freedom of movement of your larger, writing mind.

One of the first university lecturers to teach Creative Writing in the 1940s was novelist John Gardner. In his book, On Becoming A Novelist (Norton 1999, pp.120-1), he beautifully describes the dreamlike quality of an inspired writing state:

‘In the writing state – the state of inspiration – the fictive dream springs up fully alive… This and nothing else is the desperately sought and tragically fragile writer’s process… the fictive dream or vision becoming more and more lucid, until reality, by comparison, seems cold, tedious, and dead. This is the process he must learn to set off at will and to guard against hostile mental forces. Every writer has experienced at least moments of this strange, magical state. Reading student fiction one can spot at once where the power turns on and where it turns off, where the writer wrote from “inspiration”, or deep, flowing vision, and where he had to struggle along on mere intellect. One can write whole novels without once tapping the mysterious center of things, the secret room where dreams prowl… But most stories and novels have at least moments of the real thing… it is this experience of tapping some magic source that makes the writer an addict, willing to give up almost anything for his art, and makes him, if he fails, such a miserable human being.’

So how do we avoid misery and find a reliable way into ‘the secret room where dreams prowl’? Creative writing teachers such as Dorothea Brande and Natalie Goldberg have developed some wonderful theories and techniques, and Naomi Epel’s book Writers Dreaming is filled with illuminating insights into the writing process. These days most people are aware that dreaming provides a key route into the unconscious, and that this can be helpful in terms of creative inspiration. During my PhD research into the role of lucid dreaming in the creative writing process, I observed my own writing process and came up with a technique to facilitate entry into what I termed the ‘writer’s trance’: the dreamlike, deeply engaged state of mind conducive to writing.

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Dreaming into Writing

© Clare Jay

© Clare Jay

It’s good to have a fail-proof way of entering the writer’s trance, and perhaps every writer has their own specific rituals and methods for doing so. My method works for me, and through the interactive Dreaming into Writing workshops I’ve led in Britain, Portugal and the States, I’ve seen that other people can benefit from it, too. Funnily enough, participants with the greatest resistance to the technique (the wary ones who question me suspiciously at the start of a session, or edge into the room looking embarrassed to be there) often turn out to be those who approach me glowing with excitement at the end. I think of it this way: it’s just one of many, many possible ways into ‘the zone’, and it’s always fun to try something new, so why not experiment a little?

Lucid dream imagery is often exceptionally vivid and memorable, and since my doctoral research focused on this type of dream, these are the ones I worked with during that time, but any emotionally important, striking dream image can be effective in inducing the writer’s trance.

As a qualified yoga instructor, I incorporate yoga breathing and specially created visualisation techniques into my workshops to relax the mind before participants are asked to choose a vivid dream image. Then I ask them to focus on the image, sensing its emotion, and when I give them the signal, they begin to write for eight minutes without stopping, allowing the imagery to move and transform as their hand writes away, describing what is seen.

There are many things that can be done to develop this dream-writing in one two-hour session. It can be revealing to work with specific dream characters, or free up the imagination still further by transforming emotions into animals and writing in their voice, or doing other magic tricks involving flying carpets. Playful, childlike exercises can take participants surprisingly deep into their own unconscious imagery and leave them with plenty of hurriedly-written, rich pages of writing to take home.

I termed this process ‘Lucid Writing’ and it became my habitual technique while writing Breathing in Colour, with the result that vivid, emotional, dreamlike imagery became an integral part of the novel. If you try this technique, be ready for surprises, and if something emerges that you don’t feel ready to face, simply stop and do something else. Working with dreams is like doing yoga: the golden rule is “never force anything”. Be gentle with yourself.

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Lucid Art

© Clare Jay

© Clare Jay

When I first began a serious exploration of lucid dreaming at the age of twenty-one, I was so affected by the sheer colour and depth of the imagery that I felt a strong need to represent it artistically. But how? I had never had a talent for drawing, didn’t see myself as an artist. Uncertain of how to proceed, I spontaneously began to practice art in my lucid dreams. In one dream, I sat down and sketched a Buddha-woman, determinedly ignoring a critical figure who hovered around us. Lucid dreamers are able to shrug off their internal art critic by reminding themselves that since this is a lucid dream, nothing matters and anything goes. This release from conforming to an artistic ideal enables the dreamer to interact with her dream art from a standpoint of open-minded acceptance. This attitude can then carry through into waking reality.

Practicing art in my lucid dreams made me open to attempting other art forms in waking life, and I developed a collage technique. I marbled paper myself, focusing on vivid swirls of colour, then interspersed this with images cut from magazines or photographs. In my twenties, I developed a whole series of lucid dream collages, some of which are featured on this page. Several appeared in the 2005 IASD Dream Art Exhibition in Berkeley, California. There are often eyes and hands in these collages – hands because of Carlos Castaneda’s technique of focusing on your hands in a lucid dream to retain lucidity, which I found very useful in my early days of lucid dreaming, and eyes to reflect the conscious gaze of the lucid dreamer.

My lucid dream experiments combine passive and active approaches. In the passive approach I become ‘just a pair of eyes’, adopting an attitude of alert observation as dream imagery unfolds before me. Often startlingly powerful images arise from this witnessing state, which I can then incorporate into collages or writing projects in the waking state. In the active approach, I become a ‘dream magician’ – I exert my will on the dream to varying extents. I might summon a character from my novel and dialogue with them, or I might simply recall my intention to do some artwork in my lucid dream and find in doing so that the necessary materials turn up and that there is no need or desire to influence the dream environment beyond that initial assertion of my intention. Combining artwork with dreaming has boosted my confidence and made me more relaxed about art, so that today I’m no longer squeamish about picking up a paintbrush, nor so judgemental about the results.

For a link to the ‘Lucid Dream Your Way to Creativity’ article I wrote for Kindred Spirit magazine, please see the ‘On Writing’ page on this site.

Musical trance

© Clare Jay

© Clare Jay

There are other ways of getting into the zone. It doesn’t always have to be about dreams and flow-writing. I find that listening to the same piece of music while writing a novel has a hypnotic effect, sending a direct message to the imagination, telling it: We’re back in the novel again, blazing heat and elephants, the silvery glint of the disc-headed man, yellow dust and lurching buses… all the imagery returns in a flash and the imagination moulds itself into the shape and taste of the novel.

I almost always listen to Café del Mar albums while I’m working. Luckily I’m alone in the house for most of the day, so I’m not responsible for driving anyone else mad, because I’ll just set a CD on loop and disappear into my laptop for hours on end. I never get bored of the music, partly because it’s brilliant, partly because I know it inside out and so I’m not really listening to it actively, and partly because once the first smooth rhythms have reminded my imagination that we’re writing the novel again today, I travel far away from my work room and the music recedes completely.

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