Naomi Epel refers to herself as a “literary escort” as she shares virtually verbatim conversations with writers about their dreams and how they affect the creative process in her book Writers Dreaming (3). I confess, I can’t imagine a more perfect occupation. In her chat with prolific author Stephen King, he describes how dreams help him bring subjects to light in his writing that are hard to explain directly. He taps personal anecdotes and flows through several metaphors to explain his theory that his primary action as a writer is to “dream awake” (King 22). Creative dreaming while conscious is a precious state for him; therefore, King commits to writing routines to enhance his ability to drop into the dreaming awake state, reminiscent of the way people facing bouts of insomnia use healthy bedtime rituals to improve sleep quality. His instructive perspective offers valuable insight to writing students practicing their craft.
In the discussion with King excerpted as “The Symbolic Language of Dreams”, he uses no less than eleven metaphors to illustrate his use of dreams to address writing problems. His comparisons start out simple and become more involved, and each one has an insightful message for those of us practicing the craft of writing well. He trots through so many images the essay opening reads like a mad dash through his mental workshop. At first he’s showing us his favorite power tools one at a time, whisking us from one workbench to the next, shining a quick spotlight on one aspect of his writing experience after another. The tour slows down and takes a turn in the second half of the essay, when he flings the rolling doors up at the back of the shop and we get a look at his prize dream vehicle, a submarine equipped for cruising through a limitless water based metaphor to illuminate a diverse ecosystem of writing principles informed by dream wisdom.
King begins by describing how dreams allow us to examine by reflection things we can’t look at directly, the way double mirrors in bathrooms help us style our hair. This is a direct metaphor we can absorb in an instant. He then reminds us how difficult dreams are to retain memory of; he compares the mind to resilient rubber, because both require a hard hit to make an impression. This is another metaphor that uses the power of a simple physical equivalence to convey meaning quickly. Then King compares writing to a high speed mental “flip book” (19) exercise, with the mind mixing ideas from his past, events, people, and dreams. Next, writing is an archaeological dig where the artifact is present already and he has to extract it.
In the next thought, King shifts to being nothing but the tail on a kite, going along for a ride attached to a larger vehicle. Together they travel the skies, powered by invisible winds; the tail can’t direct the path of the kite, but the kite can’t fly without the tail. It’s an effective portrayal of the interdependence between our unconscious inspirations and our conscious minds directing the work of creation. He goes on to describes writer’s block as pulling a string out of a hole a little at a time until suddenly the string breaks and the puller gets no prize. We can easily imagine the disappointment we might feel at that frustrating event. Another time, when King wakes up from a dream with an idea for the next scene of his book, he purports his mind continued working on it while he slept, then sent him the dream the way we would “send somebody an interoffice memo in a pneumatic tube” (20).
Then King shifts the scene entirely, and swims out for an extended metaphor comparing consciousness to an ocean, with several variations on his aquatic motif. King’s notion of consciousness as an ocean is a powerful, accurate portrayal of my experience; I resonate with the image of fluid depths flowing one into the other, free of barriers. Most people who write or reflect on human nature would find rich material to ponder in the series of images King draws from his extended ocean metaphor.
In King’s central metaphor, our minds are an ocean, the waters of which are a “nutrient bath” (20) of nourishing liquid throughout. Experiences and ideas sink down through brighter surface waters to the bottom. The upper layers are states we pass through frequently with at least some awareness and contain fish we are used to; these fish represent ideas and thoughts of ordinary shape and dimension. But as we go deeper, either in waking dreams or in sleep, we encounter more peculiar creatures. Some of these exotic beasts self-destruct if brought up to the surface; some treasures are beautiful and interesting in their own environment but lose shape or color to become amorphous lumps in the prosaic light of day. King describes waking and sleeping dreams as a way to bring some of these “deep fish” (21) more gently to our awareness and allow them to the surface without being destroyed, so we can better examine our mysterious inner worlds.
The most useful aspect of metaphors is the way they describe our experiences indirectly, leaving space to interpret the words as intended by the author and also as they impact each reader in relationship to their personal context. Metaphor brings an element of poetry to prose, and the instructive impact of metaphors may linger in our minds longer than the merely literal, because the meaning is under our influence.
I began reading Stephen King at around age nine (The Talisman, by King with Peter Straub, 1984). His willingness to speak and write extensively about his his personal problems (from addiction recovery to being hit by a van) has created the sense over the years of a relationship between us. When I reach the end of a novel by King and flip the page to find his customary salutation “Dear Constant Reader,” I know he’s writing to me and others like me who have taken his hand over the past several decades on deeply personal voyages into the darkness in search of ourselves. Together we explore human complexities and plumb the extents of what’s possible in the face of the unknowable plot twists of our future. I look forward as much to his introductions as I do to the turns of his astonishing tales, and to me that speaks to the power of telling our personal truths, pulled from deep within our own seas of consciousness with the aid of dreams, both sleeping and waking.
King, Stephen. “The Symbolic Language of Dreams.” Dreams and Inward Journeys: English 1A Course Reader, edited by Terry Ehret, LAD Custom Publishing, 2017, pp. 18-23.
originally published in:
Epel, Naomi. Writers Dreaming, edited by Naomi Epel, Carol Southern, 1993.
Writers Dreaming – ABE Books